Happy Malbec World Day from Vectors South! We are certainly living in unprecedented times. Yet, life does indeed go on, and we all could use a little something to celebrate. In honor of Malbec World Day, grab a bottle of your favorite Malbec, pour yourself a glass and say “Cheers!” with a loved one even if it has to be through a Zoom call. We obviously prefer everyone to drink a Malbec from Argentina, but we’ll let the Malbec from Cahors slide just this once.
Today Argentina has a rich and substantial wine culture, and is the 5th biggest wine producer in the world behind France, Italy, Spain, and the U.S. It is no surprise that Argentina’s tradition in wine was heavily influenced by the European immigrants who came flooding into the country in the 19th century. While Chile, Argentina’s neighbor to the west across the Andes Mountains and the second biggest wine producer in South America, exports much of its wine, Argentina drinks most of hers. This is not to say that Argentina does not export her wine, for she does in abundance, but no dinner table across the nation is complete without a bottle of wine, and more often than not, Malbec.
So how did Malbec become the most important grape in Argentina? How did the rest of the world begin to identify Argentina as the home of this French grape?
The story takes us back to the mid 1800s when much of Argentina was extremely rural, uneducated, and, quite frankly, wild. The rule of law was hardly enforceable from the capital of Buenos Aires. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento was the man who sought to change this. Sarmiento, like most Argentines, was influenced by European society. He saw Europe as the epicenter of all that was civilized in the world, from art to food and wine to the respectability of the people. He envied the education systems of France and the United Kingdom, and as President from 1868-74 he would establish 800 schools throughout the nation raising the literacy rate and civilizing the nation, as he saw it. He wanted Argentina to be a European nation on the South American continent. He wanted Buenos Aires to be known as the Paris of South America, not just for its architecture, but for its sophisticated people and refined culture.
Before all this however, Sarmiento achieved his greatest triumph: putting Argentine wine on the map. In 1853, Sarmiento hired Don Michel Aimé Pouget to establish a vine nursery in Mendoza, which would evolve into the Quinta Nacional and would lead to the establishment of the National School of Agronomy. Pouget brought from France what he deemed to be the best grapes from Bordeaux, Malbec being one of them. Malbec World Day is celebrated to mark Sarmiento’s hiring of Pouget and how their efforts saw the Argentine wine industry flourish.
At the same time that Malbec began to thrive in the arid Mendoza desert, disaster befell the grape in its land of origin. Phylloxera was rampant in France between 1875 and 1889, destroying 6.2 million acres of vines. This plague was caused by tiny lice-like insects that fed on the roots of vines. Luckily for Argentina, the different climate and sandy soil prevented a similar outbreak, and as the Malbec population was nearly decimated in France, in Argentina it proliferated, thanks to the waves of Italian and Spanish immigrants who came across the plains of La Pampa to Mendoza via Buenos Aires. Railroads made it easier to transport grapes and barrels of wine back to Buenos Aires where it could be bottled and sold.
One of the key men in this process was Nicola Catena, an immigrant from Italy , who began planting grapes in 1902 near Tunuyán. He is the patriarch of the greatest wine dynasty in Argentina, carried on today by his grandson Nicolás and great-granddaughter Laura. If you’re even remotely familiar with wine, chances are you’ve tried a wine from Catena Zapata. It was thanks to this family that Argentine wine gained respect world wide.
Also in 1902, a couple from Ancona, Italy, named Angelo and Palmina Pulenta arrived in Argentina and set out on a wine-making expedition that is still going strong today. I was lucky enough to visit the Pulenta Estate twice, in 2009 and 2019, and it is a must see for anyone visiting Mendoza. Interestingly enough, the Pulenta family is also the owner of all the Porsche dealerships in the country.
Although Argentine wines may lack the glamor, and especially the price tag, of wines from France and Italy, they have grown in stature. The most important wine critics in the world, such as Robert Parker and James Suckling, never hesitate to heap their praise on Argentine wines. Argentine wines are available on most wine lists in the US and can be found in nearly every wine store. While we always encourage our friends and family to branch out and try different wines from Argentina, particularly Cabernet Franc, today is the day for Malbec. Please enjoy a glass!
If you do get a chance to go to a wine store or order on line, here is a Malbec I recommend for Malbec World Day!
La Flor Malbec 2017- This is the entry level wine from Pulenta Estate. When we talk about a wine being “entry level” we mean that is less expensive. This does not mean it won’t be delicious though! No wine from a place like Pulenta is anything less than fantastic. Only half the wine was aged in a barrel, for just four to six months, while the other half was aged in steel vats. The wine is very fruity and easy to drink, you can tell it is a young wine even though it’s now been three years since the grapes were harvested. You can also get some chocolate and coffee notes. One great way to describe the wine is “smooth“ as it does not have overpowering tannins or acidity.