Now many of you may not realise this, but Sunday the 17th of April is World Malbec day, and to celebrate, this Friday I will be focusing on the world’s biggest Malbec producer, Argentina, and more specifically, its largest, best-known and most popular region; Mendoza.
Wine production in Argentina dates back to Spanish colonisation in the mid-16th century. As with many countries colonised by European settlers, it was the church that brought the vine across in order to grow wine for the sacrament. Whilst the majority of grapes grown were of the bog-standard, hardy and not very tasty Mission variety, there is evidence showing that Malbec was introduced to the Mendoza region in the mid 16th century by French botanist Miguel Aimé Pouget. Malbec is not a grape of great renown in Europe; it is native to the relatively unknown French region of Cahors, which sits just south-east of Bordeaux. Malbec is usually a silent partner in a lot of Bordeaux Left Bank wines, giving colour and perfume to the blend. With the invasion of the Phylloxera louse in European vineyards in the mid 19th century, a second wave of colonisation began, most of them southern European grape-growers and wine makers, who set-up in Mendoza when they saw the potential of the region, finding an unlikely hero in the Malbec vines already planted by Jesuit missionaries in the region. These new Argentines brought with them the know-how and technological advances that would see Argentina, over the following 100 years, become the biggest and most important wine-producing country in South America, with Mendoza as its engine room- today, Mendoza is responsible for 70-75% of the entire country’s production.
The geographical location of the Mendoza region is one of its most unique characteristics; it is one of the highest wine growing regions on the planet, with all vineyards between 900-1,250m above sea level. This altitude does two things that are expressly relevant to grape-growing; it creates a very big variation in temperature between day and night time which leads to abundant fruit complexity with no drop in acidity, and it also intensifies the UV light (due to less atmosphere) the vines absorb, which leads to more antioxidants and brighter colour and flavour in wines. In addition to this, Mendoza sits in the rain shadow of the Andes mountains, which means rainfall can be a serious issue- in fact, the region is described as a semi-desert with annual average rainfall a miserly 200mm, far below what a vine could survive on. Irrigation is therefore an absolute necessity, with snowmelt from the Andes providing an abundant and nearby water source. In the 70’s, flood irrigation was favoured (a process used by the native Inca and Huarpes people where the land was literally flooded and drained), and the vines grew rapidly with this abundance of life-giving water, however this created overly bloated and tasteless grapes. Today’s quality-conscious growers usually favour drip irrigation, which cuts vine yield and leads to better, more concentrated grapes. This lack of rain also means a lack of clouds, and the almost-continual sunlight means the grapes ripen fully, showing expressively bright fruit flavours and developing heavy, coating tannins. The lack of humidity at these high altitudes also decreases disease pressure, meaning grape bunches can be harvested at perfect ripeness, not because there is disease sweeping through the vineyard or a storm on the horizon. It is the quality of these Mendoza Malbecs that really put the variety on the map globally (as mentioned above, it even has its own day!). It also provides the country with a unique selling point, as well as a variety that matches perfectly to the local heavy dishes, which usually include a hearty serving of Argentinean beef.
This quality has not gone unnoticed, either. Several big player in the wine scene have recognised the potential of Mendoza and several have chosen to buy land and setup wineries here, starting the new colonisation by European winemaking settlers with projects such as Clos de los Siete, set up by famous Bordeaux Oenologist Michel Rolland, Moët et Chandon with Bodega Chandon, and the world-famous Pomerol producer Cheval Blanc with their joint venture ‘Cheval des Andes’.
So we find that a unique location and challenges of water, sunlight and high day/night variation that would be a problem for most crops have combined to create world-class wine region in Mendoza. Added into the mix is a variety almost always overlooked in its home country that now seems to have found a safe home. History (and its repetition) has had as much to do with the winemaking as anything other factor, with several waves of experienced winemakers and grape-growers constantly pushing up the quality of Mendoza Malbec.
Wine Sales Manager