Malbec: Beyond Bordeaux

When we think of the great wines of the Bordeaux region of France the names of the Grand Cru châteaus of Lafite, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, Haut-Brion or Cheval Blanc come up. Today, the blends created by each of these châteaus are comprised primarily of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, and hold high esteem amongst the winemaking and wine-consuming world, giving Bordeaux blends worldwide recognition. The other grape varieties of Bordeaux, such as Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Carménère and Malbec have not commanded such attention for their contributions to the wines of southwest France, and Malbec in particular is seldom seen in French blends outside of the AOC Bordeaux region of Cahors. Malbec, however, is still quite noble and has carved out a space in the hearts and minds of wine drinkers. It just had to leave France to become a star.

In Argentina, Malbec has risen to worldwide recognition and given prominence to the Argentinian wine industry. That is not to say that Malbec was not once extensively planted in France. To be included in the traditional six main varieties that make up Bordeaux blends, Malbec had to have had some prominence in the region at one point in time. And in fact historical records show that Malbec was once the most important variety in parts of the Médoc and St.-Emillion appellations of Bordeaux. In her book Vino Argentino, Laura Catena writes a brief history of Malbec prior to its arrival in Argentina and reports that in the mid-nineteenth century, at Chateau Latour, that the noble varieties of the château consisted of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. Malbec also represented up to sixty percent of the blends produced by Chateau Cheval Blanc, now primarily known for its Merlot based wines.

So what happened to Malbec? It was almost like a, “now you see it, now you don’t” in France, thanks to Phylloxera. You may recall the story of the root louse Phylloxera, which was accidentally introduced in Britain by English botanists who were importing North American grapevines. The pest decimated the vineyards of England and soon spread to the European mainland where it caused significant damage to the French and European vineyards and wine industries. Desperate to recover from the plague, viticulturists, breeders and botanists developed hybrids and rootstocks bred for resistance to the pest. They used North American native varieties as rootstock, which is where Malbec failed to recover like the other Bordeaux varieties. Malbec did not adapt well to the new rootstocks, and the resultant vines had excessive canopy growth, high yields, and were not maturing early enough for the relatively short northern latitude growing regions. The wines resulting from the new rootstocks exhibited good color but were very tannic. What was left of the remaining old-vine Malbec vines in Bordeaux that weren’t affected by Phylloxera were killed in the great frost of 1956, making way for Merlot, a more forgiving variety.

In modern-day France Malbec is mostly limited to the AOC Cahors, where Malbec must make up seventy percent of the blends produced in the region. AOC Cahors is protected from the maritime influence of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea, resulting in a hot dry summer, which discourages downy mildew to which Malbec is susceptible. It is known there locally as Cot, Cot Noir, Auxerrois, Pressac or Pressac. Outside of Cahors, Malbec is a minor blending component in the Loire Valley Saumur region where it is blended with Cabernet Franc and Gamay. Loire Valley plantings are gradually being converted to Cabernet Franc, however, which is widely planted throughout the region.

Prior to the European Phylloxera epidemic, it was a Frenchman, Michel Aimé Pouget, who brought Malbec to Argentina in 1853. While not known at the time, Phylloxera did not affect the Malbec vines that were introduced to Argentina, presumably because the sandy and gravelly soils would not support the organism. Some reports suggest that Argentina’s isolation and vineyard elevations also contribute to its lack of susceptibility. Today, many large areas of grapevines are still cultivated on their own roots, although there is increasing awareness being paid to rootstocks because of nematode pressure acting as a possible vector for grapevine leaf-roll virus and other diseases.

When he brought Malbec to Argentina, Monsieur Pouget’s goal was to create a great wine industry there based on the greatness of the wines of Bordeaux. In the late 1800s, Argentinian culture was heavily influenced by French culture and it was said that Pouget was ordered by the provincial governor of Mendoza to import many winegrape varieties. It seems Pouget’s dream is being realized as today the Argentine wine industry is the fifth largest producer in the world (however only 10 percent of the wine is exported). Jancis Robinson, English wine expert and writer credits Nicolés Catena, the son of Nicola Catena, who planted his first Malbec vineyard in Argentina in the very early 1900s, with putting the Argentine wines on the world map. Nicolés was among the first to bring mondern European winemaking and viticultural techniques to Argentina. Other writers have likened Catena to the Robert Mondavi of Argentina, focusing on quality to be able to compete on the world stage.

The wine growing region of Argentina stretches along its western border for almost 1,000 miles in the shadow of the Andes Mountains. Argentina’s long, hot summers with cool evenings are an ideal climate for Malbec. The altitude of these viticultural areas range from 1,500 feet to more than 6,000 feet, which provides a variety of climates. The highest rated Malbec wines are from vineyards ranging in elevation from 2,800 to 5,000 feet above sea level. However, ninety percent of the grape production is centered in the provinces of Mendoza and San Juan, where elevations range from 2,000 to 3,600 feet. Over 1.6 million tons of grapes were produced in the year 2000, with Malbec comprising about fifty percent of that total. The economics of the wine industry in the current century have led to decreased plantings and production. Elsewhere in the world, Malbec is produced but not in the quantities reported in Argentina. In contrast, only 8,000 tons of Malbec were crushed in California in 2010. Australia reported 1200 acres of Malbec in 2002, with plantings declining since.

Viticulturally, there are many clonal variations of Malbec, with clusters larger and more tannic in France. In Argentina, the vines produce small tight clusters and there is another grape called Fer, which is considered a clone of Malbec. The grapes are sensitive to fungal diseases and can be subject to increased incidence of shot berries if weather conditions at flowering are not favorable. A recent research project originating at the Catena Winery in Argentina, sought to determine if any clonal differences existed within and between wine growing regions. A parallel study was also undertaken at UC-Davis in the fall of 2011 with wines produced from California’s Malbec vineyards. As of this writing, the wines are undergoing final preparation for a comprehensive chemical and sensory analysis study.

The wines produced from the grape are inky red and are often described as having characteristics of cherry, plum, raspberry, coffee, chocolate and raspberry. The wines can be aged in oak, however, the winemaker should make that decision based on the tannin structure and mouthfeel of the wine. Wines that are higher in tannin and resultant bitterness and astringency would benefit with some aging in oak barrels to help soften the tannins over time. While there are many examples of varietal-specific Malbec, it is most commonly blended in Argentina with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese. In the United States it is also commonly used as a blending grape, making its way in to the “Meritage” blends. If you are not familiar with the term Meritage, this is a name for wine produced in the Bordeaux style outside of Bordeaux, France. A group calling itself the Meritage Alliance, originating in Napa, California, trademarked the name and the vintners paid a fee to use the name on their labels. If a winery or winemaker chooses not to join the Meritage Alliance, then the federal government regulations on wine labeling only permits these blends to be referred to as red table wines. Meritage wines were at first limited to the United States, but the alliance has grown to 250 members and those members are encouraged to limit their production and only use the name to designate their top tier wines.

Pairing Malbec with food is very simple: Steak or barbequed meats are the most logical choices. Malbec is a big red wine and it generally follows the “red with red” mantra that so many foodies debate. Argentinian cuisine incorporates lots of beef and Malbec is a great match. Try it with steak au poivre or with a well-braised lamb shank. It should hold its own with any hearty stew as well.

I have often referred to Zinfandel as America’s grape, and similarly (although its heritage actually lies in France) Malbec is arguably Argentina’s grape. Enjoy your Malbec and know that it is noble no matter where it comes from!

Malbec Recipe:

• 125 pounds (57 kg) fresh Malbec fruit
• 10% potassium metabisulfite (KMBS) solution: Weigh 10 grams of  KMBS, dissolve into about 50 milliliters (mL) of distilled water. When completely dissolved, make up to 100 mL total with distilled water.
• 5 grams Lallemand D254 yeast
• 5 grams Di-ammonium Phosphate (DAP)
• 5 grams Go-Ferm
• 5 grams Fermaid K (or equivalent yeast nutrient)
• Malolactic Fermentation Starter Culture (CHR Hansen or Equivalent)

Other equipment or needs
• 1 15-gallon (57-L) food-grade plastic bucket for fermentation.
• 5-gallon (19-L) carboy, (1-2) 1-gallon (3.8-L) jugs
• Racking hoses
• Crush equipment, destemmer/crusher
• Wine press
• Inert gas: nitrogen, argon or carbon dioxide
• Thermometer capable of measuring between 40-110 °F (4-43 °C) in one degree increments.
• Pipettes with the ability to add in increments of 1 milliliter
• Clinitest® tablets
• Tartaric acid
• Ability to maintain a fermentation temperature of 81–86 °F (27–30 °C). TIP: to keep it cool, freeze several sanitized 1-L water bottles and drop them into the fermentation. If you need to warm it up, try using an electric heating wrap.

Step by step
1. Clean and sanitize all your winemaking tools, supplies and equipment.

2. Crush and de-stem the grapes. Transfer the must to your fermenter.

3. During the transfer, add 15 milliliters of 10% KMBS solution (This addition is the equivalent of 50 ppm SO2). Mix well.

4. Take a sample to test for Brix, acidity and pH. Keep the results handy.

5. Layer the headspace with inert gas and keep covered. Keep in a cool place overnight.

6. The next day sprinkle the Fermaid K directly into the must and mix well.

7. Go back to those lab results you took yesterday. Typical Brix for this style is 24–25 °B. Typical acid levels will be 0.58-0.62%. Adjust as necessary using tartaric acid. If the acid is higher than 0.70%, don’t panic, this recipe calls for a minimum final acidity of 0.50%. Higher acid won’t hurt here.

8. Prepare yeast: Heat about 50 mL distilled water to 108 °F (42 °C). Mix the Go-Ferm into the water to make a suspension. Take the temperature. Pitch the yeast when the suspension is 104 °F (40 °C). Sprinkle the yeast on the surface and gently mix so that no clumps exist. Let sit for 15 minutes undisturbed. Measure the temperature of the yeast suspension. Measure the temperature of the must. Do not add the yeast to your cool juice if the temperature of the yeast and the must temperature difference exceeds 15 °F (8 °C). To avoid temperature shock, acclimate your yeast by taking about 10 mL of the must juice and adding it to the yeast suspension. Wait 15 minutes and measure the temperature again. Do this until you are within the specified temperature range. Do not let the yeast sit in the original water suspension for longer than 20 minutes.

9. When the yeast is ready, add it to the fermenter and mix.

10. You should see signs of fermentation within about one to two days. This will appear as some foaming on the must surface and it will appear that the berries are rising out of the medium. This is referred to as the cap rise.

11. You need to have the ability to push the grapes back into the juice to promote color, and tannin extraction. This is called “punching down” and this should be done three times per day. Use a clean utensil.

12. Monitor the Brix and temperature twice daily during peak fermentation (10–21 °Brix). Morning and evening is best and more often if the temperature shows any indication of exceeding 86 °F (30 °C) cool it down. Wait 15 minutes, mix and check the temperature again. Do this as often as it takes to keep the temperature between 81-86 °F. Do not cool off to less than 81 °F (27 °C).

13. At about 19 °Brix, sprinkle in the DAP and punchdown.

14. When the Brix reaches 4 °B (about for or five days), transfer the must to your press, and press the cake dry. Keep the free run wine separate from the press portion for now. Keep the press portion separate.

15. Transfer the wine to your carboys or 1-gallon jugs. Your press fraction may only be a gallon or two. Make sure you do not have any headspace. Place an airlock on the vessel(s).

16. Inoculate with your malolactic (ML) bacteria. Check the manufacturer’s instruction on how to prepare and inoculate. Cover the tops with a breather to allow CO2 to escape.

17. Monitor the ML fermentation using a thin layer chromatography assay available from most home winemaking supply stores. Follow the instructions included in the kit.

18. When the ML is complete, measure the residual sugar using the Clinitest®. You want the wine to be below 0.5%. Measure the TA again. If the acid is too low, make acid adjustments.

19. Add 2 mL of fresh KMBS (10%) solution per gallon of wine. This is the equivalent to ~40 ppm addition.

20. Measure the pH and titratable acidity. Most importantly you want a finished TA of about 0.60%. The pH is secondary but should be around or under 3.6. Add acid to adjust the TA prior to settling.

21. Place the wine in a cool place to settle.

22. After two weeks, test for SO2, adjust the SO2 as necessary to attain 0.8 ppm molecular SO2. (There is a simple SO2 calculator on the magazine’s website). Check the SO2 in another two week and adjust. Once the free SO2 is adjusted, maintain at this level. You’ll just need to check every two months or so, and before racking.

23. Rack the wine clean twice over 6–8 months to clarify. You may want to fine at this point.

24. Once the wine is cleared, about 8 months after fermentation, get ready to bottle.

25. Blend the press fraction back into the free run. You may not need it all, use your judgment.

26. If all has gone well to this point, given the quantity made, filter the wine and bottle. Maintain sanitary conditions while bottling. Once bottled, periodically check your work by opening a bottle to enjoy with friends.