Malbec Mon Amour is a book that you would want to read through and sip through with a glass of Malbec in hand.
In the deftly told conversations between Bodega Catena Zapata’s Laura Catena and Alejandro Vigil, it leads us on an epic journey of a single grape varietal that is so potently lionized in Argentina.
An entirely engaging book that intimately charts Malbec’s history from its rise in the Middle Ages to its role in Bordeaux’s 1855 classification system to its migration to Argentina and ultimately the history of Catena family.
It’s a book filled with lively illustrations, forgotten histories, many historical figures, tales of immigrants, and for the astute wine students, surgical examination of Malbec’s diverse geology from eastern Mendoza to sub regions of Uco Valley.
What captivated Laura, Catena Zapata’s fourth generation leader, to write the book as she puts it is the grape’s fascinating history. “Malbec for me has the most exciting history of all varieties. It was so famous [in France] but it had almost gone extinct so many times. It’s now more famous in the place it has migrated than its old home,” she explains.
Indeed, one of the interesting discoveries from Malbec Mon Amour is the uncovering Malbec’s prominence in France before its great migration to Argentina in 19th century.
In Middle Ages, the Malbec-based ‘black wine’ as it was known thanks to its inky color was the tipple of choice for Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), the only woman ever to be Queen of both France and England. It became so prominent in France that it was called the Plant du Roi (king’s plant) and was planted around King of France Francis I’s Palace of Fontainebleau and at his favorite retreat, the Vauluisant Abbey, north of Dijon in Burgundy!
In Bordeaux, it was the most important grape next to Cabernet Sauvignon in all Chateaux chosen as grands crus in the 1855 classification for Medoc. Before phylloxera, Malbec, not Merlot, represents 60% of the vineyards of Cheval Blanc and Saint Emilion region.
But good times did not last. It all came to an abrupt end in 19th century when phylloxera uprooted France’s wine industry, and so marked the decline of Malbec.
As Bordeaux was busy replanting Malbec with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the grape got a new lease of life across Atlantic Ocean in Argentina. As Mendoza governor Emilio Civit saw it, the supply of European wine was about to fall dramatically which meant a unique economic opportunity to grow domestic wine industry to steal a piece of the market.
Out of a variety of cuttings brought to Argentina in 1853 by French agronomist Michel Aimé Pouget, Malbec triumphed and thrived in the arid, dry land of Argentina, especially in Uco Valley.
In 1898, the Catena family’s arrival from La Marche, Italy to Mendoza helps readers understand the human stories of European immigrants and the modernization of the country’s wine industry. Nicolas Catena, the most celebrated winemaker in the country, was pioneering in many aspects, one of which is planting high-altitude Malbec vines at Adrianna Vineyard in 1992, 5000 feet above sea level. This kickstarted a movement to plant Malbecs in cool climate, high altitude vineyards. Most of the best Malbec growing areas today are located in the upper Mendoza River Valley (Maipú and Luján de Cuyo) and in the mountainous regions of Uco Valley.
What the book did so well is its surgical examination of different geology of Argentine Malbecs, giving the depth readers needed to grasp the complexity of the country’s flagship grape. It analyses geological history, soil formations, climates to explain why Malbecs grown in Eastern Mendoza differ from Lunlunta in Maipú or Agrelo and Gualtallary.
What they have concluded is no different from what Cistercian monks in Burgundy identified 500 years ago as “the goût de terroir”, or “taste of place”.
“I remember being told terroir is a French thing and Argentina doesn’t have the crus or the climats,” says Laura, a Harvard and Stanford-trained biologist and physician when talking to Vino Joy News, “but after a couple of years, we realize we have just as much or even more with the altitude, so we thought it’s very important to understand the subtlety and the complexity of Argentine Malbec.”
Published by Catapulta Editores and available in Hong Kong through Watson’s Wine, Malbec Mon Amour is a labor of love out of 15-year discussions between Laura and Alejandro. Perhaps just as much as it is a book about Malbec’s history and rise in Argentina, it is first and foremost a love letter to the grape.
“For us, the hero of the book is Malbec, it’s like a person. That’s why Malbec Mon Amour is a love affair with the variety. It’s like a romantic story of how we fell in love with the grape,” Laura gushes.
“To me, it’s a very usual story not just the grape that has survived, it’s the survival of the flavour. Because had it not taste so good, why would people work so hard to preserve it, and why does it reach the hearts of people like our family to bring it back to life?” she says.
Malbec Mon Amour By Laura Catena and Alejandro Vigil, Published by Catapulta Editores, HKD 198 at Watson’s Wine, 200 pages.