If you’ve been anywhere in earshot of me in the past week you’ll know that Saturday 17th April is Malbec World Day. It’s the one day of the year entirely dedicated to the great red wine variety which flourishes all over the vast country of Argentina, from Cafayate in Salta province in the north to the oasis of Mendoza at the foot of the Andes mountains and the harsh Patagonian desert in the south. What you may not know is that Malbec is actually originally a tall, dark Frenchman with rather bad breath (more on that story here). To celebrate World Malbec Day, and get you salivating about one of my fave varieties, let me give you a brief potted history of how this humble grape reinvented itself as a sultry Argentine superstar.
Malbec actually first turned up in Latin America over in Chile, something that Argentine winemakers don’t talk very much about perhaps due to the tradition of intense rivalry with their Chilean neighbours. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the elite of the newly independent Republic of Chile began to take interest in all things French. Even back then France was regarded as the epitome of style and refinement, while fine French wines were widely treated with the kind of reverence they still command from certain (probably tweed-wearing and middle-aged) wine collectors today.
Cuttings from Bordeaux and other parts of France were imported to the country during the 1840s as part of an initiative to transform the Chilean wine industry and remodel it along French lines. At the centre of this activity was the country’s first agricultural school, the Quinta Normal de Santiago, which played an important role in testing which of the European grape varieties would suit local conditions. The man responsible for the creation of this institution, an Argentine named Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (remember his name!), would later go on to play a crucial role in the dramatic story of Argentine Malbec.
Like many immigrants to Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries, Frenchman Michel Aimé Pouget came to Chile seeking a new start and escape from political turbulence in his home country. He became head of the Quinta Normal de Santiago, and in 1853 he was invited to take charge of the new Quinta Normal de Mendoza. In case you were wondering about the April 17th thing, the date was chosen as Malbec World Day as on this day in 1853 the bill for the foundation of the Quinta Normal de Mendoza agricultural school was submitted to the Provincial Legislature. This initiative had been heavily supported by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento who had just returned from exile in Chile. The end of Juan Manuel de Rosas’ bloody dictatorship in Argentina provided Sarmiento with an opportunity to attempt a overhaul of the wine industry similar to that achieved in Chile, and for that Pouget was their man. Crossing the mighty Andes mountain range from Chile into Argentina, Pouget brought with him “a load of plants and seeds that included strains of various types, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir; one of them was the Malbec grape” (William Beezley, 292).
The Malbec strain brought by Pouget took particularly well to the conditions in Mendoza to the extent that by the early 20th century most vineyards in the region were planted with the “French grape”, a nickname frequently given to Malbec. Mass immigration and the construction of a railway between the Argentine capital Buenos Aires and Mendoza paved the way for immense expansion of the wine industry. To feed demand, huge producers sprung up to generate vast quantities of cheap table wine. As the 20th century wore on, economic woes and political instability took their toll on the wine industry, and rampant inflation in the 1970s (1400%) and 1980s (4000%) contributed to a drastic fall in domestic wine consumption.
It was only in the late 1980s and 1990s that the potential of Argentine Malbec truly began to be understood. From 1990 to 2009 Malbec vine plantings increased by 173% from 10,500 hectares to 28,500 hectares. The political and economic stability brought by Carlos Menem’s presidency (1989-1999) opened up the wine industry to foreign investment and the introduction of new technology and expertise. The results were swift. In the early 21st century, Argentina started seriously exporting its Malbec to the world, and the rest, as they say, is history…
- William Beezley, “La senda del Malbec: la cepa emblemática de Argentina”, Universum 20:2 (2005): 288-297
- Pablo Lacoste, “Malbec World Day“, written for Wines of Argentina
- Jancis Robinson (editor), The Oxford Companion to Wine (online edition accessed 16/04/2016)
- Jancis Robinson, “How Malbec got to Argentina via Chile“, 23rd June 2015