Malbec’s ascent from near extinction to one of the world’s top red grapes is unparalleled. Small and dark, the grape itself takes to warm climates and produces wines with high tannins and a distinctive, intense plum flavor. An easy grape to plant and grow, it has been planted all over the world, but uniformly the best examples come from Argentina, where plantings are burgeoning like never before.
The Malbec grape originated in France, where it was for a while among the most popular grapes in the country. It is still one of the six grapes allowed for the production of Bordeaux red wine. However, in the 20th century it was surpassed in popularity by Cabernet Franc and Merlot, which are easier grapes to grow. Cahors, in Southwest France, is Malbec’s last French stronghold. Here, 70% of the wine must be Malbec; ironically, this region is being spurred on by improvements in Argentinian Malbec. The Malbec grape actually originated in Burgundy, but no plantings now exist there.
As France’s Malbec plantings decreased, a concomitant increase in Argentine plantings spurred new interest in the South American region. Since then, Malbec has quickly taken the initiative to become Argentina’s flagship red grape. Malbec in Argentina rarely costs more than $30, yet even the cheapest examples have soaked up praise from respected magazines such as the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. $10 wines rated 88-89 are commonly seen, and $30 is about par for 91-point wines.
Argentine Malbec is easy drinking, unlike the much more tannic examples coming from Cahors, but it can age just as well. The best examples can age for easily more than 10 years, and even $10 bottles are known to last half a decade or so.
Although France and Argentina are the most prominent growers of varietal Malbec, it has success as a blending grape in the US, Australia, and Chile, where the wines are more tannic and so are most often used in Bordeaux-style blends. There are also plantings in New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Italy, and Bolivia.
Although Malbec is grown worldwide, Argentina’s Malbec boom is most exciting and will only continue as buyers look for great quality at better prices.