A popular but unconfirmed theory claims that Malbec is named after a Hungarian peasant who first spread the grape variety throughout France.
However, the French ampelographer and viticulturist, Pierre Galet has documented over a thousand different synonyms for Malbec, stemming in part from its in-peak period when it grew in 30 different departments of France. While Malbec is the name most commonly known to wine drinkers, Galet suggests that while Côt was most likely the grape variety’s original name, the frequent appearance of Auxerrois as a synonym suggests the northern reaches of Burgundy as being the possible home of the varietal. In Bordeaux, where the variety first gained attention, it was known under the synonym Pressac.
Despite a similar name, the grape Malbec Argenté is not Malbec, but rather a variety of the southwestern French grape Abouriou. Due to the similarities in synonyms, Malbec has also been confused with Auxerrois Blanc, which is also an entirely different variety.
Still another theory suggests the Malbec grape may have originated in southwest France, where it still is grown under the name Cot.
Malbec became less popular in Bordeaux after 1956 when frost killed off 75% of the crop. The varietal is sensitive to frost and has a proclivity to shatter or coulure. 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. 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.
Wine expert Jancis Robinson, describes the French style of Malbec common in the Bordeaux region as a “rustic” version of Merlot while the Malbec of the Cahors region is much more tannic with more phenolic compounds that contribute to its dark color. In Argentina, Malbec becomes softer with a plusher texture and riper tannins. The wines tend to have juicy fruit notes with violet aromas. Malbec grown in Washington state tends to be characterized by dark fruit notes and herbal aromas. However, the grape’s international profile has surged because of Argentina. It is increasingly celebrated as an Argentine varietal wine and is being grown around the world.
Malbec arrived in Argentina in the late nineteenth century before the phylloxera epidemic punished European vineyards. Argentine producers have dramatically cut yields and replaced large old wood casks with oak barriques. They’ve taken more care in selecting appropriate planting sites, developing cooler, high altitude vineyards that benefit from warm days and cool nights.
With these wines, you can expect deep red colors and intense flavors, with notes of blackberry, plum, leather and pepper. Many have the necessary structure to age for a decade or more.