Malbec changing the meaning of ‘high-end’ wine

Glass Act: October 3, 2014

I’ve been a waitress for 20 years, listening to people’s conversations about what they eat and drink. Nothing elicits such a tone of confidence when speaking about wine as the word Malbec.

The wine snob in me has long ignored the grape, figuring its ubiquity, affordability and New World (non-European) popularity must indicate a boring, industrial wine.

Indeed, Malbec’s availability and accessibility is a result of vast plantings of the grape in Argentina. However, there is much more to the country, and the grape, than I have given credit.

Take a close look at your next glass of Malbec. Sometimes called “the black wine,” Malbec is often used to add colour to a red blend. The reason for its darkness and opacity is the grape’s thick skin. For its skin to properly ripen, Malbec needs high temperatures and intense sun. The trouble is, grapes also respond to heat by losing their acid structure — the backbone of any potential aroma and flavour complexity.

But elevation in a warm climate means hot days of intense sun, which ripens grapes, and cool nights, which maintains ever-important acidity.

With the Andes running down one side of the country, Argentina has a lot of elevation to offer and Argentines value elevation in winemaking in much the same way the French value geographic specificity. In fact, the height above sea level at which grapes are grown is often listed on a bottle of Argentine wine.

Grapevines were originally planted in Argentina in the 1550s. In the 1880s, the large Italian immigrant population included expert vignerons who began making high-quality wines that were mostly enjoyed locally. European critics of the 1950s and ’60s commented on the “velvety and aromatic” red wines coming out of Argentina.

But ideal conditions for grape growing bring troubles of their own. Vines intended for wine need to be restrained in the amount of fruit they produce or quality goes down. Argentina got into quality trouble as a result of high yields in vineyards, and it was not until the 1990s and a flush of investment in old wineries that the country again became focused on producing good wine for export.

Argentina has adopted Malbec as its signature wine, to great success.

Malbec’s popularity makes sense. It smells like plum but not so much that you crave a piece of pie. Its appealing rustic aroma doesn’t get too close to the barnyard. It feels rich but doesn’t dry out your gum line. You can have a casual glass and carry on a sophisticated conversation.

Malbec was a French grape before it was brought to Argentina.

In the southwest of France, the appellation (sub-region) of Cahors lies far inland. There, Malbec set roots as the premier grape variety (though it’s called Cot or Auxerrois locally) and, by appellation law, wines named Cahors must contain at least 70 per cent Malbec. Cahors’ elevation is insignificant, but the region is hot enough to ripen the grapes.

An average Cahors is pricier than an average Argentine Malbec, but I picked up a bottle of Georges Vigouroux Pigmentum’s 2012 Cahors (on sale all month) at my neighbourhood NSLC for $15.50. It smells like the hot, sandy place of its origin: dust and dried leaves, with a little plum in the background. The rich colour gets me every time; I expect a punch in the mouth, but this wine delivers a friendly rub. Between four ladies gabbing in my kitchen on a late-September afternoon, the bottle didn’t last long.

If you’re a Malbec lover, expand your appreciation for the grape the next time you’re picking out a bottle for a special occasion. Among Bishop’s Cellar’s collection, Versado’s 2010 Old Vine Malbec ($39) boasts vines planted in 1920. A nice French version is Chateau Haut Monplaisir’s 2011 Cahors ($25 at Premier Wine & Spirits).

This column was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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