According to the Huffington Post, the Mendoza region of Argentina has recently been ranked 4th in the top wine destinations of the world. Although the malbec grape has been growing in Mendoza for the past 160 years, it has only been within the last decade that malbec wines have started reaching global recognition. What was the tipping point that poured this simple wine from a remote region of the world into the world’s glasses?
Before we get the bottom of the bottle, let’s review some facts about malbecs and the geographical position of Mendoza Argentina.
Many people think that malbec wine is from Argentina: this is false. How did malbec arrive to the country? While exiled in Chile around 1852, the future governor of San Juan and President of Argentina, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento met the French agronomist Michel Aimé Pouget. Sarmiento contracted Pouget to bring quality French strains to Argentina in order to improve its then struggling wine culture. Pouget brought with him varieties that were inexistent at the time in Argentina, such as cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and later malbec.
Myth has it that Pouget was the founding father of malbec wines in Argentina and was responsible for all of the country’s wine success, but in reality the European wines were brought by Spanish, Italian and French immigrants. Argentine winemaking actually dates back to around the mid 1500s in the Rioja region when Spanish missionaries planted grapes in order to make ‘communion’ wine. Pouget was actually responsible for popularizing wine and laying the foundation for the Argentine wine-growing culture at the first agricultural school in the country, ‘la quinta agronomica de Mendoza’.
The thick-skinned grape (no pun intended) of the malbec began to thrive in Mendoza Argentina because of the region’s hot, high-altitude. The malbec from the Cahors region in France is grown at about 65 meters above sea-level, whereas the Argentine malbec is grown at around 900 meters. Because the grape couldn’t resist the cooler climate and bugs, it has been used in France as a blending grape. Mendoza’s high elevation climate allows the grape to produce more acidity, which in turn produces a better, long lasting wine. Remember that the higher the acidity in a wine, the longer it’s going to last in the wine cellar (aka your counter top).
What’s the difference between French and Argentine malbec? Argentine malbec is much more fruit forward and you can immediately taste strong hints of plums, black cherries and blackberries. The French malbec on the other hand is much more leathery and complex. It tends to be forward, but is never bitter about being uncorked on a Wednesday night in the park in front of a few strangers. An interesting little known fact is that if you drink both Argentine and French malbec in the same evening you start to speak like Julio Cortázar.
So how did Argentine malbec start making its way to foreign tabletops? Many wine experts believe that a grass-roots type movement led malbec popularity. Around 2005 people began requesting the wine not only because of its spicy robust flavor, but also because it’s much cheaper than a French cabernet or pinot noir. Most restaurants didn’t feature more than one or two malbecs on a wine menu because malbecs weren’t traditionally seen as a very saleable wine. Does this mean that it’s inferior to a Bordeaux cabernet? Well that depends on the pallet of the drinker.
Before its recent surge in popularity, most people didn’t even know that Argentina was not a part of Chile, which also produces malbecs. So expect a pretty ‘haut’ debate if you fail to differentiate between the two countries. Why should you visit Mendoza? Well if being one of the world’s top wine destinations isn’t enough to convince you, here are some little known facts about Mendoza and malbec that will definitely excite the senses.
– April 17th is the international malbec day! The holiday commemorates the official inauguration of the first agricultural school in Mendoza where Pouget laid the foundation for the Argentine wine-growing culture. Unlike St. Patrick’s day, when celebrating this holiday you’re much less likely to be surrounded by a bunch of jocks singing Bon Jovi.
–80% of Argentina’s wines come from Mendoza, therefore expect there to be wine everywhere: restaurants, pubs, parks, concerts, museums, all Catholic events, bathtubs, etc.
– You’ll almost never need an umbrella when visiting Mendoza. The Mendoza region receives less than 10 inches of rainfall per year and over 300 days with sun! So how are the vineyards irrigated? The melting snow from the surrounding Andes Mountains is canaled and the viticulturist can control the water distribution.
– Mendoza is divided into 4 different areas where grapes are grown: Eastern Mendoza, Lujan du Cuyo, Uco Valley, and Maipu. There are wine tours in all of these areas!
– Because of Mendoza’s high elevation, bugs, fungi, phylloxera, molds and other diseases that affect the Malbec grapes in the Cahors region of France are not common. This means that the use of pesticides and chemicals is almost non-existent!
Written by Brian Athey