Few grapes have enjoyed a more fascinating and eventful history than the resilient and ever resourceful Malbec. It’s been lost and re-discovered so many times that it’s almost impossible to keep track of its adventures and yet here it is, enjoying a new wave of popularity around the world and particularly in its ancestral home of Cahors, South-West France.
Indeed, whilst today this grape is so deeply intertwined with the very concept of Argentinian viticulture, its arrival and adoption by this country was the fortunate result of a series of unfortunate events, forcing the grape to find a new home. And so fortunate was this relocation that it made a world-wide favourite out of Malbec and even fueled its revival in its native Cahors. So let us explore both the history and present day expressions of Malbec, on a journey a la recherche du Malbec perdu.
Malbec vineyard at Chateau Lagezette, Cahors
What’s in a name?
Keeping track of Malbec’s agitated history is made more difficult by the fact that the grape is known under a variety of names. There are sources mentioning that during its peak popularity in France, Malbec went under a 1000 different names. This may seem a bit on the poetic side, but it is true that different regions refer to it differently. Therefore, whilst it is generally recognised and traded as Malbec in the New World, the grape is still called by its traditional ampelographic names of Cot or Auxerrois in Cahors as well as Pressac in Bordeaux and other French regions.
How did a French grape end up producing the flagship wine of Argentina?
Malbec’s origins are somewhat debated, with the French ampelographer Pierre Galet pointing to Burgundy as its most probable homeland. Nevertheless, it is widely acknowledged that Malbec’s ancestral home is Cahors. Here, the Malbec wine takes a dark, intense colour and so it became known as the „black wine”.
Cahors wine appears to have gained appreciation as early as ancient times, being documented in the poems of Horace and Virgil, but it is during the Middle Ages that it reached worldwide acclaim (or at least as wide as the world was known at that stage). Particularly the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Duchess of Aquitaine to the Duke of Normandy, who became King Henry II of England in 1154, appears to have helped the „black wine” of Cahors spread to the British market. By 1308-1309, the British market was importing a record 850,000 hectolitres of Cahors wine, but the start of The Hundred Years’ War in 1337 marked a downturn in its history.
It is much later, during the second half of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century that Cahors wines knew a new prosperity period, with the Orthodox Church adopting them as mass wines and Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725) taking a particular like to them as they seemed to have helped with his stomach ulcer (as presumably his state of mind as well).
Cahors is located in the South West of France, approximately half way between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea
However, the event that definitely marked a downturn in the history of Malbec is the spread of phylloxera in the late 1860s, a tiny insect that lives in and eats the roots of grapevines and nearly wiped out the vineyards of Cahors as well as Bordeaux and most of Europe for that matter. As Malbec is notorious for its proneness to disease and issues arising from excessive yields, and given that it was seen as “second class” by comparison to the traditional Bordeaux stars, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, being used as an assemblage grape, much of it was never replanted and French producers lost connection with this picky grape. It is worth noting that American vines are phylloxera-resistant, so saving the vines in Europe meant grafting them on American vines’ roots, a process during which many pre-phylloxeric vines were lost.
The coup the grace came in 1956 when an ill-fated February night brought about freezing temperatures that wiped out more than 75% of the production in Bordeaux and pushed Bordeaux winemakers to cut whatever remaining ties with Malbec in favour of the more weather resilient Merlot. Whilst Cahors was also hit by the same freeze, it continued its love relationship with Malbec, by replanting destroyed vineyards and continuing to make wines focused on the grape.
However, while the French were busy fighting the wrath of nature, Argentina had already adopted the grape, with the aid of, ironically, a Frenchman, Michel Aimé Pouget. Mr Pouget ran the “Quinta Normal de Mendoza” (an agricultural school modeled on the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris), which was established on 17 April 1853 – a date now celebrated as Malbec World Day . To this day, the overwhelming majority of Malbec is cultivated in the Mendoza region.
Mr Pouget had ran a similar school in Chile, “Quinta Normal de Santiago” and thus brought pre-phylloxeric vines of Malbec to Argentina from Chile. The move was more than fortunate, turning Malbec into the steam engine behind Argentina’s winemaking industry and particularly fueling its rise as a wine exporter in the early 90s.
In part (II) of this article, we will be looking at how the overwhelming success of Argentina in promoting Malbec and making it a synonym for its winemaking industry sparked a revival of Cahors’ own Malbec winemaking, by visiting some of the representative winemakers in Cahors and comparing and contrasting Cahors and Mendoza Malbec.
In the meantime, as taking about wine is nowhere near as enjoyable as tasting it, we would suggest a fabulous value for money Argentinian Malbec, which scored no less than 95 Decanter points and retails on the Romanian market for approximately 6 EUR – 2015 Trivento Malbec Reserve Mendoza.
We found to be quite promising on the nose, with sour cherry, blackberry and a bit of pepper and it definitely delivers on the palate with jammy aromas based on plum and raspberry, vanilla notes, balanced tannins and an overall velvety elegant feel.
 Not to be confused with White Aurexois, which is a white grape, proeminent in Alsace, France and related no other way but name to Malbec.