Malbec and Royal Grapes

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Although Malbec and the Royal Grapes sounds like it could be a lounge act, malbec is known as one of the six royal grapes allowed to be part of a Bordeaux blend.

Merlot, cabernet franc and the king of wine, cabernet sauvignon are the primary backbone of a Bordeaux blend, with three more grapes adding structure and personality: petit verdot, malbec and, rarely, carménère. The intriguing beauty of today’s Bordeaux wines is the ability of the winemaker to create a blend incorporating at least three of the five grapes, in any percentage they feel creates their best work of art, which we then are able to enjoy. Today, we’ll leave the rules of Bordeaux to the French and explore some malbec fun.

Often, malbec remains a bit of a mystery to many wine lovers who may find it challenging to venture out and try. Most folks have heard of Bordeaux-styled wines and the region of Bordeaux, France, but they may not know much about this hearty wine varietal originally known for its incredibly black, dark-berry flavor with a natural balance of tannins and acid that’s perfect for food.
Malbec, one of the six “royal grapes” of the Bordeaux Region; goes so well with all types of cuisine; this is very handy as we head into August and all the delicious, hearty bounty of our summer and fall gardens. If you have the opportunity to enjoy local farmers’ markets and farm-to-fork festivals, events and local cuisine, malbec winemakers are sure to be in the mix of it! Lighter-bodied than a cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel, an earthy, slightly vanilla and baking spice malbec bouquet just might make you a new fan of this royal grape.

Although French winemakers appreciated the aged, leather-like flavor and blending qualities of this unique wine grape, malbec was not very resistant to cold daytime temperatures and was highly sensitive to vineyard pests even though the grape is naturally very thick skinned. For this reason, malbec never flourished enough to achieve the acclaim of French syrah or cabernet sauvignon. Then, in 1868, the French botanist Miguel Pouget, who was nostalgic for his wines from home, planted the first malbec in Mendoza, Argentina, and a new life emerged for the grape and its use.
Now grown in abundance in Argentina, malbec has found a great appreciation among wine grape growers around the world for its heartiness and ability to blend full textures, rich color and concentrated flavors into other wines, making them deliciously full in flavor. The grape does so well in Argentina that 75 percent of the world’s malbec vineyards are located in Argentina. Since most of the malbec wines on the retail market today are sourced from Argentina, it will be easy to find a few to play with and see what your palate responds to. Malbec wines priced under $15 haven’t aged in oak as long as their Bordeaux cousins. Spending only six to nine months in oak, malbec takes on a toasty, berry pie aroma, whereas the higher-value reserve malbec wines will age 15 months or more, adding an extra, savory richness to a very juicy-tasting wine.

In the United States, California weather provides near-perfect conditions for malbec grapes to thrive. The American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, with the most plantings of Malbec in California are Napa Valley, Central Valley, Paso Robles, Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley. These areas and and higher elevations of the Sierra Foothills and Santa Barbara produce wonderful malbec wines full of smoky flavor with rich plum, cocoa and a touch of violet with a magenta color. In Washington state, it’s grown in the Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Rattlesnake Hills and Yakima Valley. In New York, it’s planted in the Finger Lakes region; in Idaho, the AVA of the Snake River Valley; in Virginia, the AVAs of Monticello and North Fork of Roanoke. Clearly, it’s gained a footing in America.

Malbec loves to grow at higher elevations where it can soak up the sun all day and then cool down at night, creating nice acidity that pairs with cuisines from sushi to tapas and everything in between. If you’re looking for a great wine to bring to upcoming dinners or barbecues, malbec is actually a very flexible date to take anywhere; it will surprisingly please the pinot noir lover and the cabernet sauvignon lover alike!

Throughout the United States, malbec wines have found their place at your local wine market; be sure to look in both the domestic and import sections of the shelves. Wherever you live, it’s easy to find a few bottles of malbec to create your own tasting fun at home with friends and family. ■

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