In Argentina, the ideal sites for malbec are in the Mendoza region, from 1000m up to 1400m; if it is grown low down, it loses acidity and become flabby. Soils are sandy and flood irrigation common, reasons for which older plantings on own root stock are little affected by the phyloxera beetle, which is present, though replantings are on resistant American roots stocks. Unlike plantings in France, there is lots of clonal variation, giving small to large berries.
The familiar easy drinking Argentinian malbec style is of moderately high alcohol set against a smooth luxurious, rich, sweet-seeming flavour palette, a silky texture, with well-integrated ripe tannins and a good whiff of oak and vanilla, from sometimes lengthy maturation in up to 100% new oak.
A typical tasting note would be deep intensity purple, damsons and violets, rich ripe fruit, ripe smooth tannins – mounted atop a generous layer of new oak.
But since the late 2000s, a new, less domineering style is emerging, which is more accommodating to food. By harvesting much earlier than is the norm, up to a month, fermenting and ageing in stainless steel or other inert tank, freshness of medium (+) acidity can be retained, whilst still showing ripe fruit and a silky smooth texture. Furthermore, alcohol can be as low as 12.5%, rather than 14% plus.
How can these two styles be accomplished? The key is that malbec is much lower in pyrazines that lurk in some varieties and penalise lack of ripeness – as with cabernets sauvignon and franc. And so malbec’s ripeness window can be much wider, allowing a diversity of styles to be created, without any ‘greenness’.
Pre-phyloxera of the 1890s, malbec was a component of the Bordeaux blend, but since then it is only well represented in the south-west, in Cahors. Soils are chalky-clay over limestone, on terraced slopes along the River Lot and tributaries, with increasing mechanisation. Vines are gobelet or cane pruned. Here it is also known as cot or auxerrois, with a minimum of 70%, with merlot used to soften out any roughness, and tannat to boost potential alcohol. It is also a blend component in many wines from elsewhere in the south-west.
These wines are deeply coloured, dominated by black fruit, structured, highly tannic and unapproachable, in youth. Acidity is high, but alcohol is modest at around 12.5%, and medium bodied. Tannins need time to resolve and the best benefit from cellaring. A mature profile might be black berry, mulberry, prune, hummus, spice and truffle.
Appearance: both wines are deep intensity, but the French is of a deeper hue.
Nose: the Argentinian shows brighter red fruit initially, then black berry and cherry; the French is much more serious dense black fruit, more savoury and liquoricey.
Palate: the French shows more acidity and firmer (less unctuous) tannins, with a percent less alcohol, but has more extract (witness the deeper colour) and a fuller body than the Argentinian, despite its higher 14% abv.
- Cahors: taming the tiger. Stephen Brook. Decanter online 15/10/14 [Accessed 26/01/15].
- Malbec’s naked beauty. P. Tapia. Decanter magazine, October 2013