When French winemakers talk about the concept of terroir, they often say there’s no direct English translation for the term, which encompasses several immutable natural factors unique to a vineyard, such as soil (both topsoil and subsoil), climate (sun, rain, wind), the altitude, and even the slope. This is the foundation of France’s viticultural Darwinism—why the government prefers that only certain grapes be grown in certain areas. Why? Because, as the French will tell you, zee terroir ees perfect for these, and only these, grape varieties. Which is how the lowly malbec grape got tossed out of favor in Bordeaux and is now the rising star of Argentina.
Malbec was originally used as a blending grape in Bordeaux, specifically for its deep color and firm, earthy tannins. The Oxford Companion to Wine pinpoints its decline to disastrous frosts in 1956 that served as the last straw for a grape many Bordeaux winemakers considered overly prone to vine rot. Though it’s still officially part of the Bordeaux blend, its status as second-class citizen is in concrete. Today you’ll find malbec in the less posh regions of southwest France, where it makes wines with great structure, if little mouthwatering fruit.
In Argentina, however, malbec shines. And that has everything to do with the terroir, heavily influenced by the location of most of Argentina’s vineyards high above sea level, where sunshine is plentiful and humidity low. The resulting wine is ripe with blackberry fruit flavors, hints of spice, and tannins. (In other words, it’s the opposite of malbec from France.)
Bodega Enrique Foster’s vineyards in Mendoza’s Lujan De Cuyo region have been home to malbec vines for 80 years—since even before the grapes got the boot from Bordeaux. The winery has two malbec vineyards 3,000 feet above sea level on the eastern flank of the Andes. Nicolás Catena has been making malbec for some time, too. In fact, his family of wineries makes some of the best malbecs in Argentina. Almost all the country’s top wines are made by Catena’s Bodega Catena Zapata or by other wineries with which Catena is connected, including the Tikal and Luca wineries, which are owned by Ernesto and Laura Catena—Nicolás’s son and daughter.
Not surprisingly, Catena makes a malbec-cabernet blend called Caro in partnership with another famous house, Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). Other international winemakers who have discovered malbec include Viña Doña Paula (owned by Chile’s Santa Rita), whose malbec Luján de Cuyo Los Cardos 2001 ($9) is juicy and delicious; Viña Cobos (owned by California’s celebrated cult winemaker Paul Hobbs); France’s Michel Rolland’s Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya; and the Domaine Chandon–owned Bodegas Terrazas de los Andes, which makes a rich malbec Mendoza Reserva 2000 ($15) that tastes of roasted fruit and coffee.
Locally, malbec remains relatively unknown, or at least uncelebrated, except at Todd English’s Bonfire, where you’ll find 17 bottles available, many with names you’ll now recognize. General manager Ed Hancock calls them “great in-between wines, not as big and robust as a cabernet and not as spicy as a zinfandel.” As for pairings, “they’re obviously wonderful with meat,” says Hancock, which means with just about everything on Bonfire’s menu.
You usually won’t find a big malbec selection at your local wine shop, but it should carry at least one. With cool weather coming, and as we transition from light pinot noirs toward fuller-body, big cabernets, malbecs are (as Hancock describes them) perfect in-between wines seasonally, too. There’s that irony again (the French just love irony, don’t they?): The grape Bordeaux cast aside is now in the spotlight with its own individual identity.