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  • Malbec Marathon

    I have spent the early days of the third wave of the pandemic cloistered in my wine cellar like a medieval monk, surviving on fermented grains and grapes, remaining isolated from the outside world.  That changed a few days ago when I made a brief excursion to the friendly neighbourhood booze retailer for a curbside pickup of a case of assorted Malbec wines.  

    I typically vary the day-to-day imbibing selection, but World Malbec Day fell on Saturday, so I was stocking up to observe this momentous event by exclusively drinking Malbec for the rest of April.

    The inspiration for Malbec World Day was way back in 1853, when the Argentinian president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento decided to transform the domestic wine industry, so he went and hired a French wine and soil expert to start importing vines from France.

    One of those vines was the Malbec grape, which makes its home in the Rhône region of France, where it was used primarily as a blending grape to round out other varietals.

    The Malbec grape readily took the Argentinian climate and soils, and Argentina was soon producing Malbec wines that were superior to the best wines of France, much to the chagrin of those snooty French winemakers.

    Adding insult to injury, the vineyards of France were stricken with the Phylloxera louse, a type of aphid that invaded from North America in the 1860s, which decimated the ancient vineyards of Europe, destroying half of the Malbec plantings in France.

    It took several decades for the French wine industry to recover, and by that time, Argentina was firmly established as the premier Malbec producer in the world.

    Unfortunately, a series of revolutions, military dictatorships, and coups badly affected the Argentinian wine industry, which didn’t really come into its own until the 1990s, when plantings were significantly increased for export to international markets.

    The Malbec grape produces a very dark and inky wine with an intense flavor, so it is often used as a blend to add complexity to other wines.  In fact, Malbec is one of only six varietals permitted to be used in Bordeaux wine, which is widely considered to be the best in the world.

    The taste of a Malbec wine could be described as somewhere between a Merlot and a Cab Sauv, often with a subtle plum or anise flavor, with aromas of tobacco and leather.  Malbec is more tannic (tart) than most wines, and is often blended with small amounts of Merlot to soften the taste.

    The warmer weather in Argentina produces a noticeably different Malbec than in the south of France.  The Argentine Malbec is considerably softer and more lush than its French forbears.  While this grape was quite finicky in the French vineyards, it is much more low maintenance in the warmer climes of South America.  

    To allow the flavor to fully mature, the grapes benefit from “hang time” on the vine after ripening.  The too-anxious vintner who picks too soon will be left with a young wine with a thin and reedy flavor.  To cite the old proverb, “Patience is passion tamed”, so give those grapes the time they need to make the best wine they can!  

    As an added bonus, the Argentine Malbec seems to age much more gracefully in the bottle than the French, so it’s even better after a few years in your cellar.

    In a fortuitous example of putting (nearly) all your eggs in one basket, the Argentine wine industry devotes over 70% of their vineyards to the Malbec grape.  To put that in perspective, Argentina grows 25 thousand hectares of Malbec, while France grows a mere five thousand.  

    When pairing Malbec with food, you need something quite hale and hearty to complement the rich flavors and full mouth feel of the wine.  My favorite is a slab of well-charred beef straight off the BBQ, perhaps accompanied by a peppercorn sauce.  

    Here in Canada, we grow plenty of Malbec in the Okanagan Valley of BC, a utopian land I have not visited since those wistful pre-COVID times, but have kept in my heart by ordering case lots from several BC wineries during these trying pandemic days.  

    There are dozens of BC wineries growing Malbec, so support your local Canadian winery by picking up a bottle at your friendly neighbourhood liquor merchant!