Malbec is a wine grape variety used for the production of red wine. It developed from a crossing between the ancient varieties, Prunelard noir and Magdelaine noire des Charentes.
The variety seemed to have originated in Cahors, France, and used to be the most commonly planted vine throughout the south-west of France during the Middle Ages. Vast areas under the variety, however, was destroyed during the Phylloxera outbreak between 1875 to 1889, after which the vines were replaced with other varieties that had a better affinity to the American rootstock that was imported to protect vines against phylloxera.
The area under Malbec suffered another blow during the frost of 1956, with most growers, except in Cahors, ditching it for more fashionable varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Malbec was given a second life in Argentina, when Domingo Sarmiento, who at the time was the governor of Mendoza and later became the President of Argentina, hired a French agronomist, Miguel Pouget to import vine cuttings from France.
Sarmiento wanted to build a wine industry in Argentina, that was as refined as the French’s. The the first Malbec cuttings arrived in Argentina in 1852, a few decades before the phylloxera epidemic outbreak in France. The particular imported clone, ironically, has since disappeared in France.
While the French struggled to produce Malbec, the grape thrived in the warm climatic conditions of
Argentina resulting in the country becoming the major producer of the variety. Initially, most of the wine was consumed locally, but around the early 2000s the country became serious about exports and established strategies to improve and guarantee the quality of the exported product. Malbec in effect became the signature red grape of Argentina.
Malbec was apparently so common in France during the Middle Ages, that over a thousand synonyms developed for it. The most common are Auxerrois, Côt, Malbec, Noir de Pressac, Peid-Roughe and Pressac.
Production in South Africa
While Malbec has been cultivated in Stellenbosch and Paarl since the 1920s, it was first bottled as a single varietal wine in the early 1990s, by Backsberg Estate Cellars, located between Paarl and Stellenbosch.
The popularity of Malbec seems to be growing in South Africa, with the area under production increasing from a mere 40 ha in the 1990s to roughly 450 ha in 2016. Vines are found in all the production regions of the country, with the Swartland, Paarl and Stellenbosch accounting for about three-quarters of the total area under production.
It is a vigorous grower with a crawling habit. Production averages between 10 t/ha to 14 t/ha.
The grapes ripen mid-season, from the end of February.
Berries are black, round and of a medium size. The skin is thin and tough, while the flesh is juicy.
The leaves are medium sized, of a dark green colour, round and whole to three-lobed.
Pests and diseases
The variety is susceptible to downy mildew.
Malbec is primarily used to create single varietal wines or to add colour and fruitiness to blends. It is primarily used in Bordeaux style blends, along with varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet franc or Petit Verdot.
The variety has spicy berry aromas, such as plums, blackberries, juniper, cherries and bitter chocolate. It seems to produce more intense flavours under softer production conditions.