RICHARD ESLING: Malbec – a powerful taste from a fragile grape

Inside the winery at Chateau Laur, Cahors
Inside the winery at Chateau Laur, Cahors

Most wine drinkers in this country will have come across the deep coloured, powerful flavoured red wine made from the Malbec grape.

Chances are that the wine will have come from the Mendoza region of Argentina. This area has really put Malbec ‘on the map’ in recent years, since it grows especially successfully there and seemingly is the classic Argentinian red grape.

However, the origins of the variety go back, as many do, to the centre of the wine world, namely Europe and in particular, France.

Malbec is a relatively thin-skinned grape variety and as such, it is sensitive to frost, rot, pests and disease. Ideal growing conditions are thus extremely important to produce quality wine successfully, with a dry climate and enough, but not too much, sunshine. It is thus a fickle grape and much more sensitive to climate than, for example, Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon.

For hundreds of years, Malbec was used in substantial quantity in the blends for Bordeaux red wines, but due to the fragility of the variety, it often under-performed. With devastating frosts in the Bordeaux region in 1956, much of the variety was replaced by other types and although still used by some chateaux, plantings are massively down. Nevertheless, a little further up the Garonne river, Malbec has made a real home for itself in the Cahors region of south-west France. Warm daytime temperatures with the influence from the Mediterranean, allow the grapes to ripen well, whilst cool breezes from the Atlantic help to keep pests and disease to a minimum.

Malbec was taken to Argentina by French pioneers and with ideal climatic conditions and terroir, it has been hugely successful there. 70% of Argentina’s wine comes from the Mendoza region and most of this is Malbec. In fact, around 84% of the world’s Malbec is grown here and is exported all over the world. The vines are planted in the foothills of the Andes and can reach up to 5000ft altitude. The dry climate and slow ripening period give rise to wines which are balanced, aromatic and intensely flavoured.

Although there are similarities in the growing conditions in Cahors and Mendoza, the differences in both climate and terroir result in wines of quite different character. Those from Argentina tend to be plummy and fruity, with a soft, velvety texture, whilst from Cahors, they have more structure, firmer tannins and a dark, brooding quality. The calcium content from the limestone soils around Cahors, help maintain the acidity, structure and tannin development. The thin topsoil also forces the roots of the vine to dig deeper for nutrients, also helping to produce more concentration in the grapes.

In Mendoza, the soils are alluvial sands and clays washed down in the melt-waters of the Andes. Here also the vines have to dig deeply for minerals and nutrients, but the sand drains well which is important for rot prevention. The wines produced are rich and robust, with sweet, blackberry fruit.

Chateau Laur located in the tiny village of Floressas in the Cahors Appellation, produces a range of top quality wines from Malbec, including a Rosé and a rare white wine, produced by removing the skins immediately the grapes are pressed. The reds have firm tannins and deep colour, with black fruit and spice on the nose and palate. Tremendous structure, depth, balance and length. As a contrast, is Clos de los Siete. From the heart of the Uco Valley at the foot of the Andes in Argentina, the wine is made by the top French consultant Michel Rolland. The wine is not pure Malbec, but also uses Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, producing an exceptional wine with dense, dark berry fruits and notes of chocolate and spice. The 2014 vintage is £16 at Waitrose or Sainsbury.

Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.

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