Today Malbec is synonymous with Argentina. But the dark-skinned red grape has not always been Argentina’s grape. This is the story of how Argentina adopted the grape from France and made it uniquely theirs.
In 1860s, Cahors and Bordeaux were badly hit by Phylloxerra, aka “the Great French Wine Blight” that wiped out over 40% of France’s vineyards. Along with their plantings of Malbec, the rich Malbec winemaking history disappeared.
That single incident changed the course of wine industry paving way for Argentina to not only become the leading Malbec wine country but a innovator in winemaking value chain. Indeed, today Malbec has gained a new lease of life in Argentina and it has spawned a generation of talented winemakers crafting elegant, age-worthy and terroir-driven Malbecs either in 100% single varietal or in blend.
The real advantage of Argentina originates from its terroir uniquely suited for Malbec cultivation. The dark skinned red grape, Malbec is a fickle grape and sensitive to rot, frost, and pests. Thus, having good growing conditions such as ample sunshine, dry climate etc. are extremely important to the final product.
In Mendoza, where 70% of Argentina’s wine — mostly Malbec — is grown, conditions are sunny and dry. Here, at the foot of the Andes, the grape makes dry, full-bodied wines and exhibit rich, dark fruit nose and flavors. With scarce rain, the vines here have to dig deep into the alluvial sand and clay soils. The clay allows the vines to root deeply and thus soak up more of the soil’s minerals. The sand provides for good drainage, an important factor in keeping rot at bay.
But the real advantage for Argentina is the high altitude. The Andean mountains provide altitude and cooler air, which slows down the ripening process and is essential for building sufficient acidity in the grapes in this very sunny region. The large temperature fluctuations between day and night help to reinforce this tango of ripeness and acidity.
The longer time under the more intense sun, which the altitude ensures allows for more ripeness and fruity notes, while the high altitude ensures the wine still retains its freshness and structure.
The result — there are over 76,000 acres of Malbec planted in Argentina — largest in the world followed by distant second France (13,000 acres). Produced in several provinces from Patagonia to the North East, Malbec has an extraordinary range of styles, depending on the terroir, latitude, and altitude in which the grape happens to have grown. It makes up 39.96% of all red varieties, and the province of Mendoza produces 85.9% of the total. It was also the most-exported wine for Argentina in the year of 2020.
What has become encouraging the in the past decade or so is that Argentina’s wine growing regions, the most famous being Uco Valley and high-altitude viticulture are more defined, with clear typicity. From the brooding yet fresh Malbecs of Cafayate in Salta to the fleshy and powerhouse of Uco Valley’s northernmost Tupungato, all the way to the floral, vibrant and silky wines of Altamira in southern Uco and Patagonia.
At a recent wine dinner organized by Argentina Consulate General in Hong Kong, 10 wines stood out and demonstrated the regional diversity and typicity of Argentina’s terroir.
Scroll through the page to read each wine.