In this week’s article, we will explore the growing regions of two red grapes originally from Bordeaux (or nearby areas), but now most often found in South America. In fact, these grapes are so closely associated with their adopted homes that many consumers assume them to be South American grapes. The truth of the matter is that, save for the three variations of the grape known as torrontes, there are no vitis vinifera grapes (the species most commonly used for wine production) that are native to the Americas. All the same, the bulk of production for today’s featured grapes is in Argentina and Chile.
Malbec was once grown throughout a fairly large area of western France. That broad presence is evidenced by the number of synonyms (“winespeak” for aliases) by which malbec may be known — reportedly, over 1,000! Don’t worry, the only two synonyms you are likely to encounter are “côt” and “auxerrois,” the latter of which is, confusingly, also the name of a white grape that is entirely unrelated. Unfortunately, malbec is very susceptible to a number of grape maladies and threats, including coulure (also called “shatter”), downy mildew, rot, and frost. In fact, frost was responsible for the destruction of about 75% of Bordeaux’s malbec acreage in 1956. Not surprisingly, the newly available acreage was replanted with more reliable grapes. Today, malbec can be found in the following French regions (although this is not a complete list, as some appellations permitting malbec are very scarce in the American market):
- Loire Valley — While malbec is not common in the Loire Valley, it is permitted in the regional wines of Anjou, Coteaux de Loir )note the spelling), and Touraine, as well as in the sparkling wines of Saumur. In the Loire Valley, malbec will always be blended with other grapes.
- Bordeaux — Malbec is still grown in a few areas of Bordeaux (the wine region surrounding the city of the same name, just off of France’s Atlantic coast), although to a much lesser degree than prior to the aforementioned frost of 1956. The only areas with significant plantings of malbec are Côtes-de-Bourg (which, confusingly sounds as if it should be in Burgundy), Blaye, and Entre-Deux-Mers. The two former areas are on the left bank, merlot dominant side of the Gironde River, while the latter area is between the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers. When malbec is present in Bordeaux it will almost always be a minor part of a blend.
- Cahors — Cahors (east of the southwestern end of Bordeaux) may be the original home of malbec — at the very least, it is the best known French appellation for this particular grape. Malbec must comprise at least 70% of the wine (the remainder may be merlot or tannat — the latter of which is ALSO more closely associated with a South American country (this time Uruguay) than its original homeland). Cahors wines are dark, inky wines — historically known as “the black wines of Cahors.” You may also find malbec in the nearby areas of Bergerac and Pécharmant.
Malbec arrived in its adopted home, Argentina, in the late 19th Century. As many of Europe’s vineyards (including those in Bordeaux) were being destroyed by the root louse phylloxera, the French agronomist Michel Pouget brought a number of vine cuttings (including malbec) from France to Argentina. Don’t think it was a quick and easy path for malbec to reach its current star status. . . it certainly was not. . . Much of Argentina’s malbec acreage was torn out in the last century in favor of faster growing, more reliable (even if less flavorful) grapes for “jug wine” production. It wasn’t until Argentine producers, inspired by Chile’s success in uplifting its wine industry, became more quality focused in the 1990’s that they focused their attention on malbec and the unique qualities it possessed in Argentina. Argentine malbecs tend to display relatively low tannin (especially compared to French malbec), intense fruit character, and a plush, velvety mouthfeel. Whether the uniqueness of Argentine malbec is a result of clonal material variations or terroir variations (or perhaps a combination of both) is not certain. It has been noted, however, that Argentine malbec produces a smaller berry with tighter clusters than that which is grown in France. This has led some wine professionals to theorize that the clonal material of the cuttings that were the source of the original Argentine plantings represent malbec clones that have since gone extinct in France due to the grape’s high susceptibility to disease and frost. While malbec is grown in a number of regions (many of which are better known for white wines, other red wines, or “jug wine,” Mendoza is, by far, Argentina’s most significant region for quality malbec. There are a number of sub-appellations within Mendoza, but the areas of particular interest are the high-altitude appellations of Luján de Cuyo and (although a high-altitude valley seems contradictory) Valle de Uco (Uco Valley).
In the United States, malbec is most commonly used as a blending grape in Bordeaux styled blends, often referred to by the British term “claret” or the the registered name “Meritage.” Red wines labeled as “Meritage” (hint: don’t “French-ify” it. . . it rhymes with “heritage”) must be produced by a member of the Meritage Alliance and contain “two of the ‘noble’ Bordeaux varieties – cabernet sauvignon, cabernet Franc, malbec, merlot, petit verdot and the rarer St. Macaire, gros verdot and carménѐre,” with no varietal making up more than 90% of the blend and no additional varietals included. While these blends account for the majority of malbec’s appearance in the United States, single varietal malbec is becoming more common. Malbec is now being planted in many states, including Washington, Oregon, Texas, New York, Virginia, and such unexpected states as Colorado, Michigan, New Jersey, and North Carolina, but California is still the most likely source of malbec produced within the United States. Key California appellations include:
- Sonoma County
- Alexander Valley
- Napa County
- Paso Robles
The second grape on today’s tour agenda is carménѐre, an almost obsolete grape with (possibly) a very long (and confused) history. . . While (as noted above) the Meritage Alliance considers carménѐre to be a “‘noble’ Bordeaux variet(y),” it is questionable if the French consider it with the same regard. The grape (a descendent of cabernet Franc) is almost non-existent in France. Although it is permitted in Bordeaux, it is very seldom used. There is, however, some interest in increasing the use of carménѐre in Bordeaux. Like malbec, carménѐre is susceptible to a number of grape diseases and challenges. Today, carménѐre is grown primarily in Chile. Primary appellations include Maipo Valley, Rapel Valley, and the Rapel sub-appellation of Colchagua Valley. Like many other Bordeaux grapes, carménѐre arrived in Chile following the destruction of French vineyards by phylloxera, but carménѐre in Chile was thought to be a unique clonal variation of merlot until French amelographer Jean Boursiquot discovered that “early-ripening merlot” was, in fact, carménѐre. The Chilean government recognized carménѐre as a distinct varietal four years later, but it is still often confused with merlot.
Outside of Chile, there are growing plantings of carménѐre in Italy. Where carménѐre was confused with merlot in Chile, it was confused with cabernet Franc in Italy. In fact, the two grapes can taste remarkably similar. Most Italian carménѐre is grown in the northern regions of Lombardy, Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, but it is also grown on the island of Sardinia. The most interesting use of carménѐre, however, may be in Tuscany, where it is blended with sangiovese in the wine called “Predicato di Biturica.” The name references the ancient Roman grape “biturica,” which was mentioned by Pliny the Elder as having originated on the Iberian peninsula. Oddly, the city of Bordeaux was known as “Biturica” during this time. Keep in mind that carménѐre’s DNA shows one of its parent grapes to be cabernet Franc — a decidedly French grape. Make of that what you will. . .
I find carménѐre to be a delightful, if somewhat inconsistent, grape. Given its confused history (or rather, its history of confusion), surprise should not really be a surprise. . . Typical flavors include notes of spice, red fruits, and berries and possible notes of chocolate, leather, and/or tobacco. Occasionally smoky, chipotle pepper aromas and flavors reminiscent of cabernet Franc may also present themselves. The tannic structure tends to be gentler than that of cabernet sauvignon, making it a red wine suitable for lighter fare.
Next week, we will complete our tour of grapes “originally from Bordeaux” with the white grapes sauvignon blanc and sémillon. In the meantime, I encourage you to get to know some of the red grapes we have encountered so far on this journey. Merlot is certainly worth reconsidering, and cabernet Franc, malbec, and carménѐre each have their charms — and often represent very good value.
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