Worldwide, the malbec grape is grown on about 29,500 hectares, a colossal 22,000 of which can be found in Argentina. There are 6,500 hectares of malbec vines in France, with the tiny remainder being grown in Chile. Argentina has long been promoting its malbec (together with the quirky, Spanish-origin white grape torrentes) as unique in an increasingly homogenised wine market.
The elevation of malbec is the result of more than a good marketing exercise; even the cheap versions are good. (Try Terrazas and Trapiche, for example, which are both available in Hong Kong for about HK$100.) The high-end wines, meanwhile, are indicative of just how delicious the almost-forgotten grape can be. It is telling that two of just a handful of top labels have formed joint ventures with top-of-the-tree chateaux in Bordeaux: Terrazas de los Andes with Cheval Blanc in the creation of Cheval des Andes (about HK$900 retail) and Nicolas Catena with Lafite Rothschild for Caro. Involvement at such lofty levels reminds us not only of the peerless quality of malbec in Argentina but also of its original home - the vineyards of Bordeaux.
Records show that prestigious chateaux, including the first-growths, used up to 50 per cent malbec in their blends - but that was pre-phylloxera. Phylloxera is a tiny aphid-like pest that attacks vine roots and can eventually destroy an entire vineyard. It was first discovered in France in 1863 and went on to devastate Europe's wine industry. The only solution producers found was to graft vines onto American phylloxera-resistant rootstock. The problem for malbec was that it reacted badly to grafting and, as a result, started to disappear from Bordeaux. (Today, its principal home in France is Cahors, in the southwest.)
In the meantime, pre-phylloxera cuttings had made their way to Chile and from there across the Andes to Argentina, where they flourished. Therefore, the malbec in Argentina today is the 'original' malbec of Bordeaux and not a clone. And since Argentina is virtually phylloxera-free (thanks to flood irrigation, which kills it off), vines remain ungrafted.
At its best, malbec shows heady aromas of violets and roses, with such impressive ripe fruit that it tends to be fermented in one-year-old, rather than new, oak barrels, to retain intensity and juiciness. The wines are accessible yet powerful, have smooth tannins and, even after a few years of ageing, are almost black in colour.
Echoing the original Bordeaux blend, top Argentine wines based on the grape contain 40 to 60 per cent malbec, the remainder taken up by cabernet sauvignon and even a little petit verdot. In theory, then, Argentina is capable of producing a similar product to the wines the Bordelais made 150 years ago - yet with the benefits of modern winemaking techniques. Given that there can only be a few bottles from the early 1800s left - and they would be so mature as to make comparison problematic - we can only wonder if contemporary wines from Argentina really do taste like their Bordeaux forefathers.