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Malbec cluster on the vine.One of the traditional "Bordeaux varietals", malbec has characteristics that fall somewhere between cabernet sauvignon and merlot. A midseason ripener, it can bring very deep color, ample tannin, and a particular plum-like flavor component to add complexity to claret blends.

Although malbec dominated vineyards of the Medoc in the 1800s, it has since fallen from favor with Bordeaux vignerons and there is negligible replanting as vines age and die. The average Bordeaux bottling today contains less than 2% malbec, and most have none.

With the exception of Bordeaux, malbec is known throughout France as côt and, in Cahors, also as auxerrois.1 There are in fact hundreds of local synonyms, since malbec at one time was widely planted in nearly every area of France.

Sensitivity to frost and proclivity to shatter or coulure are the primary reasons malbec has become a decreasing factor in most of France. Although plantings in the Medoc have decreased by over two-thirds since the mid-twentieth century, malbec is now the dominant red variety in the Cahors area. The Appellation Controlée regulations for Cahors require a minimum content of 70% malbec.

Research on grapevine genetics at the University of Montpellier, France, and the University of California at Davis determined that the malbec variety descended from two cultivars thought to be extinct until fairly recently, prunelard noir and magdelaine noire des charentes.2

Malbec is also planted in Chile and Australia. It is usually blended with other red varietals in these countries. The grape truly comes into its own in Argentina, where malbec is the major red variety planted and is most often bottled as a single varietal. Much of the country's malbec vines were transplanted from France prior to the European outbreak of phylloxera and therefore much was ungrafted, planted on its own roots. Sadly, over the years, phylloxera has infested Argentina, too, and vineyards are now being replanted on resistant rootstock.

Charles LeFranc, founder of Santa Clara county's Almaden Vineyards, brought malbec to California in 1858. In the late 19th Century, malbec was popular as a grape to blend with cabernet sauvignon; in fact, another of the state's pioneer winegrowers, Charles Wetmore, complained that too much malbec was planted instead of cabernet. Following California's first outbreak of phylloxera (1897-1910), almost no malbec was replaced until 1975, when 8 acres were planted in Napa Valley. Malbec increasingly appears as a component of Meritage and Bordeaux-style blends.

Argentines often spell it "Malbeck" and make wines that resemble those made in Europe in flavor, but with softer, lusher structure, more like New World Merlot. Another difference: where French examples are usually considered short-lived, Argentine Malbecs seem to age fairly well.

Successful Argentine malbec growers claim that, in order to develop full maturity and distinction, malbec needs "hang time" even after sugar levels indicate ripeness. Otherwise, immature malbec can be very "green" tasting, without its characteristic notes of plum and anise.

Jim LaMar

1. This is not to be confused with the white variety auxerrois, prominent in Alsace.

1. Magdelaine noire des Charentes was also discovered, along with cabernet franc, to be a parent of merlot. RETURN

1. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

2. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

3. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

4. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

5. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983

6. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

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Page created September 11, 2002; last updated August 29, 2011
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