In the Cahors region of southwest France, where Malbec is the main grape variety, the most famous regional dish is cassoulet – a hearty haricot bean based stew that typically includes confit of duck, sausages and other meats. The beef loving Argentinians, who have made the malbec grape their own, believe the wine is perfect complement to char-grilled steaks or ribs.
Malbec has become synonymous with the Mendoza region of Argentina
Argentina has the oldest malbec vines in the world
Just like the original shiraz vines that were planted in South Australia in the mid to late 1800s, the 19th malbec vines of Mendoza region in Argentina were untouched by the phylloxera outbreak, which devastated vineyards across France. Fortunately, many of the old vines also escaped a state-sanctioned vine pull in the 1980s.
Today Argentina has the oldest malbec vines in the world, many of which are still growing on their own natural root stocks. One of Argentina’s most celebrated producers, Achaval-Ferrer, makes three single vineyard ultra-premium malbecs from vines that are between 90 to 105 years old.
The top malbecs of Mendoza are beautifully expressive of their terror
Mendoza is situated in the foothills of the snow-capped Andes mountain range. Summer days are hot and dry, but the temperature cools down considerably at night and the wineries can take advantage of the clean, crystal clear cool water coming off the mountains to irrigate their vines.
In Mendoza vineyard altitude is key to quality
In a fascinating article about Mendoza in the latest edition of Gourmet Traveller Wine Australia, Dr Thomas Girgensohn explains that academic and winemaker Nicolas Cantena realised that the altitude of the vineyard was a key factor influencing grape quality. (Made in Mendoza by Dr Thomas Girgensohn, Gourmet Traveller Wine, August/September 2014)
Malbec is typically an early ripening, thin-skinned grape with juicy berry flavours, but at higher altitudes it develops a thicker skin to protect itself from the UV light. This increases the pulp to juice ratio, which in turn adds tannins and acidity to the wine, allowing winemakers to achieve more elegant complex wines designed for long-term cellaring.
The best Argentinian winemakers are very serious about making wines that express their terroir. In addition to variations in elevations, Mendoza vineyards are blessed with a diverse range of soil types that impart unique characteristics to the wine.
Achaval-Ferrer’s ultra-premium Finca Altimara, for example, comes from an old vine, low-yielding vineyard situated 1050 metres above sea level in the Consulta region of the Uca Valley. The vineyard’s poor, free-draining alluvial soil on a rich volcanic base helps to create a wine purple/black in colour with intense dark berry aromatics and flavours. In contrast, the grapes for Achaval-Ferrer’s Finca Mirador come from a vineyard 700 metre above sea level where the subsoil is clay. It has meat and smoky characters and is quite tannic.
According to Girgensohn, the third wine in the trio, the Finca Bella Vista, is a totally different expression of malbec. Sensuous, soft and velvety, the grapes yield from a limestone-based vineyard 980 metres above sea level.
All of the Achaval-Ferrer wines are fermented with indigenous yeasts, aged for 18 months in new French oak, and bottled without fining or filtration.
Photo Credit: The Wines of Argentina’s Cult Winemaker Achaval-Ferrer by Christian G E Schiller, Schiller-Wine