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A short history of Malbec

History and geography

Malbec's been declining in popularity for the last 40 years. One of the reasons is the name. It's known under so many different names that Malbec in France means very little. The Oxford Companion to Wine lists some 400 synonyms for Malbec so it must have been pretty popular at one stage. But now it's known as a minor blending variety. Another nail in the coffin for French Malbec came with the disastrous frosts in 1956. This provided an ideal excuse to re-plant with more fashionable and robust varieties.

But it's not all bad. Malbec is the dominant red varietal in the Cahors area. The Appellation Controlée regulations for Cahors require a minimum content of 70% Malbec in wines produced from the region.

The only historical reference to the name Malbec shows it coming from the surname of a Hungarian peasant who first spread the variety throughout France and then further afield.

In 1868 Professor Pouet introduced Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot cuttings from Bordeaux to Argentina. In the warm and dry South American climate it flourished and was soon thriving throughout Argentina and Chile.

Ironically, Argentina's 'vine pull' program in the 1980's left only 10,000 acres of Malbec in the ground. That's now back up to around 25,000 acres producing wonderful rich, complex, inky wines with smooth tannins and ripeness Europe can only dream about. Contrast these 25,000 acres with the approximately 150,000 acres of Malbec in the ground prior to the 'vine pull' and you can better appreciate this loss.

Chile seems to have escaped this madness and it's now Chile's third most widely planted variety. By contrast Australia had just 1,220 acres of Malbec in the ground in 2002 and that area has been shrinking over the years.

The first mention of Malbec in Australia comes from 1901 where Mr Himmelhoch establishes his 'Grodno' vineyard at Liverpool near Sydney planted to Shiraz and Malbec.

Like most popular grapes, Malbec goes under many different names but there a few more commonly used than others. In the Bordeaux it's known as Côt or Pressac, in the French Alsace and Cahors regions it's called Auxerrois, Argentina gives it the name of Fer, Portugal refers to it as Tinta Amarela and here in Australia we sometimes call it Portugal Malbec.

Growing Characteristics

Malbec grows just about anywhere. You can find it in France, Chile, Brazil, Italy, Madeira, Portugal, Spain, USA, Australia and Argentina, where it's the most widely planted grape variety.

It's a thin-skinned grape with large berries, needing lots of sunlight and heat to reach full maturity. It thrives in well-irrigated and well-drained soils but produces uneven crops in less than ideal years and is susceptible to rot in cool and wet conditions. Malbec is also very sensitive to frost.

Three distinct 'lobes' characterise the Malbec leaves, the central lobe being the longest. Malbec berries are large, dark and round with bunches being large and loose.

Wine Characteristics

Malbec creates an intense, inky red wine often used in blends.

Blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec makes the Bordeaux blend known as claret. A common blend from the Loire Valley comprises Malbec blended with Gamay and Cabernet Franc. Another common blend sees Tannat added.

The Argentinean love of potent reds has made Malbec a national speciality. The new world Malbecs ripen to give rich and smooth tannins.

The main aromas from a rich Malbec include: cherry, plum, raisins, coffee, chocolate, leather and raspberry. The key flavours a nice Malbec exhibits include: plum, cherry, chocolate, dried fruits, and balsamic. Ageing in oak releases the vanilla aromas and flavours.

* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans

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