The “Black Wine” Makes a Comeback

(Originally published September/October 2006)

One of the many neat things about learning about wine is the way you get to see history unfold virtually before your very eyes. This often occurs without one really noticing it: from too close of a vantage point it doesn’t quite come into focus. But if time affords the chance to step back and take the broader view, lots of things become clearer. Having been into wine since the late 1990’s, the lore and history of prestigious regions such as Burgundy or Piedmont have been repeatedly drilled into Hanes’s brain as representing the most foundational bits of knowledge. This is the history of wine, after all! However, one could argue that, when all the pieces are put together, we are currently in one of the most turbulent times of change in the world of wine, history very much in the making.

No one knows what changes the future shall bring, that’s why it gets to be the future. Yet, today we can witness incredible new viticultural practices as well as all kinds of shadowy stuff going on in the various phases of viniculture, and then too the almost overnight birth of new wine regions. This is really a crazy time to simply be into wine, forget even trying to write about wine.

One little anecdotal story which puts this into higher relief is that of the travails and travels of the Malbec grape. Hanes has a soft spot for this grape as it was one of the first “esoteric” grapes to capture his fancy. That is, the grape was lesser known waaaaaay back in the 90’s, if not so much today. Which is kind of the point. Back then it had an exotic nature to it, you found it in crazy French places and also in the then still-in-the-crib (in terms of export penetration in international markets) wine regions of Argentina. So, let’s see what the Malbec grape has seen and done through the years, shall we? Won’t you join Hanes?

First off, the thing that always intrigued Hanes about Malbec is it’s reputation as the “black wine,” full of dark and brooding imagery. Malbec produces extremely dark juice, such opaque concentration that looking at it makes you think it’s this huge bruiser of a wine. The funny thing, though, is that a lot of Malbec-based wines, if not most, are medium-bodied at best and not powerful behemoths only to be unchained in your palate at your own peril. Of course, a lot of this depends on factors such as where in the world it is grown and by who, but that’s part of this whole travelogue. So, as usual, we have to start at the beginning.

Malbec’s first notoriety was in France, the cradle of all good things vinous (OK, and, let’s face it, Michel Rolland too). As is usually the case, each individual French wine region has their own local name for Malbec. Ergo Auxerrois, Côt, Pressac, Grifforin, Cahors, Costa Rossa, Balouzat, Noir Doux, Pied de Perdrix, Pied Rouge, Piperdy, Jacobain and probably even more names which have eluded Hanes’s search. For better or worse, we can ignore most of these names as Malbec is no longer that popular in France and outside of grandpa’s personal vineyard in Bergerac no one really uses these names anymore. Except for, of course, The Voices.

Given this sad fact we might as well start with the two remaining places where Malbec still plays a noticeable role. The first would be in the area called Cahors in Southwest France. It was here that Malbec got the moniker the “black wine of Cahors.” The local name for Malbec is Auxerrois, also called “Cahors” just because it’s from Cahors. Today, the French Appellation Controlée rules have it that a red wine cannot be labeled as Cahors unless it has at least 70% Malbec in it. A big question mark here regarding the character of the final wine is whether or not the wine is 100% Malbec and, if not, what grapes are used to fill it out. Back when Cahors was making more rustic “country” wines the blending grape of choice appears to have been Tannat. Tannat makes for rustic, tannic wines in the Southwest France wine region of Madiran and added a lot of structure to Cahors wines. In more recent years Tannat has been ditched in favor of Merlot which makes the wine softer and with a denser core of fruit. Freaking Merlot! Some will disagree, but this has merely achieved more approachability in the wine’s youth, while potentially sacrificing ageability, in one of the Southwest’s last great traditionally ageable wines. Hanes has been lucky to have Cahors wines older than 30 years and many have been terrific with all kinds of tertiary flavors impossible to achieve without a fierce structure to support it through the years of aging.

Using Malbec in blended wines leads directly to a stain on the grape’s history in France. C’est si triste! Throughout much of the region’s history Malbec was a primary grape of Bordeaux. That’s right! King of the hill! But then the haters started their whispering. Ohh, Malbec? It’s too sensitive to frost! What, haven’t you heard? The grapes shatter and rot! It was too late to get the public relations posse out in effect. So, when in 1956 a frost destroyed a substantial percentage of grapevines in Bordeaux, the dead or dying Malbec vines were replaced with other grapevines, notably those growing Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. This despite the fact that when the conditions are good, Malbec grows fairly vigorously.

There’s still some Malbec being grown within Bordeaux but its primary purpose now is to add color (similarly to Petit Verdot) or a little tannic spine. Usually only a small percentage is thus needed, less than 10% in the majority of cases where used at all. There’s less chance that Malbec is used at the most prestigious Châteaus, being grown mainly in Entre-Deux-Mers and Bourg, and it remains highly unlikely that new Malbec vines will be planted anytime soon. But, hey, maybe global warming will make Bordeaux once more hospitable to Malbec.

Outside of Cahors and Bordeaux, the French region where Malbec has some decent standing is curiously the Loire, the land where Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Pinot Noir usually rule for red wines. You’d be hard-pressed to know this because in the Loire Malbec is called Côt. Only a small handful of producers make varietally labeled Côt wines and probably only a fraction of those ever get to the U.S. A lot of the time the Côt gets blended with Gamay and/or Cabernet. Makes sense to Hanes, why not. It’s hard to tell if Côt is on the upswing or downswing in the Loire. Hanes is a wine geek failure.

Malbec exists in pockets here or there in the Languedoc as well as other parts of Southwest France. From France Malbec has traveled all over the world. These days, the most famous of these places is Argentina.

Given the increasing market presence of sub-$15 Argentinean Malbec wines it wouldn’t be surprising if most ordinary folk believed Malbec originated in Argentina. Au contraire. A Frenchman named Michel Pouget is credited with introducing the Malbec grapevines to Argentina in the mid-19th century. As this was prior to the devastating infestation of the phylloxera root louse in Europe, much of the original plantings in Argentina were 100%, ungrafted Malbec vines. Over time, phylloxera infested Argentina as well and the vines then had to be grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock. The question of grafted or ungrafted rootstock is in many cases today moot. Why? Oddly, because while Argentinean Malbec is a popular cheapie now, its presence in Argentina had been in steady decline throughout the 20th century with vines being pulled out left and right (grafted or ungrafted) until only a fraction of its high of approximately 50,000 hectares planted remained under vine. Malbec was in danger of becoming an afterthought before it became the grape Argentina is currently best known for today. Again, the history of wine is just crazy!

Why Argentina? As noted previously, the grape isn’t the sturdiest in the world and needs a specific climate to flourish. Warm, dry, windy, all good. The region of Mendoza has these things in abundance, being at a high altitude where there’s plenty of sunlight and dry air. There’s not a lot of rain nor frost and the Andes mountains insulate Mendoza from many external climatic influences which would piss Malbec off.

Although not generally known, some Malbec is also grown in Chile. To-date, Hanes has yet to see a commercial bottling of Chilean Malbec, forget actually trying one. With Chile, Hanes is still trying to get over the psychological trauma of learning that a lot of what was believed to be Merlot is really Carmenère. The horror!

Outside of South America, Malbec has made minor inroads. There’s a tiny bit being grown in South Africa but Hanes doubts the vines are on the whole that old. The majority seems to be blended with other grapes too. Over in Oceana, New Zealand and Australia have experimented with the grapes. In New Zealand the cooler Hawke’s Bay region focuses on vines traditionally grown in Bordeaux so it is no surprise that some wineries are giving Malbec a whirl. More temperate Australian regions such as Clare Valley, Margaret River and areas in Victoria have had had success with Malbec, blended primarily with Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz. Malbec is so versatile! Blend it with Gamay in the Loire, Shiraz in Clare! After all, what’s the difference between Gamay and Shiraz anyway?

Here in the U.S., California is home to modest plantings of Malbec, mainly in Napa. Washington State has a little planted, as does nearby British Columbia in Canada. Once more, it is employed primarily in blends and only in rare instances has Hanes seen bottles of North American wine labeled as “Malbec.” Since many Californian wineries are now aping Australia by calling their cheapie Syrah “Shiraz” maybe it would be worthwhile to call the Malbec “Malbeck” as was once the tradition in Argentina. That would work for sure!

Alas, such dreams are unlikely to be realized since only Argentina and, to a lesser extent, Cahors produce inexpensive, sub-$20, Malbec wines. No case stacks of bargain “Malbeck” on the near horizon. But as Hanes said at the outset, these are crazy times in the world of wine and to the wise, all bets are off. Today, Argentina is the king of Malbec, tomorrow it might be Switzerland. Whomever it is, let’s hope they call Malbec “Pied de Perdrix” instead! That would be too cool for school.