One of the traditional “Bordeaux varietals”, Malbec has characteristics that fall somewhere between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. A midseason ripener, it can bring very deep color, ample tannin, and a particular plum-like flavor component to add complexity to claret blends.
Outside Bordeaux it is known as Côt and, in Cahors, also as Auxerrois. There are in fact hundreds of local synonyms, since Malbec at one time was widely planted in nearly every area of France. Sensitivity to frost and proclivity to shatter or coulure are the primary reasons Malbec has become a decreasing factor in most of France. Although plantings in the Medoc have decreased by over two-thirds since the mid-twentieth century, Malbec is now the dominant red varietal in the Cahors area. The Appellation Controlée regulations for Cahors require a minimum content of 70%.
Malbec truly comes into its own in Argentina, where it is the major red varietal planted. Much of the Malbec vines there were transplanted from Europe prior to the outbreak of phylloxera and most is therefore ungrafted, planted on their own roots. Sadly, over the years, phylloxera has infested Argentina, too, and vineyards are now being replanted on resistant rootstock.
Argentines often spell it “Malbeck” and make wines from it that similar in flavor to those made in Europe, but with softer, lusher structure, more like New World Merlot. Another difference: where French examples are usually considered short-lived, Argentine Malbecs seem to age fairly well.
Malbec is also planted in Chile, and there’s relatively little and recent acreage in California and Australia. It is usually blended with other red varietals in these countries.
Successful Argentine Malbec growers claim that, in order to develop full maturity and distinction, Malbec needs “hang time” even after sugar levels indicate ripeness. Otherwise, immature Malbec can be very “green” tasting, without its characteristic notes of plum and anise.