Malbec, the Wanderer Grape – From Cahors to Mendoza
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Born in the Southwestern part of France, with many names bestowed upon it, including Côt, Côt Noir and Auxerrois, Malbec’s intercontinental migration between two worlds is a true testament of how cultures, civilizations and identities are intertwined, integrated and unified by a glorious spell called “wine”!
Cahors is the birthplace of Malbec, an area that continues to be known for its red wines made predominantly from the Malbec grape. Like much of France, the area was first planted with grapes by the Romans in approximately 50B.C. It was during the Middle Ages that the red wines of Cahors began to be described as black. They were known as the “black wine of Lot” referring to the Lot River which runs through Cahors and which facilitated its distribution. The color was due to the two major grape varieties used, Malbec and Tannat, and the concentration of the wine. Its early popularity is evident as the wine was served at the wedding of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The vineyards of Cahors are equidistant from the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees. They extend from both of the banks of the Lot River at an altitude between 100 and 300 meters. Between Cahors and Puy l’Evêque, the Lot River flows from east to west, meandering in a narrow plain of alluvial deposits, and eroding the chalky soil of the steep limestone plateaus. The climate of the Cahors region is Atlantic, but subject to the influences of the Mediterranean, thereby resulting in less rainfall than in Bordeaux.
Like the rest of France, vines in Cahors were decimated by Phylloxera, which reached the region in 1883. And in the succeeding years after the two world wars, killer frosts required almost a complete replanting of the vineyards in 1956. The successful replanting of the 1950s was only possible because in 1947, a group of winegrowers decided to establish the Parnac Cooperative Winery with the objective of restoring the Malbec variety, the grape originally used to produce Cahors. Seedlings were acquired from an estate in Bordeaux, and the current vineyards originate from these plants. As a result of these efforts, the wine of Cahors was promoted to V.D.Q.S. (Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure) in 1951. However, the frost of 1956 once again ruined many winegrowers in the area. But none of them despaired and all quickly got back to work, founding the Cahors Wine Brotherhood along the way in 1964. Finally, in 1971, Cahors’s mere 440 ha of vineyards were elevated to the prestigious rank of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée.
Within the AOC, in part as a marketing and educational strategy, Cahors growers have segmented their production into three levels, known as "Tradition", "Prestige" and "Spéciale". This is a voluntary code, but one which is very widely adhered too. So that consumers can know broadly what to expect, each of the three levels is meant to fit a certain stylistic profile and price bracket. The classification is partly dedicated by vineyard location whether in the rich alluvial valley of the river Lot, or on one of the mid-slope terraces with less generous soils, to the highest plateau with limestone soils and 300 meters altitude. Merlot and Tannat appear in the "Tradition" wines, which are normally blends, while at the "Spéciale" level the majority of wines are 100% Malbec.
Even though the French always knew how good Malbec can be, it was never an easy grape to grow. There was a perennial risk of frost, rot and something called Coulure – brought on by damp and cold weather. While Cahors was struggling to cultivate its precious native treasure, a significant transition in the history of Malbec occurred when it was one of a number of vines introduced into Argentina in 1868 by Miguel Pouget, a French agronomist who had been hired to help improve the country’s wines. In Argentina it was almost too easy to grow Malbec.
Vineyards in Uco Valley, Mendoza
Transported to the dry heat and abundant sunshine of an Argentine summer, Malbec flourished in its newfound home, and by the 1950s plantings had reached 50,000 hectares. It is Argentina that has truly taken this rich, complex, dusky grape to its heart. Today it is planted everywhere from Salta, to the northern edge of Patagonia. Back in the days, no one was asking for Argentine Malbec because no one had heard of it. But once the word spread, with the help of foreign winemakers like Michel Rolland and many others, who started coming to Argentina from the late 1980s onwards, Argentina slowly woke up to its star grape.
Today, Argentina is the fifth largest wine producer in the world.
The production and consumption of wine in Argentina dates back to over four hundred years ago when the first specimens of Vitis vinifera were brought to the Americas by the Spanish colonizers in the early 16th century. In 1551, the first vines were planted in Argentina, spreading rapidly in the central, western and northeastern areas of the country. Favored by the optimum soil and weather conditions of the Andean region, the winemaking industry experienced rapid, extensive growth. The incorporation of lands that were well-suited to agricultural and livestock production and the arrival of immigrants laid the foundations for the development of the wine industry as a national industry. During this period, in 1853, the Quinta Normal – the first school of agriculture in the country – was created in Mendoza. Michel Aimé Pouget was appointed as the Quinta's Principal and was the first to introduce French vines in Mendoza, to promote their cultivation and to teach scientific methods to improve fruit development. Both Mendoza and San Juan saw changes leading to the modernization of the industry.
Due to the incorporation of new technologies, growing systems, grape stock selection techniques and marketing systems, the Argentine wine industry has found its place in the international market. Nowadays if you ask the average wine drinker to name the home of the Malbec grape, chances are they will answer, "Argentina" Even more than that, with the Malbec boom, Argentina has become synonymous with wine in Latin America, surpassing Chile in this sense. The South American country is a relatively small player on the global wine stage in absolute terms, but today it is Malbec's greatest proponent and can boast over 70% of the entire world plantings of the variety. Malbec has become synonymous with Argentina - truly its ‘signature grape' - and it is Malbec that has spear-headed strong export sales for Argentina, particularly to the UK, USA, Canada and Brazil. Argentina is currently the main producer of Malbec in the world, with 76,603 acres of vineyards planted across the country.
Bodega Andeluna - Tupungato, Mendoza, Argentina
Malbec wines have Controlled Denomination of Origin (DOC) in some Argentine regions, which helps to protect the name of the area and forces winemakers to maintain the high quality of wines. Malbec from Luján de Cuyo was the first Denomination of Origin (DOC) of the Americas. Typically has intense, dark cherry red color, which may look almost black. It shows mineral expressions, with black fruit and sweet spices standing out, while Malbecs from Tupungato, Tunuyán and San Carlos (in the Uco Valley) are more elegant and display distinctive spicy and floral notes. In general, Malbec expresses itself very well in regions with broad temperature ranges and calcareous, clayey or sandy soils as those found at the foot of the Andes. These geographic and climatic features make Argentine Malbec stand out particularly for the quality of its tannins: sweet, silky and mouth-filling.
Terroir encompasses all the regional factors that define the taste of a wine grape including sun, soil, and the slant of a hillside, proximity to a body of water, climate, weather and altitude. As a result, there is a dramatic difference in taste between wine of Cahors and wine of Mendoza, and this is because Malbec really shows how terroir affects wine. One of the most significant factors in Mendoza’s terroir is the jagged Andes that dominate the skyline.
Mount Aconcagua tops out at over 23,000 ft. and is the tallest in the Americas. The mountains provide altitude and cooler air, which slows down the ripening process and is essential to ensure the grapes develop enough acidity in this very sunny region. The big temperature swings between day and night help enhance ripeness and acidity. Hence, wine shows riper, fruitier notes thanks to the longer time in a more intense sun that high altitude provides.
While terroir plays a major role in defining the characteristics of Malbec in both regions, wine- making techniques also have an impact on defining the quality of the wines, but in conclusion, the wines of Cahors distinguish themselves from Argentine Malbec by exhibiting much firmer, if not downright grippy, tannins, minerality, and higher acidity; this gives them the
advantage over Argentina in the area of
aging and food friendliness. They tend to be more complex with a slight rustic note compared to the highly polished silky Malbecs from Mendoza; at the end it all comes down to personal preference. That being said, what is more important than subjective conclusions is that Argentine Malbec has shaken and awakened its roots in Cahors. Due to the Argentine success story with Malbec, the winemakers of Cahors responded to Argentina’s success by embracing “Malbec” as the name of their grape and displaying it prominently on the label. They also have increasingly bottled their wines as 100 percent Malbec, though the appellation laws allow some Merlot and Tannat in the blend. Also, the producers of Cahors have formed some strategic alliances with Argentina (including jointly-promoted events around the world), and have emphasized Malbec in their marketing, including the creation of a chic and contemporary center of wine and gastronomy called the 'Malbec Lounge' in the town of Cahors. The USA and Canada are now Cahors' two largest export markets, no doubt due in part to the success of Argentine Malbec having opened the doors.
In the end, the alliance between Cahors and Argentina serves to document the cultural itinerary of a grape on its intercontinental journey. Its return trip from Europe to The Americas, and finally back to the Old World, enriched with the force of nature, the climates and soils of the Southern Cone. It is a journey full of vitality and dramatic tension, marked by human passions, the power struggles and utopias, the victories and defeats. Kings and nobles, Templars and musketeers, soldiers and marines, British, French, Spanish and other nations, hard-working Mediterranean immigrants – all have played their part in molding and shaping Malbec and its impact on the world of wine.