I love a grape that can be equal parts overrated and underrated all at the same time. A grape that can plant their flag and say: "yes, this is me & you're gonna love it". Malbec is one of those grapes. I've had wine friends tell me how much disdain they have for the varietal because the wines it produces were so predictable and, as a result of that predictability, boring. Malbec is loved by the general public for being a smooth, fruit forward, easy drinker, and is everybody's go-to when all else fails. That approachability makes it a money maker on a list, so it makes total sense why wine buyers in the queen city all hopped on the same proverbial bandwagon circa 2016. For me, Malbec has always been interesting for reasons outside of the style of wine it produces. Yes, I concur that it can vibe on the side of pedestrian most times. I suppose that leaves more opportunities to be surprised. This grape is a storied traveler who left home after a fall from grace and thrusted itself back into the royal court in a totally new nation. Malbec quite literally pulled a "mess around & find out" on the other side of the world and did it with pizzazz.
At one point in time, Malbec was the reigning king of reds in Bordeaux. Malbec was easy to grow in large quantities, it ripened quickly, and produced wines full of inky color. It is because this that was the lead singer in the original Bordeaux blends and before the leading role was split into two sides (left bank vs right bank). The global nuisance that was Phylloxera destroyed most of the world's vineyards and with it most of the Malbec in France (among a plethora of other grapes, it was a dark time in the wine world). As things were being replanted, Malbec found itself being demoted from its Beyonce status while Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot got their upgrade from just being Kelly & Michelle of the Bordeaux Destiny's Child.
"Malbec went from being the Beyonce of the Bordeaux Blend to singing background to Cab & Merlot's respective Kelly & Michelle."
So what did Malbec do next? He traveled over to the southwest of France where he firmly staked his control over the region of Cahors. This region exclusively produces Malbec----they do one thing and they do it very, VERY well. The Malbec from this region possesses a distinctly dusty characteristic that is interwoven into supple dark fruits and floral overtones on the palate. This subtle, elegant style is the polar opposite of what most people think of when they consider Malbec.
I've used the terms "spiritual home" & "flagship" before on the blog, but Malbec will help contextualize that terminology further. While the spiritual home of this grape is within the borders of France, Malbec is now infamously synonymous with Argentina & is the flagship grape of the region. That concentrated fruit forward character I mentioned earlier is a key indicator of Argentinian Malbec. The region sets at a higher elevation, and is more mountainous than France, so the grapes are forced to work a little bit harder. That aids in that concentration of flavor. In addition, the warmer climate results in higher alcohol and an undoubtedly fuller style of wine.
"A wine's spiritual home is where it originated or first appeared, but its flagship country is where it now calls home in the modern wine world."
I was first introduced to Malbec by way of South America, more specifically, the wines of Catena Zapata & the Zuccardi family. Again, that concentrated character can be absolutely delectable when done appropriately and actually present complexity that is often lost in the wines of the other producers of the country.
Malbec is classically paired with steaks, smoked meats and if you are Adrianna Catena (daughter of the Catena family & curator of the off shoot El Enemigo) pairing it with empanadas is the only way to go. You know I love a food pairing around here, so I had to try this for myself, with a twist of course! On a trip to Chicago last year, I hunted down a Malbec I never had before at a local wine shop, Perman Wine Selections, and purchased an ungodly amount of vegan empanadas from a local brand, Fons. My palate vibes old world, so I went with the 2018 Solis from Cahors for this pairing. It was bright, fresh & pleasantly grippy on the palate and had a wonderfully big bouquet on the nose. The vegan empanadas-----sorta healthy, right?------were much richer in flavor than I anticipated which gave the acid forward character in this wine plenty to work with. In short: the pairing was freaking incredible. If you needed the universe to send you a sign to finally try this pairing, then here it is. You didn't ask for it? Well.....aren't you glad I told ya anyway?
That's Malbec in a nutshell. A prime example that the journey is sometimes far more interesting than the destination. If you were originally in the camp that finds Malbecs to all be the same or boring: drink more of them! There is a Malbec out there just waiting to surprise you with how amazing it can really be.
If you ever find yourself in Chicago, please swing by Perman Wine Selections for a bottle (or three) and a mixed box of empanadas from Fons, and tell them The Certified Wino made ya do it! But really, support small biz in your city, please and thank you.
The Certified Wino