Malbec is a black-skinned grape variety native to south-western France (specifically the area around Cahors), but now better known as the iconic wine grape of Argentina. Through its success in the vineyards of Mendoza, in a few short decades Malbec has shot from obscurity to international fame, simultaneously bringing new-found attention and respect to Argentina as a wine-producing nation.
Malbec typically ripens midway through the growing season and produces small, intensely coloured grapes. As it is so sensitive to its growing environment, the level of ripeness has a considerable effect on the structure of the eventual wine. French Malbec tends to be more meaty, rustic and tannic, while examples from Argentina seem to be uniformly rich, ripe, jammy and juicy. Malbec wines are generally aged in oak to enhance the wine’s structure and aging potential.
In France, Malbec is the grape of Cahors. It must constitute a minimum of 70 percent of any AOC Cahors wine, accompanied by rich, round Merlot and rustic, tannic Tannat. It is also a common ingredient in red wines from Bordeaux, as a constituent of the classic Bordeaux blend. In both of these regions the variety has traditionally gone by its local name, Cot, but due to the success of Malbec in Argentina, it is increasingly known by this more internationally recognized name.
In the higher, drier climes of South America, Malbec has really come into its own. Argentinian Malbec vines produce a wide range of wine styles. At lower altitudes, the variety's skins tend to be thinner, and the fruit soft and supple – ideal for rosés. Further up, on the lower slopes of the Andes Mountains, the variety develops a thicker skin and a deeper concentration of flavour. Wines from these altitudes (particularly above 3000ft/1000m) are more aromatic and have intense, vibrant colouring, and rank among the most respected of all South American wines.
Malbec forms part of the Meritage blend in the United States and in Australia and New Zealand, it is frequently blended with the softer, less tannic Merlot, to produce bright, fruit-driven wines against a backbone of oak. Plums and violets are common flavour descriptors.