Common synonyms: Cot, Auxerrois, Malbeck, Noir de Pressac, Cote rouge, Cahors, Cot de Pays, Jacobain, and Pied Rouge.
The name Malbec brings to mind a Bordeaux-style or Meritage blend because that’s one of its classic roles. But, the fact is, the acreage is on the decline in Bordeaux for a few reasons. One is that if it doesn’t ripen adequately, in the relatively cool climate there, it can be rather harsh and green. Another is that it’s subject to what we call shatter, which just means the crop may be small due to poor pollination. That may explain why it’s found such a happy home in slightly warmer places like Cahors in southern France, where it’s the dominant variety, and most notably in Argentina where it’s one of the most important varieties grown and has recently become their signature wine.
Like Petit Verdot, it’s typically a bit player as part of a Bordeaux-style blend and is added for its great pigment and ability to lend a sense of bigness to the total blend. In the warmth of the Mendoza in Argentina or in sunny Napa Valley, instead of something green and unattractive, it makes a dark, robust somewhat meaty wine with plummy fruit and firm, but not harsh tannins.
Malbec is often compared to Merlot because, in addition to suffering shatter on a frequent basis, it buds out early in the season exposing it to frost and is sensitive to mildew. It’s an oddity because it’s a vigorous variety and tends to produce a great deal of vegetation (which perhaps is why the wine has a tendency to green character), but the yields tend to be low because of its susceptibility to poor fruit set. But, when it ripens properly, all those cares are left behind and a dark, deep wine that goes so well with the famous Argentine beef is what we remember. Its success in Argentina has spurred the Chileans to plant more, which they are doing with good success.
Here in California, so far, it continues to be primarily a blending grape, but we’ll see what the future holds because the plantings of Malbec have increased markedly over the last decade.
As part of a Meritage-style blend, you can enjoy it with the same foods you’d think of for Cabernet Sauvignon and, of course, that always includes a good steak. As a varietal, it works well with hearty fare – grilled meats and slow-cooked dishes like short ribs or chicken cacciatore will work well with the sometimes rustic character of Malbec. For your cheese tray, go with medium-hard to hard cheeses. Salud!