Malbec: The Purple Grape Variety
Argentina has a long history of winemaking dating all the way back to the 16th century. Argentina is one of the largest wine producers in the world with a rich wine culture and a large domestic wine consumption. In fact, Paris is the only city in the world that drinks more wine than Buenos Aires!
Argentina is known in particular for the production of the famous Malbec. Argentina‘s wine history started with Spanish conquistadors and colonists bringing the first grapevines to Argentina from Spain. As with many former European colonies, the church was instrumental in introducing grapes and wine making to the area.
However, the majority of the grapes grown initially were of the swamp-standard, hardy, and not very palatable Mission variety. Father Juan Cedrón was credited with planting the first vineyard in Argentina in 1556. He used grapevine cuttings from Chile to create his vineyard, in what is now the San Juan and Mendoza wine region.
Although the movement started small, by the late 1500s, vineyards were all across Argentina and planted in every region where the Spaniards settled.
The Mendoza Region
Malbec was brought to the Mendoza region in the mid 1500s by French botanist, Miguel Aimé Pouget. The Mendoza region was by far Argentina’s largest wine region. Located on a high plateau next to the Andes Mountains, the area makes about 70 percent of Argentina’s annual wine production.
The governor of Mendoza invited Pouget to found the Quinta Normal de Mendoza, a research center and agronomy school which introduced noble French grape varieties to Argentina. The most notable cultivar, of course, was Malbec, which later became Argentina’s most famous grape variety and is still the most widely planted variety today.
On April 17, 1853, the local government gave its official approval for the new school and Pouget was appointed headmaster. This date has been taken as the day Malbec arrived in Argentina and is the day on which World Malbec Day is celebrated.
Although Malbec is traditionally known as a red Bordeaux variety, Argentina has made this grape popular in recent times. Malbec is usually a dark, slightly magenta, purple-red color that has flavors of blackberries, ripe mulberries, and plum.
After the Phylloxera plague on European vineyards, the second wave of colonization in Argentina began in the 19th century. Spanish and Italian immigrants poured into Mendoza to escape their phylloxera-devastated vineyards in Europe.
Wine production boomed in 1885 when a railroad was completed between Mendoza and the nation’s capital, Buenos Aires, providing a cheaper, easier way to transport wines into the capital.
How Malbec Got Its Name
Malbec has suffered from a bit of an identity crisis. Local growers in France had a habit of naming their wines the same name of the village or area they were made, which led to Malbec being called, ‘Black Wine of Cahors’. This name confusion still persists today.
The name Malbec began when a Mr. Malbeck first identified the strain and planted it in Bordeaux in the 1780s. However, some areas of France still call it ‘cor’ or ‘cot’, which may be some reference to its original region of Cahors. Although the Malbec plantations had fallen into disrepair a few decades earlier, Argentinean Malbec began to be loved and appreciated by the international market again in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
It quickly became Argentina’s most exported wine and massively increased demand for Argentine wine, raising Argentine wine exports from 55,000 hectoliters in 1990 to 492,000 hectoliters in 2000, according to the INV.
Did You Know: Argentina is the largest producer of Malbec, producing 75% of the world’s Malbec. In 2020 alone, 128,828,560 liters of Malbec were exported to 119 countries!
Why Malbec Is Difficult to Cultivate
When we think of Malbec, the Argentinian version often comes to mind, but the popular wine actually comes from France. It is grown at very high altitudes of around 900 meters above sea level. Malbec is very difficult to cultivate as it is sensitive to bad weather, frost, and pest, and mildew.
Also read: The History of Argentinian Malbec
It was only after Malbec was transported to Argentina that it found its perfect growing conditions. Malbec is also produced in other countries such as Chile, the USA, South Africa, and Australia. As the popularity of Malbec has grown, some winemakers are now using it to make white and rosé wines.
Want to read more about Malbec? Try reading these books!
- “A Journey through Argentine Wine History: Guide to Wine in Argentina.” 2019. South America Wine Guide. September 12, 2019. https://southamericawineguide.com/a-journey-through-argentine-wine-history.
- Italia, www tnx it-Siti Internet Poggibonsi- Siena- Toscana-. n.d. “Mendoza Wines.” Petersham Cellar | Online Fine Wine Merchants. Accessed August 15, 2022. https://www.petershamcellar.com/en/regions/mendoza/.
- “Malbec Red Wines Reviews, Ratings and Facts – Best Malbec Red Wines | Tastings.” n.d. Www.tastings.com. Accessed August 15, 2022. https://www.tastings.com/About-Red-Wine-Types/Malbec-Varietal.aspx.
- “Mendoza, Argentina.” 2016. Wineark. September 16, 2016. https://www.wine-ark.com.au/news-events/mendoza-argentina/.
- “The Curious History of Malbec in France.” n.d. Alcohol Professor. Accessed August 15, 2022. https://www.alcoholprofessor.com/blog-posts/history-of-malbec-in-france.