Conjecture and myth making cloud the history of many wine grapes, but the origins and travels of Malbec may be foremost among these. The acquisition of the name “Malbec” is just the starting point for the confusion that surrounds this grape variety. There are two central stories regarding the origin of the name that may be independent or may in fact be linked. The most grandiose of the tales has the grape named for a Hungarian peasant living in France during the 19th century with the surname of Malbec (or Malbeck) who was the first to proclaim the virtues of the variety and spread its cultivation throughout the country. The story has aspects akin to the fact laced with myth of Johnny Appleseed in America who reportedly wandered from Pennsylvania to Illinois planting apple orchards as he went. Numerous published accounts of Malbec relate the story of this Hungarian without any attribution or substantiation, so how real is this version of events?
First, it is known that the grape now commonly known as Malbec actually had a long history under other names likely back to the Middle Ages prior to the 10th century AD. The grape was generally referred to as Côt but depending on the region of cultivation had a variety of different names. Different sources report that the grape has between 400 and over one thousand synonymous names, with Malbec being only one of the most recent forms that has gained worldwide adoption. Therefore, it is clear that if the Hungarian Malbec did in fact exist, he was not the first to promote and plant the grape variety throughout France; this had been accomplished long before his arrival.
A potential version that may have credibility is that Mr. Malbec was the first to actively exhort growers in the Bordeaux region to plant this specific grape variety. The Côt grape was most famous from the Cahors region (also known there as Auxerrois) in France where the Romans introduced it and often wrote of its high quality. Cahors is about 150 miles from Bordeaux, so the grape may have been previously not grown in this region creating an opportunity for the Hungarian to do the first plantings. Even this version is somewhat suspect because Cahors and Bordeaux are actually linked by the river Lot, and shipments of wine from Cahors had to travel through the Bordelaise port for distribution. Logic would infer that the growers in Bordeaux had to have been highly familiar with the acclaimed wine made from Côt grapes in Cahors and likely would have tried to cultivate this grape, at least in some small way to see if they could get similar results. The evidence for a major role played by Mr. Malbec in the history of the grape appears tenuous, although there certainly could have been a grower by that name who was a vocal supporter for its expanded planting.
The second major theory on the naming of the Malbec grape relates to the French language and the how wine makers in Bordeaux felt about the variety. It is well documented that the growers in Bordeaux used the Malbec grape for blending because of the variety’s character that provided more intense color to the wine and contained higher sugar so it added more alcohol to the finished product. On the other hand, growers generally believed the grape was too astringent or bitter to produce a stand-alone wine. For this reason, legend states that vintners in the Bordeaux region referred derisively to the grape as “mal bouche” or “bad mouth”.. Over time, the “mal bouche” became changed in the retelling to “mal bec” or “bad beak”, and this appellation stuck.
Another variant ties the two stories together, with a Hungarian horticulturist who was an advocate for the grape in Bordeaux while other growers did not have the same appreciation for the variety. Therefore, in a fantastic case of coincidence, the family name and the bad taste term became conflated as a cynical homage to the immigrant promoter with a subtle aspersion to the grape’s character. The term “mal bouche” and the surname “Malbeck” were transformed to the moniker of “Malbec”, transitioning “mouth” to “beak” while still acknowledging the Hungarian peasant. Extending the coincidences even further, a couple of sources writing in Spanish have claimed that in the late 1800s when wine making was in its infancy in Argentina, one Jean Malbeck arrived in the country to champion the Malbec grape. It has been proposed that Jean was the son of the Hungarian immigrant from Bordeaux carrying on this father’s legacy to campaign for his namesake grape. No specific evidence has been offered to support the arrival of Jean, but if true adds another dramatic wrinkle to the legend.
A final line of investigation pursued by the author of this blog was around the surname Malbec and its origin in Hungary given how neatly the name can be translated in French. In Hungary or Bohemia as it was often known in the 19th century, there are some slight references to families with a name similar to “Malbec” but it is clear that it would have been highly uncommon. Unlike in French, neither the whole name nor its component parts have any specific meaning in Hungarian. However, a large number of Hungarian surnames have the root beginning of “Mal” or “Mahl” followed by an array of ending syllables but “bec” or “beck” was little used. Genealogy databases consulted show that today virtually all of the families with the name Malbec are located in France, which seems to make sense as the name is the combination of two common French words. It therefore appears that although unusual there could have been a Hungarian named Malbec who migrated to France and had an association with the grape that would come to bare his name. What is certain is that the vintners of Bordeaux did not appreciate the grape beyond its minor role in blending, and when disease and climate conditions devastated these vines they were generally not replanted but replaced with other varieties.
Next: Malbec’s obscure parentage