Culinary Arts

Learn About Malbec

Written by MasterClass

Apr 5, 2019 • 4 min read

Dig into a bison burger with blue cheese crumbles and pour yourself a hearty glass of malbec. This sometimes overlooked red wine is an Argentinian export that deserves a spot in your wine rack.

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What Is Malbec?

Malbec is a full-bodied and acidic, deep purple-red wine with juicy fruit flavors like plum and black cherry. Malbec is mostly produced in Argentina, however it is also known as Auxerrois, Côt Noir, or Pressac, depending on where you are in the world.

Is Malbec High in ABV and Tannins?

Malbec is high in alcohol, usually in the 13-14% range, but this amount is on par with merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay. A high quality bottle from Argentina can be heavy on tannins, which contributes to the drier mouth feel, whereas a more affordable bottle made in the United States might have moderate tannins and appear to be smoother or softer on the palate. Learn more about tannins here.

What Are the Characteristics of the Malbec Grape?

The malbec grape is known for its inky dark color. The malbec grape needs plenty of sunshine and a dry climate to thrive and is relatively fickle and sensitive to the climate. However, malbec grapes express terroir well which means influences of dirt, nutrients, climate, and production methods appear in unique ways on the palate. This is why Argentine malbec tastes different from a California-grown malbec.

Where Does Argentinian Malbec Grow?

Malbec was originally planted in France, but a softer, less tannic malbec grape was planted in Argentina in 1868. Malbec is now the most widely-planted grape in Argentina. Argentinian malbec is produced primarily in:

  • Mendoza. The first malbec grapevine cuttings from France were planted in Mendoza. Mendoza’s Uco Valley is a prominent wine growing region as many winemakers have discovered that the high altitude allows the grapes to produce the acidity they need which yields a better, more vivid, and elegant wine.
  • San Juan. The second-largest wine region in Argentina, San Juan features a dry and arid climate that leads to medium-bodied wines which are best enjoyed as young varietals.
  • Salta. This is where Argentina's highest altitude vineyards lie. At these altitudes the traditionally thin-skinned malbec grape develops a thicker skin to withstand the intense UV-B radiation, which results in a more robust, tannic, and flavorful wine.

What Other Wine Regions Grow Malbec?

Though Argentina leads malbec production, there are various other countries that produce worthy malbecs.

  • France. Malbec was originally grown in France, namely in Cahors and Bordeaux, but frost decimated 75% of the crop in 1956. Since then, French malbec continues to be produced in the following two regions: South-East Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. Malbec is one of the six grapes allowed in the blend for Bordeaux wine.
  • United States. Malbec grew in popularity in the United States in the mid 1990s, when it was used in domestic “Bordeaux-style” blends. Malbec is produced in California, Washington, and Oregon. (Learn more about Bordeaux here.)
  • Chile. The success of malbec in Argentina inspired neighboring Chile to grow their own grapes. Malbec in Chile is mostly used in Bordeaux-style blends. It is grown in the following regions: Colchagua, Curicó, and Cachapoal.
  • South Africa. Malbec was first introduced to South Africa in 1920, but wasn’t bottled as a single varietal wine until the early 1990s.
  • Australia. Malbec was first introduced to Australia in the 1800s, for bulk wine production. It mostly grows in South Australia and Victoria.
  • New Zealand. New Zealand didn’t start to scale their malbec operation until the 1990s. New Zealand malbec is mostly used in Bordeaux-style red blends. Gisborne and Hawkes Bay are the primary malbec-producing wine regions.

What’s the Difference Between Malbec and Merlot?

Merlot and malbec are similar easy-drinking reds and both are used in Bordeaux blends, but they have certain differences as well:

  • Malbec is more tangy and fruity than merlot and therefore tastes thinner, where Merlot is more full-bodied and smooth.
  • Malbec is more commonly paired with spicy foods.
  • Unlike merlot, which grows all over the world, malbec grapes are mostly grown in France and Argentina and hasn’t taken off in popularity as a single varietal like merlot has.

What’s the Difference Between Malbec and Pinot Noir?

Pinot Noir is a much more popular red than malbec, which still has a slightly obscure profile. These two wines have things in common, as well as a few key differences.

  • Both grape varietals are fickle and difficult to grow and are produced in much smaller quantities than say, merlot or cabernet sauvignon.
  • Pinot noir and malbec are sometimes blended in Argentina and France to make rosé wines
  • Malbec is meatier, grittier, has more structure, whereas pinot noir is light, aromatic, and low in alcohol content.
  • Malbec has a moderate to high tannin content whereas pinot noir is light on tannins, leading some to consider it a more accessible easy-drinking red.

What Does Malbec Taste Like?

Malbec is known for its strong kick and fruity, almost jammy taste. Flavors include:

  • Dark fruits: Black cherry, pomegranate, plum, raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, raisin
  • Coffee
  • Molasses
  • Leather
  • Black Pepper
  • Gravel
  • Tobacco
  • Cocoa

What Does Malbec Pair With?

Malbec is versatile, but it’s best when paired with meat-driven dishes—especially barbecue.

Popular malbec food pairings include:

  • Dark meat poultry
  • Lean red meat
  • Charcuterie
  • Gouda or manchego cheeses

The Best Malbec Brands

Argentinian vintners have mastered the art of growing malbec, but it’s best to sample a variety of malbec wines from around the world and truly unlock the taste difference between say, a French malbec and one grown in the Uco Valley. For example, the limestone soil in Cahors, France produces a tart and more tannic malbec, whereas the malbec grown under the sunny skies in Mendoza, Argentina produces a rich, fruit, and floral wine. The best way to learn more about malbec is to drink it. Start with these highly-rated brands from the various malbec-growing regions.

Argentina
  • Bodegas Septime
  • Bodegas Piedra Negra
  • Don Miguel Gascón
  • Paul Hobbs
  • Vina Cobos
France
  • Château Quatre
  • Château du Cèdre
Australia
  • Vinaceous Wines
United States
  • Boatique Winery
  • Eighty Four Wines