Malbec: The Purple Grape Variety

Argentina has a long history of winemaking dating all the way back to the 16th century. Argentina, being one of the largest wine producers in the world, has a rich wine culture and significant wine consumption domestically. 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 dates back to the early colonial period when the first vines were brought to Argentina from the Old World by the Spanish conquistadors. As with many countries colonized by European settlers, it was the church that transferred the vines to grow wine for the Lord’s Supper.

However, the majority of the grapes grown initially were of the swamp-standard, hardy, and not very palatable Mission variety. In 1556, Father Juan Cedrón established the first vineyard in Argentina when cuttings from the Chilean Central Valley were transferred to what is now the San Juan and Mendoza wine region.

Although the initial plantings were small, by the late 1500s, vineyards were scattered across Argentina and planted in every region where the Spaniards settled – east to west and north to south.

The Mendoza Region

Malbec was brought to the Mendoza region in the mid-16th century by French botanist Miguel Aimé Pouget. The Mendoza region was by far Argentina’s largest wine region. Located on a high plateau on the edge of the Andes Mountains, the province is responsible for about 70 percent of the country’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, it is Argentina that has given this grape its newfound popularity. Well-made Malbec is usually an opaque, or nearly opaque, magenta-tinged purple that can display vibrant scents of luscious blackberries, ripe mulberries, and damsons.

Exceptional Malbec can be more than 70 years old. After the Phylloxera plague of European vineyards, the second wave of colonization began in the 19th century. Spanish and Italian immigrants poured into Mendoza to escape the ravages of the phylloxera that devastated their vineyards.

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.

Malbex growing

Vineyard in Mendoza

How Malbec Got Its Name

Malbec has suffered from a bit of an identity crisis. Local growers in France named the wine after their locality, resulting in a variety of monikers such as Auxerrois, Pressac, and Plant du Lot. The wine was also called the “Black Wine of Cahors”. The confusion still persists.

It has been called Malbec since Mr. Malbeck first identified the strain and planted it in Bordeaux in the 1780s, but winemakers today still call it ‘cor’ or ‘cot’, which is probably a nod to the region where it was born, 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. 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 levels. Malbec is very difficult to cultivate as it is prone to bad weather, frost, and pest, especially coulture and mildew.

It was only after Malbec was transported to Argentina that it arrived at its perfect growing conditions. Malbec is also produced in other countries such as Chile, the USA, South Africa, and Australia. Despite being a red wine, Malbec is being used to make white and pink wines. The next time you take a sip, be sure to know if it’s Malbec. Malbec will definitely have a magenta residue on the rim when you finish drinking a glass. Once you see a magenta border, you will know it is definitely Malbec!

Want to read more about Malbec? Try reading these books!
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