The Malbec grape may have originated in southwest France, where it still is grown under the name Cot. However, the grape's international profile has surged not because of what's going on in France, but rather because of current trends in Argentina.
Malbec came to Argentina in the late nineteenth century, before the Phylloxera epidemic punished European vineyards, necessitating grafting of fruiting wood onto rootstocks that aren't native to Europe. In Argentina, which was never subject to the epidemic, most of these vines are not grafted. Instead, vines grow on their own roots. But if escaping the blight of Phylloxera provided a start, the key reasons for the recent emergence of the grape are improvements both to viticulture and vinification.
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. International consultants have arrived, too, imparting up-to-date knowledge about vinification techniques as well as a sense of what style of wines compete successfully in the international wine market.
Some are critical of this trend, arguing that it leads to homogenization of wine styles. Maybe so, but we still feel that some of these improvements are certainly welcome, for the best Malbecs are polished, structured, and concentrated, but still showcase the local terroir. The results are clear: Malbec was once produced almost entirely for the domestic marketplace, but now bottles marked $50 dollars or higher sell briskly in the international marketplace. But you need not spend that much money for a solid example of this varietal: there are plenty of compelling and satisfying wines in the $15-25 dollar range.
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. We've been impressed with wines from Vina Alicia, Val de Flores, and Terrazas de los Andes.
Argentina is known as much for its grass-fed beef as it is for its red wines. The affinity between the two is more than just geographical-- with its robust tannins, Malbec makes a natural partner for steak.