10/14/2014 02:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mighty Malbec: From Forgotten Grape to International Fame

by Madeline Blasberg, Wine Columnist for the Menuism Wine Blog

In a world populated by thousands of grape varieties, it's hard to point to one that delivers quite as well as Malbec.

Genetically speaking, Malbec is France's native son (where it is also known as Côt and Auxxerois). Its roots go back to Southwest France and the Cahors Region, but historically Malbec was never given much air time. French Malbec is generally intensely colored, but aggressively tannic on the palate and was often used in Bordeaux blends to add color, intensity, and aromas. But mostly, Malbec lived in the margins.

Over time it proved to be no match for the star-studded reputations of the French noble grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. It simply couldn't compete. So, in 1852 Miguel Pouget, a French agronomist hired by the Argentine government, brought Malbec into an arena where, he hoped, it would have a fighting chance.

As luck would have it, the Argentine landscape set the scene for Malbec's makeover. By the 1950s, Malbec was the most widely planted fine red grape variety in Mendoza. Today, more than 76,000 acres of Malbec vineyards are scattered across the country's vast and varied landscape.

Winemakers continue to experiment with this grapevine's adaptability - planting vineyards at 3000m above sea level in Salta and others at 200m in windy Patagonia. But Malbec's true home is Mendoza, nestled in the Andes foothills just across the border from Santiago, Chile.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is no fluke that Malbec has allowed Argentina to get its foot in the door of the international wine scene. The high-altitude Andean landscapes, soils low in organic material, and ample sunlight produce Malbec varietals with intense fruit aromas, concentrated flavor, rich tannins and the fail-proof crowd pleaser: easy drinkability.

The unmistakable violet and indigo hues glow all around the rim of a glass of Malbec. It is inky, intense, and lush - and that's just a premonition of what's to come. Take a whiff from a swirling glass, and you're going to love what you find - ripe prunes, traces of violets, blackberries, spice, and perhaps a hint of smoke or tobacco depending on the wine's oak aging.

On the palate, Malbec is medium-bodied, with soft tannins, gentle acidity, and a near velvety finish. That's a stark difference from French Côt, which can be quite acidic, slightly herbaceous and faintly leathery in texture. Though most Malbec varietals are meant to be consumed young, numerous winemakers are experimenting with Malbec wines that can successfully age and develop for decades.

Given Malbec's rise to fame in only a matter of decades, many theories have emerged to try to explain how a marginalized grape could so quickly become the darling of the wine world. Some say it comes down to approachability: no slew of incomprehensible laws to memorize, and no foreign name that's just waiting to trip you up (ahem, Gewürztraminer). Other theories site Malbec's ability to always deliver on its inherent promise: lush fruit, medium body, supple tannins, and excellent wines for under $11 a pop. Not to mention that Malbec is famously easy to pair with food, which alone could account for the wine world's love affair. Any Argentine will tell you that Malbec's soulmate is grilled red meat, but it also is an excellent complement to hard cheese or robust tomato sauce poured atop a bed of pasta.

In only a matter of two decades, Malbec has edged out of the shadows and onto restaurant wine lists and supermarket shelves across the country. Though you'll find phenomenal wines on the top shelf, this grape variety delivers at every price range. Pick a menu, pop the cork, and settle into a glass of a grape variety that found its place in the New World and will likely only keep surprising us.

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Mighty Malbec: From Forgotten Grape to International Fame originally published on the Menuism Wine Blog.

Madeline Blasberg is a Certified Wine Consultant currently working for Etching Expressions as Official Wine Commentator & Reviewer. She has spent time living in Mendoza, Argentina where she was surrounded by wine, both personally and professionally.