Beautiful, defiant and intense, Argentina seduces its guests with its gaucho culture, torrid tango and its mighty Andes. The country is one formidable cocktail of wanderlust, calling people with its cacophonic culture, its diverse natural wonders and yes, its fabulous gastronomy.
The country is known for its magnificent malbec. The wine is like the people who make it and drink it. Malbec is the very soul of the land from where it is born and it’s reflected in the people who want to be near it. But more importantly, Malbec is unique. It offers an understanding of Argentina and for terroirs and people like no other. The wine offers amazing opportunities for the wine investor, regardless of whether you are a wine tourist or a serious collector. If you want to understand the wine then grab a table, uncork a bottle of malbec, and read on.
What Is Malbec?
To understand the wine, we must first understand the country. Argentina remains one of the most undervalued countries when it comes to fine wine. Although investors have been slow to add Argentine wines to their portfolios (or cellars), the future is bright for the South American country.
This is largely to do with iconic wines such as those produced by Bodega Cantena Zapata. Although BCZ is still a long way off from making auction headlines and might not command quite the same gravitas as a Lafite or a Margaux (or even Screaming Eagle), there is certainly a place for it in the worldwide fine wine market. And it is Malbec that is helping get the country put on the map.
Once considered a country that could only produce fruit bomb wines, Malbec, with its plump, dark fruit flavours and smoky finish, has changed all that. Originally planted as a budget-friendly alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, the thick-skinned grape has evolved to be far more than just value for money.
Brief History of Malbec Wine
Despite being known today as being one of Argentina’s wine grapes, like most things fine wine malbec is French. Also known as cot, the grape originated in Cahors, in southwest France, although very little is grown there now.
The grape was originally brought to Argentina in 1852 by French agronomist Michel Pouget. Pouget was tasked by the then-president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento to transform Argentina’s nascent wine industry and was invited to found a research centre where Frech varietal wines and grapes could be studied for introduction into Argentina (Pouget had previously been instrumental in a similar project in Chile). On the 17th of April 1853, the local government gave official approval for the new school and Pouget was appointed as Principal.
There can be no doubt that Pouget – and malbec – kickstarted the modern story of Argentine wine. influence on Argentinan wines. Before the Quinta was founded, Argentina had less than 2,000 hectares of vines planted – 20 years later that figure had reached over 10,000 hectares. Today that figure is times 10, with 85,000 hectares planted in the Mendoza valley.
Curious Facts About Malbec Wine
- The grape is French, it has found its home in Argentina yet Malbec is one of the most popular wines in the United States. The affordability plus the outstanding quality places it behind Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir.
- World Malbec day is the 17th of April, the day when Michel Pouget opened the research centre for wine in Argentina.
- Although the origins of the word malbec are a little hazy – some people believe it originates from the French word for gossip (literally, bad beak), more likely is that it comes from a Hungarian president of the name who brought the grape to France.
- Malbec thrives in high altitudes, particularly when there is a noticeable change in temperature between day and night.
- Not all Malbec is red. The wine does have a rosé variety, which is intense with fresh red fruit aromas and vibrant acidity.
Where Does Malbec Grow?
There is no doubt that Argentina has adopted malbec as its own. But the grape does still have a few smallholdings around the rest of the world.
Three regions in Argentina grow malbec, although there is one clear winner.
Undoubtedly the country’s main wine region, Mendoza homes 86% of the 100,000 hectares of malbec. Nestling comfortably next to the Andes, about 1000 kilometres west of Buenos Aires but 350 east of Santiago, this is the country’s wine and administrative capital. The key to understanding this vast and varied region is its high altitude, with many wine producers specifying the vineyard’s elevation on the labels. Elevation can reach up to 2,000 metres in some places which means that producers can decide when to harvest according to their own schedules, rather than those of Mother Nature. The dry summers and cool winters also lead to a lack of vintage variation, so if you are looking for a consistent fine wine year in, year out, Mendoza is for you.
The proximity to the equator and extraordinary altitude makes wines from Salta very, very interesting. 1,500 kilometres north-west of Buenos Aires, the region’s vineyards top 3,000 metres in some places, making them the highest on earth. The vineyards are hot and dry and are tempered by cool nights. Irrigation comes from the pure water snow-melt rolling down the Andes, and this pure water helps develop exceptional grapes. The region produces bright, peppery Malbec makes up the majority of production in Salta.
Once only considered for overly sweet fruity, San Juan has had a bit of a glow-up of late. The region produces some of the country’s highest quality Malbecs and is the second largest in Argentina with vineyards in the five valleys: Tulum, Ullum, Zonda, Pedernal and Calingasta. Granted the wines are still fairly fruit-laden and need time to properly age, but they are also bursting with quality and style that needs to be considered when adding Argentinian fine wines to your portfolio or cellar.
Let’s not forget where malbec originates from. Malbec is still grown in France, mainly in the Cahors region in the southwest. Although it was popular for centuries in Bordeaux, it underperforms because the region lacks the cooling breezes from the Atlantic as well as the temperate Mediterranean climate. It is interesting to note that malbec is called ‘cot’ meaning coast, in France, which should indicate where the grape performs best!
Other Malbec Wine Regions
Apart from Argentina and France, Malbec is grown in much smaller yields across the new world, in countries such as California, Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
What Does Malbec Wine Taste Like?
Malbec tastes very different according to where it has been grown.
General Malbec Tasting Notes
Argentina Malbec tends to be more full-bodied and fruit-forward with notes of black cherry, dark cherry, dark chocolate with a soft finish.
French Malbec is more masculine in taste with tart flavours and firm tannins. Its taste profile centres on prominent notes of black plum, savoury, and bitters. on black pepper and spice.
Is Malbec Sweet or Dry?
Malbec is a dry red wine and verges on the sweet side. High levels of tannin and medium acidity make it an ideal investment.
Best Malbec Wines to Invest In
If you are looking to invest in malbec then look no further than Bodega Cantata Zapata. The vineyard is managed by an all-star team that includes the charismatic Alejandro Vigil as its chief winemaker (and Decanter Magazine’s 2009 Man of the Year) And glory be! Because here is a vineyard that delivers what it promises. Bodega Catena Zapata is world-famous for being the pioneer of high altitude wines, and his Malbecs regularly beat First Growths and celebrity producers in blind tastings. Both the famous Adrianna Mundus Bacillus Terrae and the Nicolás Catena Zapata 2016 & 2018 vintages are just waiting to be added to your portfolios.
2016 Bodega Catena Zapata Adrianna Mundus Bacillus Terrae
The Adrianna vineyard is planted at almost 5,000 ft above sea level, ensuring that wines from Adrianna get more sun, while the cooler temperatures, particularly at night, slow down the grape ripening process. These perfect conditions increase the flavour and age-ability of the wine enormously. Adrianna’s intensity of taste is perfectly highlighted in Catena Zapata’s Adrianna 2016. This wine is considered as one of the top 1% of the world’s most covetable wines by Vivino, and scored in the (very) high 90s by both James Suckling and Robert Parker. Just 5,000 bottles of this were produced so thereby creating the perfect storm of high quality and low quantity.
2018 Nicolas Catena Zapata
High altitude means high scores for this 2018 Nicolás Catena Zapata. The vintage was produced with 65% Cabernet Sauvignon from Gualtallary (from the famous Adrianna vineyard) and 35% Malbec from Altamira (from the Nicasia vineyard). This high concentration of Malbec gives the wine a very different flavour profile from previous years and continues the winds of change that began in 2017. This results in a very balanced and harmonious wine, which scored in the high 90s across the board. Investors should note that the wine is only produced in outstanding years, and with just a little over 60,000 bottles produced, opportunities are rare to find the wine on the secondary market. Drinking window 2021 – 2028.