What is Malbec?
Malbec grapes are a native from southern France, especially the area around Cahors, where it has become known as ‘the black grape of Cahors’. The grapes are black-skinned, quite small and grown the world over.
The varietal is often used as a blender, but it has found international success in becoming Argentina’s star variety. Argentina is now home to the world’s largest Malbec plantings.
A thin-skinned grape, Malbec needs more sun and heat to ripen than Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. The French were the first to develop Malbec as a blending variety, adding it to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, to which it brings rich, sweet fruit flavours and a deep, dark colour. It is one of the six grapes allowed in the blend of Bordeaux wine.
Malbec wines are generally intense and violet-red and often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to create Bordeaux Claret blends.
In New Zealand and Australia, the style is mostly used to make Bordeaux-style blends, but a growing number of single-varietal examples are now being produced.
Depending on the region, common fruit descriptors include black cherry, plum, blackberry, raspberry and blueberry. Other characteristics include cocoa, chocolate, coffee, molasses, black pepper, leather and tobacco. Oak imparts vanilla, coconut, mocha and chocolate.
Pairing with food
As a mostly medium-bodied wine, Malbec matches well with full-flavoured foods. Because it doesn’t have a long finish or bold tannins like Cabernet, Malbec favours leaner red meats. Malbec pairs well with lamb, beef, pork, venison, and dark poultry like dark turkey and duck.
If you’re enjoying a Malbec from Argentina, you can’t go wrong with beef and chimichurri sauce. Vegetable matches include roast vegetables, red and green capsicum and roast beetroot. Cheese pairings include blue cheese, stilton, aged cheddar, mozzarella, creamy Camembert or brie. For something different, try melted Swiss cheese. For dessert, good dark chocolate will tease out the berry and cocoa-powder notes.
Notable regions for Malbec wines
Argentina - it is said that Argentina ‘saved’ Malbec as a variety and lifted it to become one of the top 18 noble grapes. The world’s most sensational region for Malbec is Mendoza, which accounts for 75% of the globe’s Malbec plantings. The Mendoza plains sit at the foot of the Andes. The high altitude is ideal for growing Malbec, where cool sunlight and dry conditions develop beautiful richness and clean, bright fruit flavours. Mendoza Malbec is jammier than French Malbec, and is full of blackberries and chocolatey notes.
France - the Cahors region in France is the spiritual home of Malbec. Cahors Malbec wines are typically aromatic, full-bodied, and with firm fruity tannins. Flavours include cherry, blackcurrant, violets, liquorice, truffle and eucalyptus. Good examples are very fruity, with a smooth, silky texture and have excellent aging potential.
New Zealand - at last count, there were 168 hectares planted under Malbec, mostly in the Hawke’s Bay and Auckland. While this may not seem large, Malbec’s influence in New Zealand is its importance in Bordeaux-style reds. Malbec grows well in the country’s cooler climate, but is susceptible to rot in humid conditions. It is mostly used as a blender, but you can find some very good single-variety examples. Expect to find plum fruit, blackberry, liquorice, mocha, pepper, spice and leather..
Australia - as in New Zealand, Malbec is most often used as a blender in Australia.
French Malbec tends to be softer, more luxurious with spice and black pepper where Malbec from Argentina is big, bold and chocolatey. Australian Malbec tends to be somewhere in between. Wine-lovers can expect primary flavours of plum, blackberry and red berries. Good examples exhibit complex structure with firm tannins – a tell-tale sign the wine will age well.