Mendoza Malbec

Argentina is a vast country running down a large stretch of the east coast of South America known for its rich wines made at high altitude. With the Andes as a backdrop, Mendoza is one of Argentina's most important and spectacular wine regions producing the Malbec grape. Mendoza vineyards naturally sit at high altitude and have become the adopted home of a grape that failed to flourish in its homeland in quite the same manner.

The black grape Malbec is originally native to France where it is still important to a few select regions like Cahors where it is revered more than any other. However, it is in Mendoza where it has become synonymous with superb, elegant Argentinian wine. The advent of Mendoza Malbec could also be credited with Argentina's rise as a world-class wine-producing country whose wines are now rivaling those of Napa.

History

Vineyards and mountains, Mendoza
Vineyards and mountains, Mendoza

The history of Malbec in Mendoza can be traced back to the 19th Century when cuttings were first brought over from France over to Argentina. Malbec had actually reached Chile before it made its way to Argentina with Chile bringing over French viticultural experts like Michel Aimé Pouget to plant European cuttings. During the 1850s, Malbec was planted in Argentina alongside other Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Sadly, during the 1980s many of the original vines that were planted were pulled up in favor of more economical varieties like Criolla Grande and Cereza which were excellent for making cheap jug wines.

However, Argentinian Malbec rose to prominence again in the late 1990s and early 2000s and has continued on a relatively astronomical pathway ever since. Much of this can be credited to Nicolás Catena Zapata who comes from a long line of Argentinian winemakers of Italian descent. Nicolás' intense experiments with growing the grape in the high altitudes made Bodega Catena Zapata a pioneer of Mendoza Malbec.

Tasting notes

Bold and Structured red wines
Bold and Structured red wines

The flavour profile of Malbec changes slightly due to climate with French Malbec tending towards a cooler profile and Mendoza Malbec tending towards a warmer profile, although Argentina has both cool and warm climate regions suitable for growing Malbec.

In the cooler regions like Cahors and Bordeaux in France and Patagonia in Argentina, Malbec can exhibit sharp notes of both red and black fruit like cherry, raspberry and plum.

Depending on the climate, these can sometimes be quite green flavors of tart fruit like underripe plum with white and black pepper spice, bitter tannins and notes of leather.

In warmer regions, the flavour profile changes to include riper notes of blackberry, dark plum and bitter damson alongside rich notes of chocolate, leather and tobacco and florals like violet.

Food pairings include:

Food pairings
? Fotolia

Malbec pairs extremely well with earthy and salty flavors. Malbec serves as a natural accompaniment to dishes like grilled portobello mushrooms with balsamic vinegar dressing and blue cheese and crackers.

Dark meats like lamb and beef with herby notes of rosemary, thyme and cracked black pepper work very well with the grape along with grilled vegetables.

Recommended pairings include:

  • Sirloin of Ibérico Pork
  • Braised Lamb Shoulder with Roasted Parsnips
  • Fillet Steak with Chimichurri

Popular Mendoza Malbec brands

Top Argentinian producers of Malbec include Catena Zapata, who arguably put the Mendoza expression of the grape on the map, Terrazas de los Andes, Trapiche and Achaval Ferrer among others. Each of these estates produces a top expression of Mendoza Malbec.

Mendoza wine regions

A mature Malbec vine in Mendoza
A mature Malbec vine in Mendoza

Argentina is a large country running down the center and eastern side of the South American continent. The vast array of land offers a diverse range of regions and the Andes mountains that run from north to south provides sites at different altitudes all which have the ability to influence winemaking.

Much of the vineyards of Argentina are set in high-altitude semi-arid deserts. At these high altitudes, night-time temperatures tend to be cool and the air dry with very little room for disease to flourish, as a result, large yields are often produced.

A relatively new and growing problem is the issue of managing quality as well as quantity, traditional irrigation saw vines receiving the meltwater off the Andes but climate change has had an impact and increasingly less snow falls on the mountains. Currently increasing numbers of vineyards and reduced water supplies stand to exacerbate the problem.

Unlike neighboring Chile, phylloxera is present in Argentina but it's thought because of the sandy soil and dry winds, the louse is naturally kept under control. Cold winters are expected and beneficial for vine dormancy but spring and autumn frosts can be unpredictable.

The wine region of Mendoza surrounds the town of the same name and is, by far, Argentina's most well-recognized wine region, it is also the largest. Situated between 800 and 1200 meters (2600 and 3900ft) above sea level, the town and vineyards lie on a plateau at the base of the Andes. Altitude is one of the most influencing aspects, giving the region a strong diurnal contrast with warm, sunny days and cool nights.

By allowing the grapes to cool off at night it makes the overall ripening process slower, the growing season longer and acidity is still retained. The mountainous soils, being a combination of rock and sand, are free-draining making them ideal for grape-growing.

Maipu

A Maipu wine label
A Maipu wine label

The Maipu subregion sits east of Lujan de Cuyo and south-east of Mendoza City. Maipu encompasses the Barrancas, Lunluta and Coquimbito regions. Maipu is mostly made up of flat plateaus at high altitudes around 2600 ft benefitting from strong sunlight and large diurnal temperature variation.

The Barrancas region is part of the Maipu department of Mendoza which neighbors Lujan de Cuyo. South of Mendoza city, the climate is warmer than other parts of the region but its altitude helps moderate some of the warmer temperatures.

Although, sitting at 2500 ft, it is more low-lying than the majority of wine regions in Mendoza and has less diurnal variation between night and day temperatures. Malbec, as a result, tends to be softer with very ripe fruit flavors. Key producers with wineries here include Finca Flichman and Bodegas Pascual Toso.

Lujan de Cuyo

Irrigation in the shadow of the Andes
Irrigation in the shadow of the Andes
? Wines of Argentina/Carlos Calise

The Lujan de Cuyo region is the overarching region that encompasses Vistalba, Las Compuetas, Perdriel, Agrelo and Ugarteche. The Maipu and the Uco Valley lie to the east and south.

Ugarteche in the Lujan de Cuyo lies at slightly lower altitudes, just 3000ft above sea level, and its Malbec tends to be softer but relatively rich. Nearby Vistalba is also known for producing Malbec among other grape varieties.

Agrelo

Agrelo is a small subregion south of Mendoza city and is home to some of the most notable estates and some of the most famous expressions of Malbec. The village is part of the larger Lujan de Cuyo department which incorporates some of the finest vineyard land in the region.

The altitude reaches a top height of 3300ft and the vineyards there in the west are the most highly-regarded with grapes benefitting from consistent, intense sunlight. The lowest vineyards in Agrelo still sit at 3000 ft and as the region sits in the rain shadow of the Andes, it benefits from being very dry. In particular, Agrelo benefits from wide diurnal variation.

The soils consist of both sandy loam and gravel which has all helped lead to the region establishing a reputation for fine wine. Agrelo Malbec is known for having great structure and being capable of having great complexity. Key estates include Bodega Septima, Pulenta Estate and Catena Zapata all of which produce a Malbec.

Las Compuertas

Breath-taking Andean scenery, Las Compuertas
Breath-taking Andean scenery, Las Compuertas
? Wines of Argentina

Las Compuertas is a sub-region of Lujan de Cuyo which lies at the edge of the Andean foothills where the Mendoza River leaves the mountains. Although it's a dry climate at an altitude of 3300 ft, the river helps keep the grapes cool and provides irrigation.

South of the town of Mendoza, Las Compuertas enjoys a strong international reputation due to the fact that it's home to some of the oldest vineyards in Mendoza with some that are 100 years old.

The diurnal temperature fluctuation and consistent sun help ripen grapes without losing acidity, giving complexity and the Malbec here tends to be very soft and rich with producers like Terrazas de los Andes producing highly rated wines.

Lunlunta

Vineyards of Lunlunta
Vineyards of Lunlunta
? Catapano Wines

Lunlunta is a small region that sits across both the Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo administrative departments. Although most grapes go to make regional blends some great Malbecs are made, notable examples include wines by Catena Zapata.

Perdriel

Similar to Las Compuertas, the small subregion of Perdriel is home to some of Mendoza's oldest Malbec vineyards, some of which still have their original rootstock.

Sitting around 3100 ft, this semi-arid region sits in the Andean rain shadow and receives very little rainfall along with high levels of sunshine.

Conditions are conducive to growing small., concentrated grapes and as a result, Malbec tends to be rich and complex with good tannins but unlike much of Mendoza's Malbec, the Malbecs of Perdriel often exhibit a unique subtlety and refinement and tell-tale aroma of violets. Key producers include Vina Cobos and Achaval Ferrer.

San Martin

The region of San Martin is less well known for Malbec being slightly too warm for the balanced, aromatic style associated with Mendoza.

San Rafael

San Rafael vineyard with Andean foothills
San Rafael vineyard with Andean foothills
? Funckenhausen Vineyards

The region of San Rafael lies in central Mendoza and makes up 15 percent of all Mendoza's plantings. Malbec is once again the principle grape variety, although many other grape varieties are grown, and the region has a reasonably large output.

Uco Valley

Winter at the foot of the Andes
Winter at the foot of the Andes
? Wines of Argentina/Carlos Calise

The Uco Valley lies an hour's drive south of Mendoza city and is considered a prime growing region for Malbec although fine Chardonnay and Torrontés are also grown. The Uco Valley sits between 2000 ft and 3600 ft respectively, typically higher than much of Mendoza and is often treated as a separate region.

Like much of Mendoza, the Uco Valley benefits from a good diurnal range from hot sun during the day to cool nights.

The soils tend to be comprised of clay, rock and sand and are relatively free-draining resulting in low-yielding but concentrated grapes.

Key subregions of the Uco Valley include Altamira, La Consulta, San Carlos, Tunuyan, Tupungato and Vista Flores. Some big names like Rothschild have been attracted to the valley and both Catena Zapata and Achaval Ferrer produce Malbecs in the region.

An Altamira vineyard with the Andes Mountain range
An Altamira vineyard with the Andes Mountain range
&copy Catena Zapata

Altamira is south of the Uco Valley and has an important reputation despite its small size with both Catena Zapata and Achaval Ferrer having vineyards in the region.

Altamira Malbecs are often highly regarded and tend to be vibrant and intense with black fruit and notes of violet.

Traditional flood irrigation in San Carlos
Traditional flood irrigation in San Carlos
? Wines of Argentina/Carlos Calise

Again, in the south of the Uco Valley, San Carlos is another subregion Altamira and La Consulta also lie within it – that champions Malbec, typically producing fresh, bright Malbec with floral notes. Tunuyan to the east is also noted for producing floral Malbecs. Within Tunuyan lie the subregions Vista Flores and Los Chacayes. Tunuyan is also home to Gualtallary, a highly sought-after terroir and home to one of Argentina's most recognized and famous vineyards, Adrianna Vineyard of Catena Zapata fame.

Tupungato in the north of the Uco Valley tends to make more full-bodied Malbec, the high altitudes of the vineyards mean the grapes receive large quantities of concentrated sunlight. Vista Flores is another region in the Uco Valley that's beginning to attract attention for its sophisticated, elegant Malbec.

Stats

Most great Mendoza Malbecs are made from hand-harvested grapes and spend some time aging before release on the market. The resulting wines tend to be able to handle some aging in the cellar. Argentina is home to 75 percent of all the world's Malbec and of all Argentina's vineyards, 75 percent lie in the Mendoza region.

As Mendoza has a semi-arid climate with very little rainfall, snowmelt from the Andes is often used to irrigate. The dry steady climate has remained relatively pest and disease free so pesticides are seldom needed.

Future

The future of Mendoza Malbec appears to be bright, notwithstanding the mostly unknown effects of climate change. With more and more parts of Mendoza being cultivated for Malbec and an international thirst for the grape, it seems unlikely that Mendoza's star will wane any time soon. The most obvious changes will more delineated regions and more sophisticated winemaking techniques.

It will be become easier to tell by taste and smell which part of Mendoza a Malbec comes from as winemaking improves and more regions get recognized.

Drinking window

The majority of Malbecs from Mendoza are suited for early drinking but some wines will occasionally develop for 10 to 15 years or more.

Serving temperature

The ideal serving temperature for a full-bodied Malbec is around 15-18 degrees Celsius.




Frequently Asked Questions

Malbec from Mendoza is dry style of red wine and is one of the most popular styles of wine to emerge from Argentina. Although the grape variety originated in the French regions of Cahors and Bordeaux, it was Mendoza in Argentina that really propelled the variety to success.

Mendoza has a dry climate with high sunshine hours which typically give the grapes an intense flavor profile. As a result, Mendoza Malbec are generally medium to full-bodied wines with medium tannins and acidity. The wines typically have a flavor profile focused on bright black fruit like blackberry, black cherry, black currant and dark plum.

These are also usually accompanied by notes of cocoa, violet-like florals and vanilla or coconut spice. There can also be notes of farmyard and leather as well as tobacco.

There are a number of popular producers of Argentinian Malbec, these include Catena Zapata, Vi?a Cobos, El Enemigo, Terrazas de los Andes, Achaval Ferrer and Familia Zuccardi.

The vast majority of wines found in both supermarkets and retailers are generally of an acceptable to high standard. Argentinian Malbec is renowned for being particularly high in quality at agreeable price-points.

Higher spending power, however, will generally buy higher quality wine, although most examples of Mendoza Malbec on the market will be of good quality. If in doubt, ask your local retailer for assistance.

Red wines similar in quality to Mendoza Malbec would include French Malbec which has slightly darker, earthier tones and greener notes. Another red grape variety commonly grown in Argentina is Bonarda which produces bright, fruit-forward wines with a focus on dark fruit like black cherry and plum along with nuanced spice notes not dissimilar to Malbec.

Dolcetto can also exude similar qualities to Malbec, as can cool-climate Syrah which has similar dark fruit as well as a similar medium-bodied, moderately tannic nature. Like Dolcetto, Nero d'Avola can also be a good alternative.

Although both Malbec and Merlot are considered to be grape varieties that produce a dry style of wine, their fruit-forward nature can often suggest a sweetness. Despite both being dry, Merlot is generally a touch drier than Malbec and Malbec a touch sweeter.

Most Popular Mendoza Malbec Wine

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