What do a Cornish spy, a Hungarian peasant and the Phylloxera pest all have in common? They all contributed to the roller coaster ride that is the interesting history of Malbec. From the vineyards of Bordeaux to the surprisingly fertile growing regions in Argentina, Malbec has done it all, seen it all and survived it all — to our great fortune.
Historically, the Malbec grape was used in the Bordeaux region of France, mainly as a blending wine. Malbec is allegedly named after the aforementioned Hungarian peasant who planted the vines in France, and who allegedly worked undercover for a certain Maxine Thompson, the aforementioned alleged Cornish spy-slash-scientist about whom, sadly, little can be found…
Yet, from its humble beginnings, the Malbec grape apparently was at one time so prolific that in France alone it is still called by hundreds of different names, none of which define a completely different or offshoot grape. There are, however, look-alike and sound-alike Malbecs like Auxerrois blanc and Malbec argenté, respectively, which are completely different from the original Malbec. In the Cahors region, the area most dedicated to Malbec, “Côt” is its most common name.
Next to the big Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots, however, the simple Malbec was a French blend wallflower, useful, but never attaining top billing. Only in Cahors is it more prominently featured, as the laws regulating that Appellation Controlée require a minimum of 70% Malbec content.
Malbec grapes are inky purple (“noir” in the wine lexicon) with round grapes that cluster tightly together, unlike the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, whose clusters dangle longer.
We don’t know if Malbec cuttings were especially requested, or if it was simply due to their ubiquitousness that Malbec was brought to Argentina from France in the 1800s. Whatever the reason, they thrived under Argentina’s ideal climate and farming methods. Before long there were 150,000 acres of Malbec vineyards in Argentina alone.
Next time: Man-made and naturally occurring dangers to the grape!