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CULTURE | 21-01-2022 23:22

Malbec: The past, present and future of Argentina’s most-famous grape

Laura Catena and Alejandro Vigil, authors of the book ‘Malbec mon amour,’ relate the history and the myths of the grape which identifies Argentina with the world.

In the middle of this century’s first decade, Malbec wine began an export and sales boom which placed it on the front pages of all the specialised media and correspondingly tagged it with that inevitable term of “in fashion.”

“It was horrible because when you talk about fashions, you’re talking about things which are inevitably going to pass. It scandalised me to think that the winestock first planted by my great-grandfather in 1902, which has placed this country on the map, could be taken as something transitory,” recounts Laura Catena, the great-granddaughter of Nicola Catena (founder of the vineyard bearing his name) and recent co-author, together with the oenologist Alejandro Vigil, of Malbec mon amour, a book (published by Catapulta) which exhaustively covers the history, geology, future and challenges of this iconic winestock. 

 

Fighting the heresy

Two decades after that initial export and sales boom, Malbec continues to be a topical talking-point more than ever. According to Catena, it is already one of the world’s 10 greatest grapes – something which was not true 10 years ago.

“In my opinion, that is  simply because it tastes so good, it never fails, like including a chocolate dessert in the menu,” she describes. 

Fruity but diverse depending on the harvest zone, it always has plenty of aroma, a great texture and a delicate tannin touch.

 “It’s very unique, powerful and soft at the same time,” points out the specialist, whose love of Malbec has been “in crescendo” since she started writing on the subject, from Vino Argentino, a guide published in the United States and a worldwide success, to Oro en los viñedos (“There’s gold in them thar vineyards”), about the most iconic wineries.

Proof of this growing love was also the labelling of Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino, whose illustration pays homage to the history of the grape in France and its subsequent boom in this country, with four feminine  figures representing the different milestones.

“This model is a breakthrough within classic wine labelling,” says Catena with pride.

Given all those factors, along with the joint work with Alejandro Vigil in the winery, this new book was born, which, in the eyes of both authors is not so much filling a market need as an urgency.

 “That Malbec should be a fashion is heresy,” they maintain. And since the best way of breaking with prejudice is to be disruptive, their style was a sort of illustrated manifesto with plenty of fresh humour, in which they even played with the two different women illustrating the book (to represent each one). Indeed the cover, with Laura and Alejandro in a car, reflects the creative style of their text, which is always hyperactive and generating ideas in movement. And the inside pages also sway to and fro – while the first part is an easy read which flows, the second turns a bit more technical and specific. 

“We want both experts and common consumers to be able to read it,” they spell out.

 

The true origin

It is indeed difficult to speak of Malbec as a passing fashion when it is a winestock with over two millennia of history. Because although the folk imagination in Argentina places it as a criollo invention, the truth is that Malbec is extensively documented in French winemaking history. 

According to French DNA studies carried out in 2009, the cross of grapes giving origin to Malbec probably occurred on the banks of the Lot river, near Cahors (in southwestern France), perhaps even before the Roman legions conquered that territory from the Gauls or else during the Middle Ages. 

Malbec mon amour details how it was thanks to Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204, the only woman who came to be queen of both France and England) that Malbec vineyards extended from Cahors to the Pyrenees and from Saint-Émilion to Côtes de Bourg. Married at 15 to the future Luis VII of France, “the black wine” as Malbec began to be called, flowed through Eleanor’s courts and became the royal drink. And when years ahead she divorced and renounced the French crown to marry Henry II of England, its influence continued on Anglo-Saxon soil. 

A long history then follows, including planting the Malbec grape around  palaces, its installation as the official wine of the Church by the Avignon Pope John XXII and its advent in  Russia to cure the ulcers of a czar, among other milestones. The corollary, nevertheless, is the firm footprint planted on the panorama of world winegrowing long before its arrival in Argentina.

That arrival came to pass in the mid-19th century thanks to Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. A great admirer of French and English culture, the founding father contracted the French agronomist Michel Aimé Pouget in 1853 in order to start up a vineyard in Mendoza, which he dubbed Quinta Agronómica.

 “Pouget brought with him an important cargo of plants and seeds of French origin like Cabernet, Sémillon, Chardonnay, Riesling and the first strains of the Malbec variant,” details the book. 

The seed was literally planted.

 

Challenges

What challenges does Malbec face today? The first prejudice to break is that it is not a strain which ages as well as, for example, Cabernet Sauvignon, because according to recent studies, it does so impeccably.

“I recently went to a conference in Texas, the most important for sommeliers in the United States, where in a wine-tasting session it was decided that Malbec aged better than  Cabernet Sauvignon. And that was because they were drinking Malbec from the cold zone of the Valle de Uco, with more tannin in the grape-skins due to the solar intensity, more acidity and more polyphenols,” details Catena. 

The Malbec of Valle de Uco could be a wine to age well, just like its forebears in France. That is the next land to conquer, along with convincing people that it is a collector’s item.

“I’m often asked what wine may be bought when a child is born, when that child turns 18 and for a wedding. Today I can say that a pure Valle de Uco Malbec is such a wine,” says Laura with pride.

Finally, it is also an industry very sensitive to climate change. For a winestock which absorbs and reflects its terroir with great fidelity, changing radically with just a few kilometres of difference, the transformations in the soil and its conditions are not a minor factor. For that reason, since 2005, Catena Zapata have begun to explore other regions like La Rioja, Salta, San Juan or Patagonia, as a preliminary preparation for the lack of water which it is known that Mendoza will be experiencing in a not too distant future.

 “The Malbecs of other zones have a very different and interesting flavour. Although they do not have the same standard as those from the  Valle de Uco in Mendoza, they have plenty of future and a great potential to be discovered,” observes Catena.

But when asked as to her preferred terroir and which she most enjoyed getting to know while writing the book, the author singles out Gualtallary without hesitation: “There were no vineyards in the zone of Monasterio. When my father started planting there, they told him that the grape would not ripen and the wine would be no use but our best prize-winners today come from there so that’s my favourite. What was almost impossible is always closest to the heart.”

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