Argentina’s Modern-Day Star (hint: it’s not Lionel Messi!)
Taylor Sharp / August 23rd, 2021
When you think of Argentina, what wine grape do you think of?
Ask anyone with a passing interest in wine, and you’ll likely get the same answer 99% of the time – Malbec. Known for its fruit forward, full bodied wines, Malbec (or Cot, in its traditional French iteration) is synonymous with the world of Argentine winemaking. More than 75% of the world’s Malbec today comes from Argentinian vines, and the region of Mendoza in particular is home to 85% of Argentina’s Malbec plantings.
So it follows quite naturally that many wine enthusiasts (myself included!) are often quite surprised to learn that Argentinian Malbec as we know and love it today is a modern phenomenon.
Changing attitudes, changing fortunes
If you mapped out Malbec’s popularity in Argentina on a graph, you’d likely see peaks and troughs not dissimilar to a silhouette of the Andes.
After arriving in Argentina in 1853, Malbec’s potential was recognized by Argentine winegrowers as early as the late 1800s. Malbec grapes showed far more structure and complexity than Argentina’s native Criolla varieties. Consequently, Malbec thrived there, nurtured by an industry left unmarked from the phylloxera plague of Europe. It became the most-planted grape variety within a few decades of its arrival- in fact, Argentina’s Malbec production reached its peak in the early 1960s, with over 58,500 hectares planted across the country!
However, this wasn’t always meant to last. In the 1960s, Argentina’s domestic market swung in favour of cheap, easy table wines. Argentine winemakers shifted their focus in this direction in turn. The native Criolla varieties proved the golden children in this era, as their bountiful yields were the easiest way to meet the demands of the thirsty domestic market. Comparatively, Malbec and its low-yielding vines simply couldn’t keep up, and over 80% of Argentina’s Malbec vines were pulled out between 1962 and 1995.
Enter a few determined winemakers. Figures like Attilio Pagli, Paul Hobbs, Roberto Cipresso, Alberto Antonini, and Antonio Morescali went out of their way to both actively encourage renewed interest in Malbec in Argentina, and to highlight their creations as not merely export-worthy, but world class. Pagli even went to the length of creating a handful of premium barrels of Malbec at Catena Zapata- all in secret! But the gamble paid off, and owner Nicolas Catena was thoroughly convinced of Malbec’s enduring stylistic quality.
Check out Martino Wines’ Tributo a Norcelo Malbec here – Attilio Pagli is Martino’s consulting winemaker!
All this hard work quickly began to show some serious results. Malbec plantings tripled in just over a decade, and demand continued to grow. Just over 44,000 hectares of Malbec are planted in Argentina today, a huge jump in popularity for a grape that was faced with extinction only a few decades ago.
Shifting markets & emerging trends
Malbec drinking trends in Argentina are closely linked to the grape’s history.
Older-style Malbecs, produced from the 1850s to the late 1990s, generally had an evolved, slightly oxidative character. Some producers, such as Weinert and Lopez, do still create old-style Malbec today. However, examples of this style are sadly dwindling.
From the early 2000s even until recently, Argentine Malbec has been largely Americanised. Influential critics like Robert Parker championed this style, and sweet-fruited, rich, ripe-tannin styles soared in popularity. These styles were directly geared towards an American palate, and the sales showed it- exports of Argentinian Malbec to the US skyrocketed from US$124 million in 2000, to almost $1 billion USD by 2012.
Simultaneous advances in technology also meant that winemakers had a wide array of tools at their disposal, and they weren’t afraid to use them! Top new-wave Malbecs were usually aged for at least a year in new oak barrels. They were then typically racked into a second new barrel for another several years, giving Argentine Malbecs full flavours to match their full-bodied styles.
Nowadays, Malbecs you’ll drink from Argentina are usually juicier, fresher, and lighter. There’s more of a focus on the expression of terroir, and while winemaking styles still vary widely, there’s a general shift towards earlier picking, less hydric stress, and less oak.
Modern Malbec: a spotlight on Argentine terroir
Malbec’s enduring contribution to the Argentinian winemaking industry today is one of identity. Without Malbec, who knows where Argentinian wine would stand in the international wine scene today? And inside Argentina, Malbec’s importance is even more clear.
Government prohibitions on any new wine plantings or productions outside established regions (mainly Cuyo) were introduced in the 1930s, and only lifted in 1993. So, Argentina has spent the past three decades coming to grips with its truly vast winegrowing potential. Malbec’s increase in popularity has gone hand in hand with Argentine producers turning their gaze outside of Argentina’s more well-known regions.
Nowadays, you’ll find Malbec throughout Argentina. But, as Amanda Barnes says in the South American Wine Guide, no two Malbecs are created equal. Those from the northerly regions, such as Jujuy and Calchaqui, take on fresh acidity, warming alcohol (often between 14% and 17%), and striking aromatics. However, if you look to Rio Negro and similar cool-climate regions further south, large diurnal ranges and low yields give grapes an inherent balance between acidity, moderate alcohol and intense aromas.
Altitude also plays a role. The vineyards of Mendoza usually average an altitude of 900 metres above sea level, with some in the sub-region of Gualtallary clocking in as high as 2,200 metres. However, the northern province of Salta shows that Malbec can be made in fine, restrained styles at over 3,100 metres above sea level. High-altitude Argentinian Malbecs are often more acidic, with more vivid and refined flavours and textures than their lower-altitude counterparts.
Even within Mendoza, there’s significant stylistic differences to be found. Highway 40, the traditional divide separating the east of Mendoza from the west, demarcates much of this variation. Mendoza’s east side is older, larger, and steeped in history and tradition. It’s the heartland of classic Argentine Malbec, and has given the world the wines that made Argentina famous. However, if you look west of Highway 40, you’ll find wineries at a much higher altitude (and getting higher each year!). The quality here is supposedly better, and as such, the trend for Mendozan Malbec is shifting west.
You can still be more specific than this with terroir. Within Mendoza’s sub-regions, there’s hugely differing styles of Malbec to be found. In Tupungato, the northernmost area of the Uco Valley sub-region, your average vineyard is perched at 1,300 metres above sea level. Looking within Tupungato, the area of La Carrera has cooler temperatures, leading to wines that are naturally lower in alcohol, with striking acidity. One notable producer here is Passionate Wines– a Matias Michelini project. Alternatively, the area of San Jose (also known as Mendoza’s walnut capital!), has mainly alluvial soils, with a mix of sandy loam and clay. The consequence is fruit-driven red wines, that are easily approachable in their youth. Bodega Atamisque’s wines are a gorgeous example.
These variations are evident in the sub-region of Maipu as well. A landscape dominated by flat vineyards, which sit at an average altitude of 800 metres above sea level, Maipu is some 500 metres lower than Tupungato. Russell (750 m.a.s.l), just to the south of Maipu city, is characterized by sparse summer rainfalls, warm days and cool nights. Wines produced here, like those of Proemio Wines, tend to have soft tannins, and good concentration of colour, aroma and flavours. In contrast, the Las Barrancas GI (680 to 840 m.a.s.l), home to notable producers such as Pascual Toso and Finca Flichman, produces wines with riper tannins than those of Russell, and with greater colour concentration- simply due to the slightly warmer climate.
Combined with the increased interest in regions outside Andean influence, it’s fair to say that Argentine Malbec is swiftly taking on a new form that’s different to anything we’ve ever seen before. But, Argentinian Malbec remains intrinsically linked to Argentina’s winemaking identity. And as such, these changes may herald a new future in this bastion of South American winemaking.
As with all things, it’s important to recognise where you’ve come from, so you know what the next steps will be. And as for Malbec’s future in Argentina? It seems as if the sky- or at least, the peaks of the Andes- remains the limit.
BC Retail Options
BC restaurants and retailers can access our Liquify listings for some top Argentinian Malbecs at the links below:
- Martino Wines 2019 Tributo a Norcelo Malbec
- Bodega Atamisque 2020 Serbal Malbec: PRE-SALE
- Proemio 2020 Origins Malbec: PRE-SALE
- Robinson, J., Harding, J., Vouillamoz, J. (2012) Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 varieties, including their origins and flavours. UK: Penguin Random House
- Barnes, A. (2021) The South America Wine Guide. England: Kingsbury Press.