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By: Paul Karpecki, OD

How did a grape native to France become known as the primary varietal of Argentina? That's the perplex ing question posed by malbec, a purplehued wine redolent of berries that has only gained popularity in recent years, despite its centuries-old history.

Now synonymous with Argentina, malbec originated as a blending grape in Bordeaux or as a varietal in southwest France. It is known for its deep, rich color and typical jammy flavors of ripe berries and red fruit, characteristics uncommon in most French wines. Somehow, when grown in the higher altitudes of Argentina and in particular the province of Mendoza, this grape takes on a wonderful velvety texture with flavors that include blackberry and plums but also tannins with earthy undertones, making it a medium- to full-bodied red wine.

In Cahors, France, the birthplace of the malbec varietal, it tends to be even more tannic in its youth and carries aromas of tobacco and raisins along with dark fruit notes. The combination of strong tannins in this rich wine make it a great accompaniment to grilled meats and a great value substitute for an expensive cabernet sauvignon.

Malbec started out as one of the main blending grapes added to cabernet, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot in Bordeaux, but in Cahors it has been planted as a varietal. In fact, to get an AOC designation (appellation d'origine controlee, a designation stating that essentially the best grapes for this region were used) a wine from Cahors must contain at least 70% malbec. The other 30% is typically merlot and a lesser-known grape called tannat, which is also highly tannic.

In Cahors, the grape is known as cot noir, or simply cot or even auxerrois. Wines from Cahors are meant to age in a cellar to allow the tannins to soften, creating a wonderful but very big red wine. And talk about history for this relatively unknown region — Cahors wine-making can be traced back to 50 BC, when it was within the Roman Empire.

However, malbec did not gain notoriety until Argentina began planting this grape and creating a wonderful varietal wine in the late 1800s. Although Argentina is a new world wine region, it has been producing wine since the mid to late 1500s and is actually the fifth largest producer in the world1 (90% of its wines are consumed in Argentina).

The unique altitude of Mendoza — the highest of any wine region in the world — combined with the low humidity have naturally prevented many of the insects and pests (such as phylloxera) that have plagued other vineyards around the world. As there is little need for pesticides, organic malbec wines of Mendoza are relatively easy to produce. In Argentina, to list malbec on a label, 80% of the wine must be from the malbec grape.

Some of the great malbec winemakers of Argentina include Catena (especially Zapata and Alta), Bodega Norton, La Posta, Val de Flores, Altos las Hormigas Reserva, Luca, Trapiche, Alamos, Vina Cobos, Vina Alicia and Achaval Ferrer, just to name a few.

Mendoza, Argentina, in the foothills of the Andes, has the highest elevation of any winemaking region. This unique terroir contributes to the distinctive quality of malbec. ©IVONNE WIERINK FOTOLIA.COM
Pairing this Wine

One of my secrets for determining how to best pair a wine with food is to know the region the varietal grape comes from and the local cuisine or typical surroundings. For example, Rias Baixas in Galicia, Spain is an area right on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, near a major fishing port, and thus the wines from this region pair perfectly with fish.

In Argentina, I think of the grass-fed beef and the Argentinian barbecue (asado) and the many types of meats that are grilled on it. Not surprisingly, malbec pairs wonderfully with any grilled meats, especially steaks but also sausages such as chorizo, and grilled pork chops or veal.

So here's a toast to malbec, a great "new" wine with origins that go back 2000 years!

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