Unlike its sibling Carmenere, Malbec grape has managed to retain its identity, even though it was still stuck playing second fiddle to big brother Cabernet.
Unlike its sibling Carmenere, Malbec grape has managed to retain its identity, even though it was still stuck playing second fiddle to big brother Cabernet. The year was 1853 and plans were afoot by the seventh president of Argentina, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, to progress the local wine industry. He had recently hired a Frenchman, Michel Aimé Pouget, to oversee operations at the Quinta Agronómica de Mendoza and he happened to bring over cuttings of a local grape called Côt. As he crossed the Atlantic to set up and run this school of agriculture and grow the wine know-how, a small yellow bug from North America crossed over, too, into Europe. This was Phylloxera and, in the next two decades, western European vineyards stood decimated—wine supplies shrunk, Cognac was replaced with Scotch, and many grapes were nearly wiped out from the face of this planet. But Côt, which had safely made a transit to Argentina, was thriving in its new home. Unlike its sibling Carmenere, which migrated to Chile, but got mixed up with Merlot for a greater part of the 20th century, Malbec managed to retain its identity, even though it was still stuck playing second fiddle to big brother Cabernet. But that was soon to change because in Argentina, with the altitude of the plantations and where the grape was exposed to a softer sun, it led to a different style of fruit ripeness.
The notes, tastes and structure were entirely different from what the French lands were used to. What differentiated Argentinean Malbec from the old-school Cahors style was the gentler overall impression, with more floral notes upfront and juicier, milder tannins lingering on the palate. It was, for the first time, a wine style that could be made from 100% Malbec and yet be drunk on its own, not being needed to be blended into other grapes as merely an ingredient that brings colour or structure to the final blend. Not to say that Cahors doesn’t make great Malbec, but even today, the law only requires a 70% presence in any blend to be labelled Cahors thereby showing a different style of wine altogether. In 1956, a frost killed whatever Malbec was remaining in France and, barring a few scattered vines, nothing survived and the French Côt story came to a (near) close. Meanwhile in Argentina, Malbec flourished and further shone under the spotlight when paired with their brilliant asado (barbecued meat selections). Today, Argentina commemorates the success of its wine industry by celebrating Malbec World Day on April 17 every year (since 2011), a day dedicated to the joys of this grape variety, with multiple global celebrations, spanning the top cities around the globe, allowing people to partake of its velvety splendour. I am not in India this year for the Malbec celebration—I am glad the embassy is organising something, I also am sad to miss it—but thankfully, I am somewhere in the world where, apart from Malbec, I will be able to indulge in another great Argentine speciality—no, not pedigree horses for polo or riding, not rafting the lovely rapids, but very simply, grade A beef! While I may be nowhere near the Argentine average of 55 kg of beef per person per annum, I shall certainly not hold back from a selection of a good few prime cuts from the Pampas, indulging sinfully and yet guilt-free, all downed with copious glasses of Mendoza, Nequén or Uco Valley Malbecs to accompany this Bacchanalia!