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Much Ado About Malbec

November 17, 2021

It’s a sign of how ancient a variety Malbec is that it has more than 1000 synonyms, according to the great French ampelographer Pierre Galet (an “ampelographer” is defined as a botanist who specializes in identifying grape varieties, and does not mean a guy who studies chubby people). In its original home Cahors, it’s called Cot (sometime Côt), a classic example of putting the Cot before the Cahors.

Malbec shares a mother with Merlot, an ancient variety now named Magdeleine Noire de Charentes, so Merlot and Malbec are half-siblings. What’s astonishing is that when this parentage was discovered via DNA in 2009 there were only five vines of Magdeleine Noire de Charentes in existence! In the world! Malbec’s mom had nearly vanished, like Agatha Christie but without the search parties. Merlot’s father is Cabernet Franc, while Malbec descends from an ancient variety, Prunelard, of which there are only about 32 acres planted. I don’t know about you, but I find this stuff fascinating. When you drink a varietal wine, like our recently released 2019 Alexander Valley Malbec, much of the joy can be derived from understanding the unique history of that variety.

And speaking of history, just imagine this when you next drink a Rodney Strong Malbec: a wine from Cahors (made from Malbec) was reputedly served at the wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England in 1152! They wanted to serve Champagne out of Marie Antoinette glasses, but, well, both Champagne and Marie Antoinette didn’t exist yet. Guests did, however, dance to the Village People.

At its best, Malbec delivers deeply colored wines that are inevitably spicy, buoyantly juicy, and sport a rich and velvety texture. When I sniff a young Malbec, especially from a relatively warm climate, I often find a beautiful blueberry aroma, as well as a floral component I’d describe as violets or maybe tuberose. Your mileage may vary. As the Malbec opens, I often get traces of thyme or bay leaf or some other balsamic character. Malbec is softer than Cabernet Sauvignon, in general, and benefits from a small percentage of Cabernet in the blend, as Cabernet often benefits from an addition of Malbec. They’re a match made in Heaven, like Eleanor and Henry II, or Prunelard and Magdeleine Noire de Charentes.

Ron Washam, Sommelier/Wine Educator

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