A love song to Malbec

Laura & Alejandro

A question for wine geeks. Have you tasted Côt? Auxerrois? Pressac, maybe?

You have. You probably know it by its more commonly used name, Malbec. But like Malbec’s more obscure names, few are familiar with its backstory. Rejected in Bordeaux, Malbec, the quintessential ‘immigrant’, traversed the seas to find a new home in Argentina, at first produced as simply-made, delicious quaffs, then increasingly as award-winning wines with layers of complexity. My first encounter with Malbec in its super-premium avatar was at a Vinexpo masterclass conducted by Bodega Catena Zapata’s managing director and fourth-generation vintner, Dr. Laura Catena, in a session titled, A Grand Vin is born in Argentina. Here, a lineup of age-worthy, complex Malbecs wowed the audience into reverential silence. It was an unforgettable experience.

Today 75% of the world’s Malbec comes from Argentina. The renaissance began in the 90s at the hands of Argentina’s iconic producers, many of them immigrants themselves. One of them being
the legendary Dr. Nicolas Catena of Bodega Catena Zapata (No. 1 among the World’s Most Admired Wine Brands in 2020) and Laura Catena’s father. His mission is to see Malbec reimagined to become Argentina’s superstar grape has borne fruit, literally. Today, Malbec is grown across the country from arid Salta in the north to remote Patagonia in the south. But the region where it thrives best is Central Mendoza, known as the Primera Zona. Here, in the shadow of the majestic snow-capped Andes, Malbec found its true home.

However, Malbec still often struggles to shed its early, easy-drinking image. It needs champions to carry forth its story. This is where multi-hyphenate producer (Harvard and Stanford-trained doctor and award-winning research scientist) Dr. Laura Catena has stepped in. Author of studies on the potential of Malbec, Laura has now penned her third book, ‘‘Malbec Mon Amour’’, a 10-year-old labor of love.

The book (the French title is a nod to the grape’s antecedents) is co-authored by Alejandro Vigil, soil specialist and winemaking director at Bodega Catena Zapata, who also works in the
Catena Institute of Research. In addition, he owns the cult winery, El Enemigo, with Laura’s younger sister Adrianna Catena, focusing on high-altitude viticulture including Cabernet Franc
(another growing Argentinian success story). Vigil is also the first Argentinian winemaker to receive 100-point scores (The Wine Advocate, 2018) for two of his wines. (And in case you missed noticing his enduring love for the grape, he has ‘Malbec’ tattooed on his arm!)

What makes this book different from other books on wine? Besides the fact that it is obviously Laura Catena’s passion project, it is peppered with photos and eye-catching caricature-style illustrations which make Malbec’s history, viticultural and technical details easy to grasp. “We pictured our wine-drinking friends reading the book with a glass of wine in hand,” explains Laura to me via email from Argentina, “The illustrations make the information easier to read and more enjoyable.” Serious readers may be comforted by the blurb which states that there is plenty for students of wine too: it is pegged as the “first geological guide to the regions and soils of Mendoza designed for the general public”.

Veering from serious to light, the 200-page book is littered with exchanges between Vigil and Laura in the form of post-it notes and transcripts of chats, breaking down the information into bite-sized, digestible portions. There are colorful maps, and many references to art and music to break any pedagogy. For instance, a chat transcript between Vigil and Laura personifies vineyards: Lunlunta (a smaller sub-region of Mendoza) is likened to Amy Winehouse: hard to define, full of contrasts, while Gualtallary, the high-altitude home to the best Malbecs, brings to mind a complex piece of art, namely Hieronymus Bosch’s, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. You get the drift.

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Laura waxes lyrical about Malbec: “Its story is beautiful; a story of near extinction, rebirth and a joyful ending… it is a wine that tells the history of humanity and the journey of people and plants across continents… like an immigrant (person) who adapts better to the new land than the old, Malbec mirrors the human experience of immigration in the plant world.”

But Malbec is no Johnny-come-lately upstart. Once the dominant grape in Bordeaux’s Médoc region, it provided fruit, body, and tannins to early versions of Bordeaux wines which were fairly thin and pale. But when phylloxera struck Bordeaux in the late 19th century and vineyards needed replanting, producers preferred the ever-popular and relatively hardy Merlot.

Today, Malbec is still listed as one of Bordeaux’s five principal black grapes but rarely makes an appearance in its wines. It is more strongly associated with Cahors, south of Bordeaux, where
it is often blended with the Tannat grape to make Cahors’ noted ‘black wines’.

In an earlier interview Laura had told me, “(In Argentina) we practiced Selection Massale as the French had only retained Côt – the most productive clone of Malbec – in France. So, in Argentina, we have preserved pre-phylloxera Malbec clones. I often challenge the French by saying the Old World for Malbec is really Argentina!” And thereby hangs a tale.

Cover of the 200-page book on Malbec by Laura Catena and Alejandro Vigil

Malbec first came to Argentina in the mid-19th century courtesy agronomist Michel Pouget, as part of the country’s mission to improve the quality of its wine. Here the grape thrived, helped by low temperatures and high sunlight which ensured perfect ripening, as Laura Catena explains. “Malbec, like Pinot Noir, is a grape that soaks up terroir.” The grape’s early success demonstrated its unique ability to hit the right notes whether vinified as a crowd-pleasing quaffable wine or a 100-point collectible. Laura points out: “Malbec has been an important grape for over 2000 years. First in France and now in Argentina. This is all related to its wonderful taste profile – black, red fruits and florals, dark colour, rich and concentrated flavours with smooth tannins. Malbec deserves its longevity and the fame it is getting from Argentina.”

Malbec’s expressions vary, depending on soil, altitude and climate. “Ripe and lighter than those from warmer climates, dark with red-blue fruits and florals in Mendoza’s Uco Valley and spicy in the southern parts of the Uco Valley,” says Laura. Recently, Argentina’s mission to prove its wine-versatility has seen producers turning to other grapes including Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet Francs made into highly-acclaimed varietal wines. This has led some experts to wonder if Malbec might one day fall out of fashion. Laura’s response is spirited: “Why would a grape that has been around for 2000 years and survived many tragedies including phylloxera all of a sudden go out of favour? Is dark chocolate going to ever go out of favour? Or Pinot Noir? I don’t think so.”

Maybe Amy Winehouse best sums up Argentina’s perfect pairing with Malbec: “There is no greater love/ Than what I feel for you…”

“Malbec Mon Amour” is available on Amazon India for Rs 1996 in hardcover.