This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by Alamos Wines. At Alamos, we craft flavorful, approachable, and authentically Argentine wines. Our flagship wine, the rich Argentinian Malbec, thrives in Mendoza’s Uco Valley, where our unique growing conditions give our Malbec incredibly concentrated notes of plum and blackberry. Here in the shadow of the Andes Mountains, all our grapes reap the benefits of incredibly clean air, intense sunlight, frosty cold nights, and mineral-rich Andes snow melt to provide water to the vines. Indulge in the adventurous spirit of Argentina. Alamos Wines.
In this episode of Wine 101, VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers explores Malbec and its international ties to America, France, and Argentina. Beavers says that, for the seven years he owned his wine shop, Malbec was the top-selling wine every month. He traces what he calls “our obsession with Malbec” back to the 1980s, when Argentine Malbec first entered American markets. At this point, Argentina was in the midst of a recession and affordable, crushable Malbec quickly made its way into almost every American household. Today, Argentine winemaking has become much more focused. This has led to a surge of new, complex Argentine Malbec in wine shops around the United States.
In France, the Malbec grape got its start as “Côt.” Early winemakers experimented with the grape, using it to create its own wine and mixing it in Bordeaux blends. In the 1800s, “Côt” earned a poor reputation for its dark, bitter taste and was referred to as “Mal Bouche,” meaning bad mouth. This “Mal Bouche” eventually gave way to the name “Malbec.” The grape was planted in Chile before really succeeding in Argentina.
At this point, given the success of Argentine Malbec, “Côt” wines from Cahors can be found again in select wine shops. While the wine is rare and often difficult to find, it offers an interesting side to the larger story of Malbec.
Or check out the conversation here
My name is Keith Beavers, and I am making soup for the first time from scratch tonight for dinner.
What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 29 of VinePair’s “Wine 101 Podcast.” My name is Keith Beavers, I am the Tastings Director of VinePair, and hello…
This is another one of those wines. Everybody knows Malbec, right? You guys all know Malbec, but what do we know about Malbec? So again, fun story. Let’s get into it.
OK. This wine, this grape. Wow. Hey America, you love Malbec. I had a wine shop for seven years, and every month of those seven years, when we looked at our sales at the end of every month, Malbec was the No. 1 for seven years. It was just a consistent thing.
And if you follow wine trends in the U.S., it’s interesting that Malbec just jumped onto the scene as the American preference for Australian Shiraz started waning a little bit. And then it just took over everything. I mean, I would be curious to know how many listeners out there had Malbec as their first red wine. I’m sure that was the case. It’s still everywhere, but it was everywhere. And it was very affordable, and it still is very affordable, but there are things happening with this grape, especially in its new home, Argentina. Yeah. Its new home, which we’ll get to in a second. But what’s happening with Malbec in Argentina is very exciting. And when we get to it, you’ll see what I’m talking about. But yeah, you’ll notice I said new home. Where did Malbec come from? How did it get to Argentina? It’s not an Argentine variety. I mean, it is. But it’s not. So where did it come from? Let’s talk about it. It’s a fun story.
I feel like the story of Malbec and France before it leaves France is kind of a tragic story. It has a happy ending in both France and Argentina sorta, but there’s something about Malbec that just stuck on the craw of a lot of winemakers, like, “Ah, Malbec.” There’s even an interesting theory on the name, of the word Malbec and where it comes from. That’ll be fun to talk about.
But Malbec is not an Argentine variety. It is a French variety and it’s a French variety that at one time thrived in Bordeaux, but also north of Bordeaux and southwest France. Actually, I don’t know if you remember in the Bordeaux episode, I named all the varieties that are used to blend the Bordeaux wines, and I mentioned Malbec.
I wonder if you’re like, “What?” But it’s true. Malbec is a French Bordeaux variety. And actually, Malbec is the half-sibling of Merlot because they have the same mother: the Magdalen grape we talked about in the Merlot episode. Malbec’s father is a grape called Prunelard, which is really now kind of an old variety kind of obscure, not really around anymore.
I wonder if you’re like “What?” But it’s true. Malbec is a French Bordeaux variety. And actually, Malbec is the half sibling of Merlot because they have the same mother: the Magdalen grape we talked about in the Merlot episode. Malbec’s father is a grape called Pruneland, which is really now kind of an old variety kind of obscure, not really around anymore.
And the grape Malbec — that name, that word “Malbec” is not the OG name of this grape. Actually, this grape has a ton of names. There’s actually a theory that it came from Burgundy, worked its way across the Loire Valley and down into Southwest France. But that’s not very proven. I mean, it’s kind of a half-proven theory. But if you look at all the names this grape has had it kind of makes a little bit of sense. But for our purposes, when the grape gets to southwest France and works its way down into Bordeaux, this grape is called Côt. And that word “Côt” is a reference to the port river town that it was kind of known in. The town is called Cahors.
And there was a time when Cahors and that area just north of Bordeaux in southwest France — this was during the time of Dumas and the Musketeers and all that — this grape Côt was extremely popular. And if you’re reading Dumas and there’s a mention of wine, it’s probably the Malbec grape, which at the time was called “Côt.” But the thing is, even as it was popular, there was something else going on with this grape, and the wines made from it. It gained a reputation as a dark, big, kind of rustic wine. And it gained the name “the black wine,” because it was so dark and so intense.
And eventually the rise of Bordeaux was so intense that the trade with England and the rest of Europe with this Cahors, this area which is now a region called Lot, Bordeaux started to dim its shine a little bit. No, actually not a little bit, a lot. All the trade started happening with Bordeaux and Cahors kind of got left in the dust. For a while, too. So Malbec and Cahors was like, “Whatever. It was still being made, but no one was really paying attention to it. And by this point, it was already in Bordeaux, as well. But in Bordeaux, it was a tough grape to work with. It was a little bit intense, people didn’t really like working with it that much. They thought it was a little bit bitter, but they held onto it for a while. And it wasn’t until 1956 where Bordeaux had this insane frost that just killed almost all the varieties, and they had to pull up a lot of stuff and replant. And instead of planting more Côt or Malbec, they planted Merlot. So it seems like this grape called Côt, eventually called Malbec, was kind of just tolerated. You know, everyone started focusing on, you know, Cab, Merlot, Cab Franc, and this Côt Malbec grape just kind of got left behind a little bit.
And this is interesting. It seems like around this time — and again, this story is not proven and I just think it’s a really cool story, and it may be real. I just can’t figure out if it’s real or not, but it’s fun. There’s a theory that the name Malbec came from a derogatory term towards the grape in French called “mal bouche,” which means bad mouth. And then eventually, that “mal bouche” becomes Malbec. That could probably be completely wrong, but it kind of makes sense. So that’s kind of the tragedy of Malbec. It’s kind of this grape that’s there, it’s celebrated, then people see other things they like more, and then Malbec just kind of gets, “OK, well that’s Malbec.” But it’s when Malbec leaves France that things start to really get interesting.
In the early 19th century, Chile had their War of Independence, and they gained their independence from the royalty in Spain. And it wasn’t recognized until a couple of years later, but at that time, the Chileans were looking to evolve their culture. And when it came to wine, they looked to France as an inspiration to help evolve their wine culture.
And here is where a lot of dates get a little bit fuzzy with research. So I’m just going to tell the story of how this happened. And everything happened between the independence of Chile, and around 1853 is when this first chunk of story happens. And during this time Napoleon III comes to power. He actually becomes president. Then he wants to be president again. He can’t. So he stages a coup and he becomes emperor. Around this time, there’s a lot of French that were like, “You know what? This is not my country anymore. I’m out of here” and left. And a lot of them went to South America.
They were actually invited there. One of those Frenchmen in exile — and this is basically exile because you’re leaving, you’re exerting yourself from the emperor — was an agronomist by the name of Michelle Pouget. He makes his way to Chile, to Santiago the capitol, with a bunch of vines in tow. He has Merlot. He has Cabernet Sauvignon. He has Cab Franc. He has a grape called Carménère, and he has a game called Malbec. Huh? It’s called Malbec. He brings Malbec to Chile. It’s called Malbec. I just find it interesting, because at this point in the research, it’s referenced as Malbec, not “Côt” the original name of what it was called back in the day in France, in Cahors.
He worked at a school in Santiago where he worked as an ampelographer, basically researching, studying, and testing how the vines he brought from France would do in Chilean wine regions. And it shows that in the 1840s, the first vitus vinifera vines that he brought were planted in Chilean soil. And that began the new era of winemaking in Chile that is celebrated to this day.
Also a little side note here about Chile is that this was all done before the phylloxera breakout epidemic thing. So Chile never had phylloxera. I know we’re going to talk about that at some point, but that louse that destroyed almost 85 percent of European vines over a four- or five-year period never made it to Chile because this was before all that. Kind of amazing. East of Chile over the Andes mountains in Argentina, there was a man by the name of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. This guy, he’s just one of these characters in history that just does all the things. He was an activist. He had his own newspaper. He was a governor. I think he was a mayor. And he became the seventh president of Argentina. But one of the focuses, one of his legacies in life was education. He was really big in getting Argentina educated, but before any of that happened, he was, like I said, an activist, and because of his activism against the government at the time, he had to exile himself. And where did he go? Popped over the Andes, ended up in Santiago. Somehow, Sarmiento and Pouget meet. Probably at the school, because Sarmiento is all about education.
So he sees what’s going on here. He realizes that this is the guy that helped basically change the entire approach to winemaking in Chile. And he’s like, “Yo, do you think you can do this over in Argentina?” And Michelle’s like, “Yeah, I can do this in Argentina.” So Sarmiento — this is towards the end of his exile — he asks the Argentine government to invite this guy over to try to do exactly what he did in Chile. And this is the moment where Malbec comes to Argentina.
The governor of Mendoza invites Michelle Pouget to Mendoza to actually not just research stuff, but actually build a research center in Mendoza. And specifically, on the 17th of April, 1853, this school was approved. And then Pouget became the head of this school.
This moment right here is very important to the Argentinian wine culture. And because of it, in 2011, the organization of Argentine wines created World Malbec Day. So every year on April 17, it is World Malbec Day. Get the hashtag ready. And within its first two decades of existence, the land under vine in Argentina went from nationally 2,000 hectares … to 10,000 hectares just in 20 years.
This is it. This is where it all began. But from here, at this moment in time, until 1989, Argentina went through a rollercoaster ride of leadership, economic turmoil, then some good times. Back and forth and back and forth. And the wine industry, it was there the whole time. And it was down, it was up, it was down.
But the thing about Argentina, more than many other countries, the Argentinians drink the majority of the wine made in Argentina. And this was true all the way through until the 1980s. It dipped in the 1980s, but new leadership comes in, everything gets better, but then they have a recession. And this moment in the ’90s, when Argentina was going through its recession, that’s when American influence started happening with investments coming down, because the price was so low.
This is the moment when Argentine Malbec rushed into our markets. And we were like, “Oh, this is cool.” Hence, our obsession with Malbec. Today, it’s a lot different. Malbec at one time was this very easy to drink, very affordable red wine on the market that we drank on a Tuesday night. And it still is that. Young Malbec made in large amounts can be juicy, and fun, and dark, and delicious for pizzas and burgers and stuff like that.
But in Argentina, the major wine region there is called Mendoza. And just South of Mendoza is a Valley called the Uco Valley, which is all a high desert. But this high desert is a deposit area for all of the ancient rock and water that flows from the Andes down into it, creating what are called alluvial fans, which are just these fans of all these different kinds of soils that span out at the end of a hill.
And this area here is where some of the best Malbec in the world is made. And there are winemakers now over the past 10, 15, 20 years that are studying the soil more, studying the grape more, studying winemaking more, turning this into something special, something new. And what we’re seeing now is we’re seeing Malbec that is extremely powerful and structured that can age for 10, 20 years. Argentina is creating now its new era of Malbec, and it’s a very exciting time. So when you’re out there looking for Malbec and you want to spend just a little bit more money, ask your wine merchant, “Can I get a focused Malbec? I’m willing to spend like 30, 40 bucks. Let’s do this.”
I wish I had time to go into an Argentine thing. Talk about all the regions of Argentina, but Malbec is grown all over Argentina, in Patagonia, in Mendoza and San Juan. It’s grown all over the place, but what you’re going to see on the market is Mendoza. And in Mendoza, you’re gonna see something called Uco Valley. And that is what you should explore to see what’s new with Malbec. It’s no longer your $5 bottle of wine. It still is, but it’s also much more than that now.
And outside of Argentina, back in France, because of the popularity of Argentine Malbec, the French area that Malbec really came from when it was “Côt” in the area of Cahors, north of Bordeaux — that is now seeing a resurgence in popularity. Malbecs are coming out of there. It won’t say Malbec all the time on the label. It’ll say Cahors, because that’s the AOC. It’s the appellation, and it’s often blended with Merlot, but it is beautiful stuff. There’s some great wines. You’re not going to see a lot of it on the market, but there is Cahors wine out there. It’s red, it’s beautiful, it’s Malbec and Merlot, or Malbec a hundred percent. It’ll either say Côt, or it’ll say Malbec, they’re still trying to figure it out. But it’s beautiful, smooth, earthy red wine.
And last but not least, what’s very interesting about Malbec is its newfound popularity in the United States, specifically in California. There are winemakers in Sonoma, Paso Robles, Mendocino that are growing Malbec — either blending it or making 100 percent Malbec. So again, you’re not going to see a lot of it out there, but it’s happening. People are excited about it, and I’m looking forward to drinking more of it, especially from Sonoma. That’d be really cool. You’ll also see Malbec in Virginia, you see it in Texas, but again, it’s mostly blending.
But Malbec’s heart and soul is in Argentina, and specifically in Mendoza, and specifically in the Uco Valley. That’s what you’re going to see. So that’s the story of your favorite grape, your favorite wine. It may not be, but the U.S. just loves Malbec, and the love story is still ongoing. We’re not done with Malbec yet. We’re still drinking a lot of it. And now we’re finally starting to see some pretty amazing stuff from Argentina coming onto the market. So enjoy.
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Check me out on Instagram. It’s @vinepairkeith. I do all my stuff in stories. And also, you got to follow VinePair on Instagram, which is @vinepair. And don’t forget to listen to the VinePair Podcast, which is hosted by Adam and Zach. It’s a great deep dive into drinks culture every week.
Now, for some credits. How about that? Wine 101 is recorded and produced by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin. I also want to thank Danielle Grinberg for making the most legit Wine 101 logo. And I got to thank Darby Cicci for making this amazing song: Listen to this epic stuff. And finally, I want to thank the VinePair staff for helping me learn more every day. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.
Published: December 10, 2020