I don’t know who decrees that such-and-such day will be malbec day, grenache day or even, who knows, doradillo day, but grape days are upon us with the regularity of saints’ days. Lest it escaped your notice, today is malbec day and the focus is largely on Argentinian reds, which is fair enough given that over two-thirds of the world’s production of malbec is from Argentina (and only about a fifth from France including Cahors).
Why April 17? Apparently because on this day in 1853, the great reformer General Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, submitted a proposal to the Argentine Government to broaden and diversify Argentina’s wine industry. It was also Sarmiento who brought the French agronomist (and practical joker) Michel Aimé Pouget to Mendoza in the same year. Why now? Well it is the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War so why not spread a little bit of lurve.
As well as beehives and seeds for plants and trees, the eccentric plantsman Pouget packed cuttings of French varieties including malbec. The latter soon spread throughout Argentina’s vineyards finding its feet and fortune as a grape variety that adapted considerably better to Argentina’s unique mountain climate than it ever had chez lui, where it was the black sheep, or wine at least, of the Bordeaux family.
The semi-desert terrain of the Andes with its irrigation channels is blessed with an abundance of sunshine, low humidity and pure, thin, mountain air. With wide day/ night temperature swings, it all adds up to perfect conditions for growing malbec. Despite this, the variety's qualities weren’t recognised until too late and most of it was pulled up in the mad stampede for white wines in the 1980s.
What little that remained, some 10,000 out of 50,000 hectares, was the legacy that formed the basis for today’s new vineyards in a variety of locations within Mendoza, as well as in Salta in the north and in Patagonia down south. Today malbec has become Argentina’s signature grape, known for making seductively perfumed and violety wines with moreish cherry and dark berry fruit charm.
In an imaginative PR stunt aimed at celebrating Malbec World Day, the Kent winery Chapel Down got together with Wines of Argentina to make ‘wine not war’, or rather a malbec in England from the Gaucho Restaurant group's grapes air-freighted over from Argentina. Unfortunately the labelling fell foul of the Wine Standards Board bureaucrats and the Chapel Down malbec had to be called ‘a fruit based alcoholic beverage.’ Since Chapel Down isn’t allowed under EU law to sell the bottles it made, it’s having to give away said ‘alcoholic beverage’ from the winery and branches of the Gaucho.
What’s it like? According to Chapel Down, it’s ‘ a sublime ‘big red’ wine (abv 14%) with a blackcurrant, blueberry and raspberry nose, silky tannins and a long finish of berry fruit and garrigue herbs’. There's not much garrigue in the Gaucho’s sandy-soil vineyard in Luján de Cuyo, but typical malbec at least, more-tea-scented for me with some pleasingly gluggable blackberry fruit.
Should you wish to do your bit for Anglo-Argentinian relations and raise a glass to peace with a taste of malbec, here are a few Argentinian varietal and blends, and a handful from elsewhere, to get your teeth nice and black:
2009 The Society’s Exhibition Mendoza Malbec
This 90% malbec from Catena Zapata, with 5% each of petit verdot and cabernet franc, is sweetly floral and fragrant with a vivid freshness and black cherry fruit flavours that finish with a rustic edge to make the perfect barbecue. £9.95, The Wine Society, thewinesociety.com.
2009 Mendel Lunta Malbec, Mendoza
From Roberto de la Mota's Mendel winery in Luján de Cuyo, this is his most accessible style of malbec, a juicy liquorice spicy, juicy black fruits glugger that fills the mouth with soft dark fruit and spice and leaves the palate nicely refreshed. One for grills and barbecues. £12.99, Majestic, or buy 2 = £9.99.
2010 Achaval Ferrer Malbec, Mendoza
Simply delicious pure malbec with fine fresh fragrance and just lovely spicy blackberry fruit with great acidity and texture, £11.67 - £14.96, winedirect.co.uk, Hailsham Cellars, Corney & Barrow, Roberson
2008 Achával Ferrer Finca Altamira, Uco Valley, Mendoza
Stupendous complex and concentrated old vine malbec from the high Uco Valley with perfumed notes and highly concentrated black fruits flavours whose spice and silky texture is given additional refinement by its spine of natural acidity. £45 - £59.50, www.slurp.co.uk, James Nicholson, Corney & Barrow
2008 Catena Alta Malbec Mendoza
This top malbec from Catena has come a long way since the 1996 vintage first showed the world what Argentinian malbec was capable of. Intensely perfumed with floral and spicy undertones, it’s a richly textured, complex red that combines black cherry and spice in a seductive mouthful of fruit.
2009 Château Segonzac Oak Aged Cru Bourgeois, Côtes de Blaye
This Right bank blend of 60% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon and 20% malbec makes for a modern, succulently dark-fruited style with nicely applied spicy oak. Still relatively muscular, it’s drinking nicely now and will improve over two to three years. £9.99, Waitrose Wine Direct and 168 branches.
2007 Château Civrac, Côtes de Bourg
Made by Cornishman Mark Hellyar, this is a modern, fruity blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and malbec with more succulent sweet cherryish fruit than your average common or garden Côtes de Bourg and with only the faintest touch of oak and a lick of savoury acidity designed to preserve the fruit quality. Around £15.95, Uncorked, Flint Wines, The Sampler, www.civrac.com.
2010 Finca Antigua Sierra Almirón Malbec, Castilla , La Mancha, Spain
From that plain in Spain where it doesn't rain very much if at all comes this distinctive malbec, a red with a lively minty aromatic character and vibrantly juicy fresh blackberry fruit nicely infused with a light spiciness and overall well-balanced and made for food. £7.99, Laithwaites
2009 Château de Gaudou Cahors Tradition.
Bright, fragrant black cherry sweet malbec from where it all started, i.e. Cahors itself, with a bittersweet chocolatey edge and a refreshing twist of acidity that brings an almost Italianate feel to this excellent blend of malbec with merlot and tannat. £7.99, Majestic.
UK’s restaurant website Squaremeal will be running a campaign to help direct consumers to a range of restaurants offering special deals. For a list of restaurants participating in the Malbec World Day campaign, see www.squaremeal.com. For a list of events and tastings around the UK, check out www.malbecworldday.com or visit their Twitter profile - @malbecworldday or www.facebook.com/winesofargentina.