Forget the tango – malbec has become the beloved icon of Argentina. I wrote about this humble red grape back in 2006, when it was creeping into the spotlight, but since then its popularity has spread like the macarena at a redneck wedding. And no wonder – malbec is practically perfect.
This disrespected French grape originally hails from Bordeaux, where it slaves for the hallowed cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes. Winemakers use malbec to soften the often harsh tannins of its stout compatriots to create a balanced, heady blend. Bottled alone, it also fathers ferocious, robust reds in the obscure area of Cahors, under the alias “côt” (pronounced “co”).
In the mid-nineteenth century, Argentina imported this unloved foster grape to the dry Mendoza wine region and gave it a permanent home. In the sunny, hot and winemaker-controlled growing conditions there, malbec achieves a full, rich ripeness vastly different from its French brethren.
But, like a loser on Dancing with the Stars, it almost got killed off in the 1980’s. Back then, Argentina hoarded 75 percent of their wines and domestic sales were declining. In a moronic move, the government mandated wineries to uproot their decades-old malbec vines in favor of other crops. Tragically, this happened on the cusp of South America’s wine boom and much of the best fruit was yanked.
So vineyard managers spit on the sandy, loamy soil, said “Shit,” and began replanting.
Fast forward to the late 1990’s. After enviously watching Chile’s success in the U.S., Argentinean wineries realized the outside world might buy their stuff too. Wineries began focusing on quality instead of bulk and malbec bloomed. The improvements worked. The wines are relatively inexpensive and, like New World merlot, achieve a soft, elegant user-friendliness that people love. But that doesn’t mean malbec is wimpy and dull. It has tannic backbone (consider its roots) and enough acidity to complement food — especially nice with a grilled flank steak accompanied by chimichurri, Argentina’s herb-based, national condiment.
Malbec is grown around the world now, but Argentina pretty much owns the market. Not all are worth your money, however. Some that I tasted had flaws like flagrant alcohol, lack of fruit or green pepper, a sign the grapes were harvested prematurely. But, judging from others I enjoyed, Argentina’s malbecs have reached their potential.