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Could Argentine Malbec be the most diverse grape variety?

As Malbec Month comes to a close, db takes a look back at how Argentina’s Malbecs illustrate a true reflection of the variety’s diverse terroir.

Argentine Malbec is a fine example of how a wine variety can evolve, not just in terms of diversity of style, but also in terms of the progressive marketing that has boosted its reputation.

Salta’s El Porvenir de Cafayate, a family-run winery that produces premium Malbec at high altitude, tells db about the evolution of Malbec and how much of its winemaking is focused on letting the grapes do the talking.

El Porvenir de Cafayate managing director Lucía Romero Marcuzzi says:“In the past, the main emphasis in the vinification of Malbec used to be its ageing in oak barrels” but admits that over time Argentine winemakers have “gained a deeper understanding of the role oak plays in this process” and now they “recognise the importance of not masking the natural essence of the grape”.

Looking back at some of the shifts in Malbec, Andrés Rosberg of Los Chacaye explains how “during the nineties, when Argentina was starting to export its wines to the world, Malbec’s exuberance and intensity turned it into Argentina’s flagship grape variety. Some years later, as people developed a taste for wines with lower alcohol levels and less make-up, Argentine producers started picking at earlier times and using less oak, and Malbec adapted again”.

According to Rosberg, this step change was part of Malbec’s evolution and “in fact, we’re realising that the more it [Malbec] is stripped to its bones, the more interesting it becomes” and points out that “as it becomes more transparent to terroir and develops more ageing potential” it has more of a “sense of place”. Noting that “it is an incredibly noble and versatile grape variety”.

Rosberg observes how “Malbec has a history of being fantastic at adapting” and “one of the most interesting facts about its expansion in Argentina is that it happened naturally: as Malbec was yielding some of the most interesting wines around”. He explains: “It was the one cépage that became more and more widely planted simply because it was the best at adaptation. In a way, Malbec adopted Argentina, and then Argentina adopted Malbec.”

Marcuzzi notes that “the evolution of the Malbec grape goes hand-in-hand with an ever-deepening understanding of consumer preferences and care for the wine-growing environment”.

Added to this, Rosberg says that we should not overlook how Malbec initiatives have helped to grow awareness of Argentina’s flagship grape. Rosberg states: “Malbec World Day (MWD) was launched by Wines of Argentina in 2011. Back then it consisted of a few tastings organised by WofA together with a communications campaign in social media and the press. Today, MWD has developed a life of its own, with so many independent events in even remote countries to celebrate this variety that a day is not enough anymore and now we talk about Malbec month.”

Marcuzzi agrees and adds: “Malbec Month is a unique opportunity to boost sales of Argentine wine and enhance the reputation of Malbec worldwide. Although Malbec enjoys a constant demand throughout the year, it is undeniable that during this month there is a remarkable increase in sales.”

Also echoing this sentiment, Casarena CEO Claudia Piedrahita says: “Year-after-year, we work hard carrying out various actions, events and communication campaigns in many markets, which brings us awareness and elevate the message regarding Argentine wines. “

But it is the sheer diversity of Malbec that is becoming more important to now translate to a global audience. As Finca Bandini CEO Carolina Pelayes highlights “Malbec is better and better in all the different processes and styles (natural, in soft barrels, micro fermented, in foudres, clavers) in order to give Malbec different profiles for all tastes for all markets. And also in blends, to give complexity and elegance.”

As Marcuzzi attests: “the diversity in Malbec is practically infinite. In Argentina, Malbec is vinified in a variety of ways, from sparkling wines to still wines. There are white versions of Malbec, a wide variety of rosés and the classic red versions, which can range from dry wines to great sweet dessert wines and even fortified wines”.

The differences in the viticultural landscape are tremendous. Damian Escobar of Wines San Juan highlights how “San Juan has different valleys ranging from 500 metres above sea level to 2200 metres above sea level” and explains that in the “high-altitude valleys, there are many Malbec varieties that express themselves differently, but all with a very unique fruit and natural expression, specific to each region”.

Offering up an example of this, Casa Pirque export director Rosario Langdon identifies how “in Argentina, Malbec has proven to be incredibly versatile, showing us just how flexible a grape can be” and tells db that “Felipe Menendez, [the] viticulturist who leads Bodega Ribera del Cuarzo in Patagonia, often shares a memorable story”.

Langdon says: “Imagine him, blind-tasting the first bottle of our wine from a five-hectare vineyard nestled at the base of a ‘barda’ – a unique Patagonian cliff found only in the Rio Negro Valley, with colleagues in Mendoza. They were all impressed by the taste, but interestingly, no one identified it as Malbec”. In this case, he wants to show how we all think of Malbec as one thing, when really it is hugely versatile.

Pelayes reminds: “It depends on the terroir, it can be soft, it can be sweet, it can be very concentrated, it can be elegant, and the opposite too, it can be very tannic. Principally depends on the terroir (rocky, sandy, clay, etc) thermal amplitude, height over the sea”.

New research from Argentina has led to decoding the genome of the Malbec grape. The findings, based on observations of genomic diversity are the gateway to understanding more about the Malbec grape’s versatility and high quality potential. Alongside this, it underpins the crucial role Argentina has played in the variety’s viticultural success and also the sheer diversity of wines that can be yielded from Malbec. The research data will now help assist in developing grape strains that are much better adapted to climate change. But, most prudently, it also illustrates how Argentina is leading in scientific research and how, as a nation that already produces high quality wines, the calibre of what it creates will continue to improve well into the future.

Diversity runs way deeper than the winemaking, as Rosberg reiterates, Malbec will continue to change because “an increasing number of producers are making different cuvées from different subregions, fincas and even parcels within these fincas that are planted only metres apart and show how much different terroirs can impact the resulting wines”.

Plus, he observes that “on top of that you have to consider that Malbec has been adapting to Argentina for over 170 years at vineyards that are thousands of kilometres away from each other…which results in the world’s largest collection of genetic selections of Malbec, most of which are also pre-phylloxera”.

This in itself reflects a rich variety of styles. As Rosberg concludes: “If you take genetics, topography, latitude, altitude, soil, climate, styles, and all the other myriad aspects that make a wine, there are so many singularities in Malbec that its diversity is really endless”.

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