Malbec World Day
Malbec is a grape variety that has travelled the world. Also known as Côt, Auxerrois or Pressac, it originated in Cahors in southwest France, about 200km from Bordeaux, before being transported to Crimea in Ukraine by Peter the Great, to Santiago de Chile, to California, to Australia and, of course, to Argentina. Its fame dates back to medieval times, when it filled the drinking vessels of the English and the French nobility at a time when Bordeaux was still marshland. With its dark colour and fruity aroma, it was known as the black wine of Cahors.
On its journey around the globe, Malbec had its highs and lows. While it was the wine of popes and kings in the late Middle Ages, it fell into decline due to two important factors. Firstly, the wine producers of Bordeaux closed off the River Lot, a tributary of the Garonne, to the producers of Cahors, effectively removing their ability to export their wines. Secondly, the arrival of the phylloxera aphid in the mid to late nineteenth century wiped out vast swathes of European vineyards in just a few decades, including much of France’s Malbec.
Ironically, Malbec was saved from total ruin by the same thing that caused its demise. Phylloxera arrived in Europe hidden in the roots of American vines brought back by naturalists who were keen to see how these vines adapted to life across the Atlantic. Conversely, those same naturalists also took European vines with them to the various corners of the globe they visited to see if they would thrive elsewhere. One such corner was Santiago de Chile.
Cuttings of Malbec and many other vines arrived in Chile in 1845 as part of a plan to develop Chilean vineyards in the French mode. Inspired by the spirit of the Enlightenment era, one of the key figures who fuelled this idea was Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. Born in San Juan, Argentina, he had been exiled to the other side of the Andes for political reasons. A visionary and an entrepreneur, Sarmiento proposed the creation of Quintas Normales (state-run agricultural schools) to train the Chilean farmers. The idea was a success, and Sarmiento returned to Argentina from exile bringing his idea and his experience with him. The Quinta Normal was founded in Mendoza on 17th April 1853, commemorated today as Malbec World Day, and Michel Aimé Pouget, who was in charge of the school in Chile, was summoned to run it. Thus, on the back of a mule, Malbec and other French grapes crossed the Andes.
From there, the knowledge of viticulture and of Malbec was spread throughout the rest of Argentina. First to the North, with stops in the provinces of San Juan, La Rioja, Catamarca and Salta, where the vine was already being cultivated with care. Fifty years later it spread to the South, along the banks of the Rio Negro, where it adapted and multiplied in each region depending on the soil and climate.
Plantings of Malbec in Argentina reached a peak in the 1960s when, according to historian Pablo Lacoste in his book “History of Malbec, Argentina’s Flagship Strain”, the number of hectares planted reached 58,600. By the 1980s, Argentina's vineyards, particularly those in the dominant wine region of Mendoza, were awash with Malbec - a fact that the Argentine wine industry was rather ashamed of and assiduously began to pull it out in favour of something more obviously fashionable such as Cabernet Sauvignon. But the particular strain of Malbec that was taken to Argentina, it is thought in the mid-19th century and possibly via the cuttings imported into Chile from Bordeaux, has adapted itself so spectacularly to local conditions that foreign visitors to Argentina's vineyards on the eastern flanks of the Andes had, by the 1990s, convinced the Argentinian wine industry that Malbec was the jewel in its crown, although unfortunately not in time to stop so many old vines from being grubbed up.
The 1990s, however, offered new hope for Malbec in Argentina. In the global market, newer wine consuming countries such as the United States and Canada fell for the deep, dark charms of Argentinian Malbec, while other more established markets, such as England and the Netherlands, realised that their European neighbours were not the only ones who could produce good wine. Like in an old fairy tale which sees the main character wake up after a long sleep, Malbec now returned to seduce them all over again, but the story had changed its setting.
Argentina was now the only country in the world in which the plantings of Malbec had increased, and this was set to continue. From 1990 to date, some 24,000 hectares of Malbec have been planted. With a total of 38,000 hectares cultivated in 2014, Malbec thrives in all of the wine-growing areas of Argentina, more than in any other part of the globe. By way of a comparison, in France there are about 5,000 hectares of Malbec, with all other global plantings (excluding Argentina and France) amounting to a further 10,000 hectares.
In Argentina’s sunny terroirs and rocky soils, Malbec has developed a completely new profile. Fruity, full-bodied and silky smooth, it is hugely appealing to lovers of both old and new world wines. Apart from the fact that they are both red, one can hardly recognise a relationship between most of the Malbec produced in Cahors and that produced in its modern home, Argentina. Cahors never regained its popularity after the phylloxera outbreak, and the area was dealt another severe blow in the winter of 1956 when fierce frosts killed many of the vines and more glamorous alternatives were replanted in their stead.
However, the huge success of Malbec from Argentina has had a knock-on effect in Cahors. Basking in the glow of South American glory, the home of Malbec has now begun to benefit from a significant influx of investment and talent and Cahors is finally shedding its rather rustic reputation - not that this was ever an issue at Château Famaey!
In celebration of Malbec World Day we thought it only decent to offer a 10% discount off all of our Malbecs to allow you to discover both new and old world versions for yourself. Whether you find a new favourite or simply reinforce your love of wines you already know, take the chance to celebrate Malbec in all of its delicious styles!
Click here to save on Malbec.