Malbec Grape Variety

Malbec is a variety of purple grape used in making red wine. The grapes tend to have an inky dark color and robust tannins, and are long known as one of the six grapes allowed in the blend of red Bordeaux wine. The French plantations of Malbec are now found primarily in Cahors in the South West France region. It is increasingly celebrated as an Argentine varietal wine and is being grown around the world.

Wine description inky intense wine, dark color, juicy fruit notes with violet aromas
Food pairing Red meat, can stand up to Mexican spice, Italian tomato based dishes
Origin France
Notable regions Argentina, Chile, Cahors
Notable wines Bodega Catena Zapata 2005 Argentino (Mendoza); Bodega Catena Zapata 2005 Nicasia Vineyard (Mendoza)

Called Auxerrois or Cot Noir in Cahors, called Malbec in Bordeaux, and Pressac in other places, the grape became less popular in Bordeaux after 1956 when frost killed off 75% of the crop. Despite Cahors being hit by the same frost, which devastated the vineyards, Malbec was replanted and continued to be popular in that area where it was mixed with Merlot and Tannat to make dark, full-bodied wines, and more recently has been made into 100% Malbec varietal wines.

A popular but unconfirmed theory claims that Malbec is named after a Hungarian peasant who first spread the grape variety throughout France.[1] However the French ampelographer and viticulturalist Pierre Galet notes that most evidence suggest that Cot was the variety's original name and that it probably originated in northern Burgundy.[2] Despite a similar name, the grape Malbec argente is not Malbec, but rather a variety of the southwestern French grape Abouriou.[3] Due to the similarities in synonyms, Malbec has also been confused with Auxerrois blanc, which is an entirely different variety.[4]

The Malbec grape is a thin-skinned grape and needs more sun and heat than either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to mature.[5] It ripens mid-season and can bring very deep color, ample tannin, and a particular plum-like flavor component to add complexity to claret blends. Sometimes, especially in its traditional growing regions, it is not trellised and cultivated as bush vines (the goblet system). Here it is sometimes kept to a relatively low yield of about 6 tons per hectare. The wines are rich, dark and juicy.[6]

As a varietal, Malbec creates a rather inky red (or violet), intense wine, so it is also commonly used in blends, such as with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to create the red French Bordeaux claret blend. The grape is blended with Cabernet Franc and Gamay in some regions such as the Loire Valley.[4] Other wine regions use the grape to produce Bordeaux-style blends.[7] The varietal is sensitive to frost and has a proclivity to shatter or coulure.[6]


Malbec is very susceptible to various grape diseases and viticultural hazards-most notably frost, coulure, downey mildew and rot but the development of new clones and vineyard management techniques have helped control some of these potential problems.[2] When it is not afflicted with these various ailments, particularly coulure, it does have the potential to produce high yields. Too high a yield, as was the circumstance in Argentina until recently with their heavy use of flood irrigation, the wines become more simplistic and lacking in flavor. Malbec seems to be able to produce well in a variety of soil types but in the limestone based soils of Cahors it seems to produce its most dark and tannic manifestation.[3] There are distinct ampelographical differences in the clones of Malbec found in France and in Argentina, with Argentine Malbec tending to have smaller berries.[8]


Malbec is the dominant red varietal in Cahors where the Appellation Controlée regulations for Cahors require a minimum content of 70%.[6] Introduced to Argentina by French agricultural engineer Michel Pouget in 1868, Malbec is widely planted in Argentina producing a softer, less tannic-driven variety than the wines of Cahors. There were once 50,000 hectares planted with Malbec in Argentina; now there are 25,000 hectares in Mendoza in addition to production in La Rioja, Salta, San Juan, Catamarca and Buenos Aires. Chile has about 6,000 hectares planted, France 5,300 hectares and in the cooler regions of California just 45 hectares. In California the grape is used to make Meritage.[7] Malbec is also grown in Washington State, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, British Columbia, the Long Island AVA of New York, Oregon, southern Bolivia, northeastern Italy and recently in Texas and southern Ontario, and in the Baja California region of Mexico.


At one point Malbec was grown in 30 different departments of France, a legacy that is still present in the abundance of local synonyms for the variety which easily surpass 1000 names. However, in recent times, the popularity of the variety has been steadily declining with a 2000 census reporting only 15,000 acres (6,100 hectares) of the vine mostly consigned to the southwestern part of the country. Its stronghold remains Cahors where Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) regulations stipulates that Malbec must compose at least 70% of the blend, with Merlot and Tannat rounding out the remaining percentage. Outside of Cahors, Malbec is still found in small amounts as a permitted variety in the AOCs of Bergerac, Buzet, Côtes de Duras, Côtes du Marmandais, Fronton and Pécharmant. It is also permitted in the Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) of Côtes du Brulhois. In the Midi region of the Languedoc, it is permitted (but rarely grown) in the AOC regions of Cabardès and Côtes de Malepère. There is a small amount of Malbec grown in the middle Loire Valley and permitted in the AOCs of Anjou, Coteaux du Loir, Touraine and the sparkling wine AOC of Saumur where it is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Gamay. But as elsewhere in France, Malbec is losing acreage other varieties-most notably Cabernet Franc in the Loire.[2] 

The grape was historically a major planting in Bordeaux, providing color and fruit to the blend, but in the 20th century started to lose ground to Merlot and Cabernet Franc due, in part, to its sensitivities to so many different vine ailments (coulure, downy mildew, frost). The severe 1956 frost wiped out a significant portion of Malbec vines in Bordeaux, allowing many growers a chance to start anew with different varieties. By 1968 plantings in the Libournais was down to 12,100 acres (4,900 hectares) and fell further to 3,460 acres (1,400 hectares) by 2000. While Malbec has since become a popular component of New World meritages or Bordeaux blends, and it is still a permitted variety in all major wine regions of Bordeaux, its presence in Bordeaux is as a distinctly minor variety. Only the regions of the Cotes-de-Bourg, Blaye and Entre-Deux-Mers have any significant plantings in Bordeaux.[2]


While acreage of Malbec is declining in France, in Argentina the grape is surging and has become a "national variety" of sort that is uniquely identified with Argentine wine. The grape was first introduced to the region in the mid 19th century when provincial governor, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, instructed the French agronomist Miguel Pouget to bring grapevine cuttings from France to Argentina. Of the vines that Pouget brought were the very first Malbec vines to be planted in the country.[9] During the economic turmoil of the 20th century, some plantings of Malbec were pulled out to make way for the jug wine producing varieties of Criolla Grande and Cereza. But the grape was rediscovered in the late 20th century as the Argentine wine industry shifted its focus to premium wine production for export. As the Argentine wine industry discovered the unique quality of wine that could be made from the grape, Malbec arose to greater prominence and is today the most widely planted red grape variety in the country. As of 2003 there were over 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of Malbec in Argentina.[2]

The grape clusters of Argentine Malbec are different from its French relatives have smaller berries in tighter, smaller clusters. This suggest that the cuttings brought over by Pouget and later French immigrants was a unique clone that may have gone extinct in France due to frost and the phylloxera epidemic.[10] Argentine Malbec wine is characterized by its deep color and intense fruity flavors with a velvety texture.[11] While it doesn't have the tannic structure of a French Malbec, being more plush in texture, Argentine Malbecs have shown aging potential similar to their French counterparts.[2] The Mendoza region is the leading producer of Malbec in Argentina with plantings found throughout the country in places such as La Rioja, Salta, San Juan, Catamarca and Buenos Aires.[9]

United States

Prior to Prohibition in the United States, Malbec was a significant variety in California used mainly for blended bulk wine production. After Prohibition, the grape was a minor variety until it experienced a surge of interest as a component of "Meritage" Bordeaux-style blends in the mid 1990s. Between 1995 and 2003, plantings of Malbec in California increased from 1000 acres (250 hectares) to more than 7000 acres (2,830 hectares). While the appearance of Californian varietal Malbec is increasing, the grape is still most widely used for blending.[2] In California, the American Viticultural Areas (AVA) with the most plantings of Malbec include Napa Valley, Alexander Valley, Paso Robles and Sonoma Valley.[7]

Other regions in California with some plantings of Malbec include Atlas Peak, Carmel Valley, Los Carneros, Ramona Valley, Central Coast, Red Hills Lake County, Chalk Hill, Clear Lake, Diamond Mountain District, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Rutherford, El Dorado, San Lucas, Santa Clara Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Howell Mountain, Sierra Foothills, Knights Valley, Spring Mountain District, St. Helena, Lodi, Stags Leap District, Madera, Suisun Valley, Temecula Valley, Monterey, Mount Veeder, North Coast, Oak Knoll District, Yorkville Highlands, Oakville, Paicines, Clements Hills, Fair Play, Willow Creek, North Yuba, and Yountville.[7]

Seven Hills Winery planted the first vines of Malbec planted in Washington state in the late 1990s in their Windrow vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley. Since the turn of the 21st century, several wineries have been experimenting with 100% varietal Malbec as well as using the variety in Meritage blends.[12] In Washington State it is grown predominately in the Columbia Valley and the sub-AVAs of Walla Walla Valley, Rattlesnake Hills, Red Mountain, Wahluke Slope, Horse Heaven Hills and Yakima Valley.[7]

Other AVAs in the United States producing Malbec include the New York appellations of North Fork of Long Island and Finger Lakes; the Oregon appellations of Applegate Valley, Rogue Valley, Southern Oregon, Umpqua Valley and Willamette Valley; the Idaho appellation of the Snake River Valley; the Texas appellations of Texas High Plains and Texas Hill Country; the Virginia appellations of Monticello and North Fork of Roanoke; the North Carolina appellation of the Yadkin Valley; the Michigan appellations of the Old Mission Peninsula and Leelanau Peninsula; the New Jersey appellation of the Outer Coastal Plain and the Colorado appellation of the Grand Valley. Additionally there are some plantings in Missouri and Georgia outside of federally delineated appellations.[7]

Other regions

The success of Malbec in Argentina led some producers in neighboring Chile to try their hand at the varietal. Grown throughout the Central Valley, Chilean Malbec tends to be more tannic than its Argentine counterpart and is used primarily in Bordeaux-style blends. The grapevine was introduced to Australia in the 19th century and was mostly a bulk wine producing grape. The particular clones planted in Australia were of poor quality and highly susceptible to coulure, frost and downy mildew. By the mid to late 20th century, many acres of Malbec were uprooted and planted with different varieties. By 2000, there were slightly over 1,235 acres (500 acres), with the Clare Valley having the most significant amount. As newer clones become available, plantings of Malbec in Australia have increased slightly.[2]

Other regions with some plantings of Malbec include north Italy[2], New Zealand, South Africa, the Canadian regions of British Columbia and Ontario, Bolivia and Mexico, and Southern Indiana.


Wine expert Jancis Robinson describes the French style of Malbec common in the Libournais (Bordeaux region) as a "rustic" version of Merlot, softer in tannins and lower in acidity with blackberry fruit in its youth. The Malbec of the Cahors region is much more tannic with more phenolic compounds that contribute to its dark color.[3] Oz Clarke describes Cahors' Malbec as dark purple in color with aromas of damsons, tobacco and raisin. In Argentina, Malbec becomes softer with a plusher texture and riper tannins. The wines tend to have juicy fruit notes with violet aromas. In very warm regions of Argentina, Chile & Australia, the acidity of the wine may be too low which can cause a wine to taste flabby and weak.[8] Malbec grown in Washington state tends to be characterized by dark fruit notes and herbal aromas.[12]


  1. Uncork: wine tidbits. "A short history of Malbec"
  2. J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 421 Oxford University Press 2006 
  3. J. Robinson Vines, Grapes & Wines pg 198 & 204 Mitchell Beazley 1986 
  4. Epicurious Wine Dictionary Malbec Definition
  5. Cellar notes Malbec Grape Variety
  6. Winepros Malbec
  7. Appellation America Malbec Wine Grape
  8. Oz Clarke Encyclopedia of Grapes pg 118-119 Harcourt Books 2001 
  9. A. Domine (ed) Wine pg 840-844 Ullmann Publishing 2008 
  10. H. Johnson & J. Robinson The World Atlas of Wine pg 300-301 Mitchell Beazley Publishing 2005 
  11. K. MacNeil The Wine Bible pg 848-857 Workman Publishing 2001 
  12. P. Gregutt "Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide" pg 69-70 University of California Press 2007 
  13. Maul, E.; Eibach, R. (1999-06-00). "Vitis International Variety Catalogue". Information and Coordination Centre for Biological Diversity (IBV) of the Federal Agency for Agriculture and Food (BLE), Deichmanns Aue 29, 53179 Bonn, Germany. Archived from the original on 2007-04-27.

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