Malbec Wine Characteristics

Dark purplish hues with an inky residual upon swirling, the relative dark fruit nature and medium tannins are the quintessential Mablec wine characteristics.  While it is now commonly associated with Argentina, and to a lesser degree Chile, Malbec actually originated in France.  The intense nature of the wine is utilized in combination with other grapes to create blends, specifically in France where it is one of the five grape varietals to create the famous red Bordeaux wine.  Within the United States, the grape is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot among others to create the Meritage wine blend.  So how did the grape originate in France but go relatively unnoticed as a pure varietal until it achieved prominence in Argentina – and become a grape varietal so strongly associated with an individual place?

Through our many wine tasting experiences, we were once told that the origination of the name “malbec” actually means bad grape (mal=bad; bec=grape).  The reason that it was given this name, he stated, was due to the relative difficulty with which Malbec wine grapes grow.  While it does appear that “mal” means bad, “bec” actually means kiss thus somewhat displacing this origination story (the true origination of the name Malbec is still unclear).  However, I do believe there was something to what he was saying – even if it slightly incorrect.   Malbec Wine Characteristics

As previously stated, Malbec grapes originated in the south west region of France, but never became a prolific grape variety within the region.  In fact, instead of growing over time, it has significantly deteriorated within the French region for a couple of reasons: 1) in the 1950s, cold weather and frost destroyed nearly 75% of the vines, decimating the year’s harvest; 2) the nature of the vines did not mesh well with the climate in France, subjecting the vines to rot and disease.  Based on being susceptible to infestations, rot and disease, other grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet Franc become more prominent. Based on these factors, Malbec wine characteristics are largely dependent on sunshine and heat to ensure they continue to take root and produce.  The inability for the vines to continuously produce consistent amounts of grapes have lead vineyards to avoid growing excess of what is needed for red blends.  Several reports suggest that grapes would rot prior to planned harvest, spoiling Malbec grapes, leaving vineyards without the grapes necessary for production of the wine for that year.  Despite the reduction in Malbec grape production, there continues to be regions in France that grow higher quantities of Malbec including the South West region of Cahors.  Interestingly, Cahors was one of the regions that was hit by the frost but their perseverance for Malbec lead to replantation of the grapes, helping to ensure its popularity as a pure varietal within France.

In comes Argentina and Michel Pouget!!

To help develop Malbec wine characteristics, grapes should be grown in warmer climates that are higher in elevation.  When Argentinian winemakers were looking for grapes to improve the quality of their wines, Malbec grapes were what Michel Pouget recommended.  And the rest is essentially history.  The vines were transplanted from France and planted within the wine region of Mendoza, where they excelled – devoid of all the negative attributes (disease, weather, rot) seen in France.  Not only did the vines thrive within the hot-elevated climate of the Mendoza region, Malbec remained relatively absent from the rest of the world.  Much of the consumed wine was done so inside of Argentina, with continued improvement in quality.

Finally, Malbec reaches the United States

In an interesting sequence of events, Malbec became popular among “common-folk”.  During the early 2000’s with a vulnerable economy, it became increasingly difficult for wine drinkers in the United States and areas of Europe to continue to purchase wines as prices continued to increase.  Looking for alternatives, Malbec was a reasonable alternative – affordable and delicious.  Thus, everyday people through word-of-mouth continued to lead to its increase in popularity, especially within the United States.

No other wine (that we are aware of) is as dominated by a single region as Malbec.  Reports suggest that upwards 70% of the world’s Malbec grapes are produced within Argentina.  However, the grapes that are produced in Argentina have different characteristics compared to their relatives in France.  The berries found within Argentina are smaller and tighter in nature within the individual clusters when compared to their predecessors.  The reason is unclear but part of the reason for the differences is that when Michel Pouget brought the Malbec grapes to Argentina it could have been a particular variety which may have been destroyed in France due to disease or weather.

In addition to its deep dark nature, Malbec typically has softer tannins compared to Merlot with lower acidity.  The vastly different climates of France and Argentina significantly contribute to the qualities depicted within the taste of the wine.  The higher elevation of Argentina leads to higher acidity, more tannins and increased herbaceous notes while France Malbec wine characteristics tend to elicit an earthier profile with smoky and licorice qualities.

Tasting of Malbec is best done within standard red wine glassware.  Storage temperature should be consistent with normal cellar temperatures and higher-end Malbec’s typically have higher tannin and acidity allowing them to have high age potential.  While the price range of Malbec is frequently within the $10-15 range, higher-end Malbec’s can begin to creep up to some surprisingly high figures.

Finally, Malbec wine characteristics include being generally moderate in tannins with low-moderate acidity and produce a fruit profile most commonly associated with plum characteristics.  Beyond the fruit, a variety of spices can be noted including vanilla, tobacco and baking spices.

See the following more detailed assessment of Malbec’s that we have tried:

  • Blind Spot 2015 – Malbec

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Is there a particular Malbec that you have tried and loved?  Please let us know – we are always in search of new finds!!  If you have any comments or thoughts we would love to hear from you.  Check us out on Twitter or Instagram for more wine info as well as our wine-venture!

5 comments

  1. Great article! I didn’t realize that Malbec grapes originated in France.
    “Bec” also means “mouth” in French, though it may mean something different in Languedoc.
    Malbec wine paired with Argentinian beef is fantastic! If you are able, I suggest taking a trip to Buenos Aires to check it out!

  2. Hey Scott!
    Thanks for the comments. There was so much that we learned about Malbec with this post. I knew that Malbec was attached with Argentina but had no idea how influential Argentina was in promoting and essentially reviving the grape in the world. That is an awesome suggestion – definitely need to check out the pairing and look into a trip their!
    best

  3. Adam, much appreciate your very informative blog on Malbec- I am originally from France, now living in Canada. We have been big fans of good red Bordeaux. The Malbec is one of the six grapes that are allowed to be used to make Bourdeaux wine. We have tried a number of different Argentinian wines, all have been quite good. Thanks to you, we have now added the Malbec to try.

  4. I lived in Malbec Road in South Africa. All the streets in our suburb were named after wines. Was what attracted me to your article.

    Often wondered why it was such a popular wine. You mentioned in your article how the wine goes so well with the beef in Argentina. We South Africans also love our beef and so that is probably the reason why Melbec is such a popular wine in South Africa.

    Did not know that France was the first country to produce this lovely wine.

    1. Hi Roy – 

      Thanks for your comments – I did not realize Malbec was so popular in South Africa!  I had a friend in college who was from Zimbabwe but back then wine wasn’t a very popular choice for college students.  I’d love to visit South Africa and experience how the wines their differ from what I’m used to.

      Honestly, until I began researching Malbec I didn’t realize that it was only utilized within blends and did really hold high regards in France outside of this purpose.  Argentina produces some amazing Malbecs though!

      Best

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