April 17 was World Malbec Day, and coincidentally a few days prior, I received a copy of “Malbec, A Tumultuous Wine Journey from Woe to WOW” by Vanda Jackson. Vanda, a Canadian from Nova Scotia, is a journalist by training and a lover of Malbec wine, in particular from Argentina. This love of Malbec guided her to writing this book about the history of the grape, from its origins in France, through to its travels to Argentina, where it has become Argentina’s signature red grape. The book is an easy read, and it follows the style that you would get from an investigative reporter. If you enjoy watching W5 or 60 Minutes, the investigation, questions, and patter follow in this book. You can tell she is a reporter by the amount of research that she has undertaken. There are citations throughout the book, and if you want to find out more, the Bibliography covers 17 pages.
There are 7 chapters that cover:
- Malbec’s Roots
- Malbec’s New Home
- Quantity Over Quality
- Altitude Experiments
- Malbec’s Many Expressions
- Malbec’s Triumph
I am very familiar with Malbec, considering that I was once president and cellar master for the South World Wine Society here in Vancouver, now closed, where we enjoyed many bottles of Argentinean Malbec in the 1990s and early 2000s when these wines made a splash around the world. But there are many things that I still learned from this book about the grape’s history. It was also very interesting to me as Dr. Laura Catena and her family are mentioned in this book, and last year at the 2020 Vancouver International Wine Festival, I interviewed Dr. Laura Catena about their vineyards, winery, and their Malbec wines. And of course, enjoy some of her wines at the same time.
Chapter 1 lays out some basics about the grape’s distribution in Argentina, and some its vinous characteristics and climate needs. From there, Vanca takes you through a short history of Europe as it relates to Malbec, where it was grown and loved by Kings et al., rose in prominence, and then fell. Of course, phylloxera was involved in part of the story. And finally, the Chapter finishes with the start of the journey of Malbec cuttings to South America.
Chapter 2 introduces you to Monsieur Michel Aimé Pouget who brought the Malbec cuttings from France to South America. I say South America as the cuttings did reach both Argentina and Chile, but I will let Vanda tell you the full story about that. On April 17, 1853, according to Vanda, the Mendoza government gave their go-ahead to form a centre to determine which vitis vinifera grapes would grow well there, and of course, Malbec was one of the grape varieties. April 17 you will note is also the official World Malbec Day that we now enjoy around the world. One of the challenges for the Mendoza region, in the high Andes, is that it is a desert, so managing water resources is very important. You will learn about the Huarpes indigenous nation and their irrigation system, which played an important role in irrigating the grapevines in Mendoza. Frost, intense sunlight, hail, and the La Zonda winds are also factors that can affect the grapes and are discussed in detail in this Chapter. The Mendoza region does cover a large area and moves from North to South, which gives different terroir for the Malbec grape to grow and express itself. Vanda covers the five sub-regions of Mendoza and the style of wines in each region. One thing that I wish this section contained is a map that shows these regions. You may want to google “Mendoza wine regions map” and use it to follow along with Vanda’s discussion.
Chapter 3 covers how Malbec changed in quality from a simple wine for drinking with meals to a nuanced quality wine that wins awards around the world. Vineyards and wine have been around in Argentina since the 1500s, but not the right types of grapes for producing quality wine. It was not till the arrival of Malbec vines in 1853 that things changed. Also, technology changed, such as railroads, to allow wine to be transported long distances and get to their customers. Technology also includes the modern methods of producing clean quality wines. To that end, Argentina can thank its neighbours from Chile as discussed by Vanda. Of course, government regulations also helped and hindered wine production in Argentina. Vanda takes you through the various highs and lows of government regulations as they affected the growth and production of Malbec wines. Lastly, you get introduced to a few winemaking families that believed that they could make top-quality Malbec wines that would be appreciated around the world. You may have heard of Catena Zapata and Achával-Ferrer, or seen their wines on the shelves in your local bottle shop. This is a chapter chock full of information.
Chapter 4 takes us on a quest for nuance in Malbec wine in Argentina. The grape could have been planted in one area of Argentina and made acceptable wine, but some winemakers sought to try to find the best terroir and figure out how these terroirs affect the aromas and flavours of the Malbec wine produced. The story continues with Nicolás Catena Zapata and his daughter Dr. Laura Catena studying the different regions in Mendoza, planting at different altitudes and in different soil types. Topographic elevation was a key to Malbec nuance. The Catena’s started a research institute (Catena Institute of Wine), working with different vine cuttings, experimenting with different trellising systems and much more in order to figure out what produced the best fruit with distinct character, and shared this information with the Argentinean wine industry. Vanda also discusses some of the important vineyards planted by the Catena family. She then changes her focus to Achával-Ferrer and their old vines Malbec, and why according to Achával-Ferrer that these old vines are important for their wines. Besides these two groundbreaking winemaking families, Vanda also touches upon some of the younger, upcoming Argentinean winemakers.
Chapter 5 covers Argentinean Malbec wine styles. These styles are of course affected by the different terroirs where the grapes are planted. Vanda covers the main regions in Mendoza for growing Malbec and mentions the style of wine that you can expect in your glass, from spicy and fruity with ripe tannins to soft and floral with brilliant minerality. Vanda then delves into how the vines are grown and wines produced. She notes that there is a movement to organic and biodynamically farmed grapes and wines. This is a growing trend in Argentina, but also to a much larger degree for their overseas markets. Vegan wines are also addressed, as part of how the wines are fined (filtered for particles in the wine) using non-animal products. Finally, Vanda covers some of the awards and accolades that Argentinean Malbec is now receiving to these regionally styled wines.
Chapter 6 reviews how the Malbec grape has helped the economy of Argentina, which has had several ups and downs. Wine and food tours to Mendoza are also a big draw for wine lovers from around the world. Vanda discusses what makes a good wine and food tour destination and how well Mendoza fits those categories. It does make me want to travel to Mendoza after the COVID pandemic is behind us. As part of the recognition of the Malbec grape in Argentina, and tourism, the Wines of Argentina declared April 17 as Malbec World Day, which you will recall is when the Malbec vine cuttings came to Argentina. This day of celebration stretches beyond Argentina. In Vancouver, BC, where I am located we usually have a 1-day Festival where Argentinean winemakers and agents bring their wines to a large tasting room. Attendees walk about with their glasses, getting them filled at the different winery tables, talk to the principals and to each other about the Malbec wines in the glasses. But since COVID these celebrations have had to change and we have had smaller Zoom celebrations for Malbec World Day. With the evolution of the Malbec grape from quantity to quality and then to nuanced regions, where is Malbec heading? Vanda describes the vision of the president of the Wines of Argentina. You will need to read the book to find that out.
Chapter 7 finally summarizes and concludes this book, touching upon the grape’s journey from Europe, some winemakers that brought the grape to its potential in Argentina, and what to look forward to in the future.
If you are a lover of Malbec and would like to learn more about its history in Argentina, this is a fun and easy read.