Malbec might be familiar to you as one of the six traditional red grapes used in red Bordeaux blends. The other five are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and rarely carménère. But grown in the right place, malbec is capable of making some great wine in its own right.
The traditional home of malbec is Cahors in France - one of the country’s oldest vineyard areas and part of the larger South West wine region. Appellation rules allow red wine only, with a minimum of 70% malbec, or cot as it’s known locally, and the remainder either merlot or tannat.
Cahors sits to the southeast of Bordeaux and was traditionally known for its dark, concentrated and tannic wines which, in years gone by, were said to be used by the Bordelaise to give a little more oomph to their wines. By the early 19th century the ‘black wine’ of Cahors enjoyed quite a reputation, but dramatic frosts in 1956 wiped out an incredible 99% of vineyards, from which it’s taken many decades to recover. More recently though, Cahors seems to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance, as people re-discover this gastronomic region, famous for its duck and some of the best truffles in France.
These days, it’s Argentina that’s synonymous with malbec - with over 75% of the world’s plantings and credited with its global reinvigoration and popularity. Mendoza is the country's most important region, accounting for around 75% of production as well as having some of the world's highest vineyards. Introduced in 1852, malbec is the signature variety of Argentina, and as The Oxford Companion to Wine observes, “seems more at home in Argentina than in its Cahors homeland.” Argentine malbec tends to be more fruit forward, richer and softer than Cahors, exhibiting flavours of blackberry, plum and black cherry.
While plantings of malbec are very limited in Australia, it’s still possible to find a few excellent examples, most notably from Langhorne Creek in SA.
I’ve picked one from each country - they’re quite different and all delicious.
The earliest part of Clos La Coutale’s cellar dates back to 1779, making it one of the oldest domaines in Cahors. Philippe Bernède has been at the helm since 1985 and is the 6th generation of his family to make wine at the 100ha estate, whose vineyards lie on the gentle alluvial slopes that rise up from the Lot River.
“For at least two decades, the Clos la Coutale’s wine has been unmistakable in flavour personality and offered terrific value,” David Schildknecht, The Wine Advocate.
The wine is imported into the US by wine guru Kermit Lynch, which itself is a huge endorsement. “In the lunchroom of our Berkeley retail shop, two shelves line the wall next to our kitchen table. On these shelves stand the best, most memorable wines ever tasted on these premises. Names like Jayer, Coche-Dury, Tempier, and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti jump out, and vintages date back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. Upon closer inspection of our ‘Wall of Fame,’ certain ‘unexpected’ bottles appear: a 1985 Côtes du Rhône Cuvée Sélectionée par Kermit Lynch, a 1961 Savennières from Château d’Epiré, and tasted just a few years ago, a 1959 Cahors from Clos la Coutale. The presence of Clos la Coutale amongst the titans of Burgundy is a testament to the phenomenal quality this domaine has offered us for now more than three decades.”
Past vintages of the wine have been named in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 (2009) and Wine Enthusiasts Top 100 Best Buys (2014).
The wine is a blend of 80% malbec and 20% merlot, although sometimes there’s also a touch of tannat. Various parcels of fruit from the vineyard were fermented separately in stainless steel, after which they were blended together and spent 12 months in ‘foudre’ which are larger than typical oak barrels. The finished wine is 13.5% alcohol and is sealed with cork.
The 100 hectares of vines of Clos la Coutale are planted on alluvial soils composed of gravel and clay-limestone silica.
In the glass this is clear, dark rosey red. On the nose, sweet jubey red fruit, rose and anise mingle with green vegetal notes. On the palate - pomegranate and dark cherry notes topped with pepper and graphite. Clean, crisp acid with tannins fresh and soft. This is mid-weight and approachable, far from the black brooding wine of cahors.
When you’re allowed to eat out in Sydney, you’ll find it at Nomad, Chophouse, Franca Potts Point and Bibo Wine Bar.
Great value drinking.
I can offer it for $25 a bottle.
Australian plantings of malbec are minuscule and although I’d like to give you plantings by area, Wine Australia prefers to use tonnes crushed. For the 2021 vintage a mere 6,534 tonnes of malbec were crushed. By comparison, the most crushed variety, shiraz, accounted for 538,402 tonnes. Despite its relative scarcity, as James Halliday notes “grown in the right places and handled the right way, beautiful wines can be made.” And the best of those places is historic Langhorne Creek in SA, one of Australia’s most undervalued regions.
Located about an hour’s drive southeast of Adelaide, Langhorne Creek’s key climatic attributes are its proximity to The Southern Ocean and Lake Alexandrina, both of which serve to cool the otherwise warm conditions. The results are perfect ripening conditions with warm days and cool nights.
These conditions give Langhorne malbec medium palate-weight and ripeness, while retaining classic cool climate aromatics of violet and roses. It’s this combination that's seen Langhorne Creek recognised as the premier malbec region in Australia.
Founded in 1850, Bleasdale was the first winery established in Langhorne Creek and after 170 years of continuous winemaking it’s still the region's best. Until the 1960s, the heritage listed winery focussed on fortifieds, but their first table wine, produced in 1961, was a malbec. The estate is still run by direct descendants of the Potts family, their range of over 30 wines now includes red, white, sparkling, fortified and in a sign of the times, most recently a rosé
Winemaker Paul Hotker is a bit of a superstar, albeit a modest one. His wines have won too many awards, trophies and gold medals for me to list. One of his wines won the highly coveted Jimmy Watson Trophy at the 2019 Royal Melbourne Wine Awards and the 2016 vintage of this wine was awarded the prestigious Max Schubert Trophy for most outstanding wine at the 2018 Royal Adelaide Wine Show.
Paul’s talents were recognised when he was awarded Winemaker of the Year 2018 by James Halliday, who describes him as “the master of Malbec in Australia.” Halliday’s 2021 edition of The Wine Companion features 10 Bleasdale wines made by Paul with scores of 95 points or above.
Fruit for the wine was sourced from 2 estate vineyard blocks and 1 specialist grower. The grapes were de-stemmed, with 20% left as whole berries, and left for a 2 day pre-ferment soak. After ferment, 12% of the wine spent 12 months in new oak, the balance in seasoned French oak puncheons. It was bottled without filtration under screwcap at 14% alcohol.
In the glass this is deep rosey red. On the nose you’ll find aromas of dark cherry, blueberry and chocolate. On the palate this is dense and nicely viscous. Notes of pepper, red cherry, amber and green vegetal notes. Clean acid provides balance and structure and tannins are smooth and soft. Sits nicely between the full-bodied Argentinian and the mid-weight Clos La Coutale.
“Immediately impressive with its youthful purple-black hue. Laden with blackberry essence, plump plums, sweet licorice and more umami flavours of iodine and seaweed. It's fuller bodied but quite contained, with ribbons of velvety tannins and a flourish on the finish. The surprise is its approachability now, yet will continue to reward for quite some time.” 95 points from Halliday and a hardly a surprise that he also gives it a Special Value Award to boot!
Best malbec region in Australia, best malbec winemaker in Australia.
I can offer it for $28 a bottle.
Matias Riccitelli is an exciting young producer in the region of Lujan de Cuyo within Mendoza, the region of Argentina that put malbec back on the world map. Lujan de Cuyo (and Maipo) are referred to as the “primera zone”, the premium winemaking area of Argentina.
Matias was born and bred in Argentina and is a mixture of skilled, traditional winemaker and dynamic, contemporary hipster. After studying winemaking he became winemaker at the French owned Fabre Montmayou (Mendoza), one of Argentina’s most prestigious wineries. Matias’ father Jorge Riccitelli is a famous winemaker, working at Bodega Norton (Mendoza) and was the first Latin American to be awarded Winemaker of the Year (in 2012) by prestigious US magazine Wine Enthusiast. Not to be outdone, Matias was awarded ‘Young Winemaker of the Year’ by Tim Atkin MW in 2016. Most recently, Matias was awarded Enólogo del Año (Winemaker of the Year) for 2021 by Descorchados, the most influential wine guide in the South Americas.
Since 2009, Matias has been doing his own thing, his winery in Las Compuertas is located at an incredible 1,100M above sea level! This altitude is what distinguishes viticulture here, providing a high diurnal variation (ie hot day, cool night) and slow ripening, which is crucial to flavour development. Without the elevation, conditions at this latitude would be way too hot.
With 20ha of of vines planted between 1927-1930, Matias prefers to tend them in as natural a way as possible. In the winery he manages to combine a traditional yet contemporary philosophy, making his wines by hand and without additions, while utilising modern technology where necessary.
Matias knocks out a range of interesting wines, including ‘The Apple doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree’ (in reference to his winemaking father), ‘Old vines from Patagonia’ and ‘Republica del Malbec.’ All sport groovy labels and are made in Matias’ contemporary yet traditional style.
Hey Malbec! 2020 is 100% malbec that’s hand harvested and made with no additives. Post ferment, 70% was aged in concrete tanks, the balance in old (ie no oakiness imparted) French barrels. Matias says he “looks for freshness and purity of vibrant malbec” which is why he avoids any oak influence. The finished wine is 14% and sealed with cork.
"Quality is soaring in the Argentinian wine scene and it is wines like the Hey Malbec from Riccitelli that are leading the charge." Luis Gutierrez - wine critic who reviews Spanish, Chilean and Argentinian wines for The Wine Advocate.
The previous vintage of the wine featured as wine of the month in the Feb/Mar 2021 edition of Gourmet Traveller Wine.
“Malbec is the Argentinian flagship variety and this beautiful wine is a truly sublime interpretation. Juicy black fruits combine with violets and black pepper, with soft and ripe tannins leading a soft and opulent finish. Lovely on its own or with juicy red meat.” Winemaker’s notes.
In the glass this is dense, dark purpley red. On the nose you’ll find dark plummy fruit, blueberry and dark chocolate. On the palate: dense, mouth-coating red fruit - plums and strawberries. Smooth tannins and crisp acid counterbalance. So concentrated - this has power and vibrancy… and a cool label.
You’ll find it on the list of lots of cool joints around town, including at Mimi’s in Coogee for $85 a bottle.
I can offer it for $35 a bottle.