Few red wines have captured the public’s imagination in recent years in the same way as Malbec. Think steak and diners are automatically reaching for a bottle, foregoing more traditional matches such as a Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy Bordeaux or a sun-drenched Australian Shiraz.
Argentina is the undisputed king of Malbec, yet the grape has its origins in Cahors, in South-West France, where it was used to make “black wines” that travelled well over long distances and could survive the ravages of time. Here, Malbec is known as “Cot” or sometimes as “Auxerrois”. Merlot and Tannat are often used in blending to help soften this hardy and butch grape.
In Argentina, Malbec tends to be fruitier and more approachable in its youth; while traditionally Cahors would be left to mellow in oak barrels in cellars, Malbec from Mendoza would be ready and willing to be drunk with steak. Yet a new wave of wines – both in the northern and southern hemispheres – offer a rich array of styles, as our journey through the world of Malbec will reveal…
Cahors Petit Clos, Clos Triguedina, 2011, £9.25 (Wine Society)
Petit Clos is much younger and fruiter than the traditional style of wine from Cahors, with plenty of red cherry and raspberry aromas on the nose, accompanied by a hint of violets. On the palate it delivers the dryness you’d expect from Cahors and a deep earthy richness, but without any of the harsh tannins or overpowering oak that the wines of yesteryear would bring to the party. Delicious fruitiness and at a competitive price too.
Cahors Clos La Coutale, 2012, £7.95 (Wine Society)
Unlike the traditional style of Cahors, this wine is unoaked, which really allows the fruit to come alive on the nose, with aromas of brambles and black cherries. In the mouth, it’s dry yet with smooth tannins, making it a good match for hearty food but still approachable enough that you could enjoy a glass on its own, curled up by a roaring log fire. Impressive at the price.
Cuvée George de Puygueraud, Côtes de Francs, 2007, £13.95 (Wine Society)
Malbec has never just been the sole preserve of Cahors; it’s always also made up a tiny component of the blended red wines produced in Bordeaux. Although Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grab all the headlines – with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot featuring in the chasing pack – you can often find two or three percentage points of Malbec creeping into the mix too. Malbec makes up 45 per cent of this blend, bringing plenty of raspberry and red cherry fruit flavours to the party, but it’s perhaps the 35 per cent Cabernet Franc that really stands out, adding aromas reminiscent of pencil shavings to the nose. The balance is Merlot, which adds rich plummy flavours.
Primo de Conti Rouge, 2012, £11 (Marks & Spencer)
As well as making up a small percentage of the blend in Bordeaux, Malbec is also grown further up the Dordogne River in Bergerac, where it’s traditionally be used to make up a higher percentage of the finished product. This is good ol’ fashioned French wine at its best – and that’s no back-handed compliment. The familiar and comforting cedar, liquorice and mint flavours are all present and correct but they’re in perfect balance with the fruity raspberry and black cherry fruit from a blend of 40 per cent Malbec, 40 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 per cent Merlot. Worth every single penny.
Le Malbec, 2011, £8.75 (Oddbins)
Weighing in at 94 per cent Malbec, this wine from the Minervois area of Languedoc Roussillon in the South of France includes a tiny 6 per cent Torrontes, which would neatly explain the floral aromas on the nose. Adding just a swish of white grapes helps to lift the whole package, which has very bright and fresh raspberry aromas and flavours, courtesy of a technique called carbonic maceration, where grapes are left in an oxygen-free container and begin to ferment on their own, releasing lots of primary fruit flavours.
Vera de Estenas Casa Don Angel Malbec, 2007, £16.80 (Valentia Wines)
Across the border in Spain, this Malbec has been treated to time in a mixture of American and French oak casks, which together have created a beautifully rich and rounded feeling in the mouth. Vanilla, cinnamon and cloves are all bursting forth, along with dark fruity flavours of tarter blackcurrants and sweeter blackberries. Smooth and delicious, especially after some time spent breathing in a decanter to show the wine off at its very best.
Zebra View Malbec, 2013, £8 (Marks & Spencer)
Heading down to South Africa brings us to Zebra View and a distinctive style of Malbec. On the nose there are plenty of smoky notes and those follow through onto the palate, combing with the raspberry fruit flavours to give a more savoury style of wine. To look at its pale colour, I would have ranked the Zebra View alongside the Le Malbec from Languedoc Roussillon or the Nelson from New Zealand, but this wine carves out its own path.
Peacock’s Fan Clare Valley Malbec, 2013, £14 (Marks & Spencer)
Australia’s Clare Valley is arguably best known for its crisp, dry Riesling white wines, with some notable Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon being produced too. Malbec sometimes finds its way into those reds by way of blending, but here M&S has put the grape on show in its unadulterated form and the result is spectacular. Rich and velvety smooth, yet with the structure you need to match food. Luscious and juicy raspberries, along with richer blackberry and chocolate notes. Seriously impressive stuff and one of my favourites.
Nelson Malbec, 2013, £10 (Marks & Spencer)
While its Antipodean cousin from Australia was all about the rich and velvety structure, this example from New Zealand is very much fruit-forward, with bright raspberry and cranberry aromas and flavours. It’s lighter in body than many of the other Malbecs, with winemakers Chris and Heidi Seifried having chosen not to age the wine in oak barrels, making it a good candidate for a glass or two on its own rather than with food. There’s also an interesting touch a white pepper heat in the finish.
Secret de Viu Manent Malbec 2013, £11.25 (Oddbins)
A long hop across the Pacific and we reach Chile, where we find a wine that’s all about balance. On the nose, the swirl of vanilla and sweet cinnamon spices hint at the well-integrated oak on the palate, which beautifully matches the bright blackcurrant and red cherry fruit flavours. The result is a rich and satisfying wine. Its secret? Unnamed other grape varieties make up 15 per cent of the blend.
Colomé Malbec, 2012, £17.49 (Waitrose)
A smooth and elegant example from the Salta region of Argentina, this would rival the Peacock’s Fan as my favourite from the Malbecs under test, with its rich silky texture reminding me more of a high-quality Australian Shiraz or a something pricy from the Northern Rhone. The fruity flavours are all from the dark end of the spectrum, with sweet blackberry and black cherry and tart blackcurrant.
Vinalta Gran Seleccion Malbec, 2012, £15 (Marks & Spencer)
Vinalta hails from the better-known Argentinian region of Mendoza and for me it had brighter and fresher fruit flavours than the Colome from Salta. The structure is still there in this dry red, with enough mouth-filling tannin to match beautiful rare sirloin steak or a hearty winter venison casserole.
Definition Malbec, 2014, £11.99 (Majestic)
Due to land later this month, this Malbec is the latest addition to Majestic’s Definition range, a selection of 12 textbook wines displaying classic characteristics. And this is definitely textbook on the nose – bright and fruity, with that winning combination of raspberry and blackcurrant. It lives up to the promise on the palate too, with the bright fruit joined by some sweet vanilla notes and long, dry tannins to match meaty dishes, with a touch of white pepper heat.