In the prior post we talked about the various theories on how Malbec got its name. There was also a wide array of thoughts on the geographic origins of the grape variety. The Romans in Gaul were thought to be the first people who actively cultivated this particular vine there, so one speculation was that Malbec had come from Italy and its parentage would be found there. Other theories pointed to different regions in France supported by the large number of similar looking grapes under alternative names that existed throughout the country. Centuries of conjecture were put to rest by genetic testing in the last few years that has shed conclusive light on Malbec’s family tree.
The mother has been proven as a grape named Magdeleine Noire des Charantes that has often been described as more typically a table grape rather than a wine grape. The origins of this grape have been reported as the Brittany area of France where researchers discovered it, almost by accident, as a solitary unnamed vine. The supposition is that the vine had grown more extensively in this area during the late Middle Ages (around 1460 to 1477) when the weather was warmer and permitted vineyard growth farther in the north of the country by the sea. Subsequently the grapevine was taken south into central western France and cultivated in the region of Charantes where the two most prominent towns are Angoulême and Cognac. Researchers working in the Charantes area were able to discover four old vines of the same type previously discovered in Brittany[i] where it was locally known as Raisin de la Madeleine or Madeleina. A unique aspect of the Magdeleine grape is its early ripening quality, which became the root of its name, as it would reach full ripeness in mid-July around the Feast Day for Mary Magdalene. This variety would gain even greater acclaim when it was discovered that the Merlot grape was another progeny of the little known grape from Brittany.
Malbec’s father is an even more obscure grape called Prunelard. Little is known of the early history of Prunelard. The best conjecture is that it developed in southwestern France around the area of Gaillac near Toulouse in the sixteenth century. The name of the grape is derived from its similarity in color and shape to plums, which in French are “prunes”. In many respects, Prunelard is botanically akin to Malbec and throughout history it has been frequently confused with its son. The variety once thrived in the area where it originated but the yields for the grape were very low. As is similar with other small quantity varieties in France, after the Phylloxera outbreak destroyed many vineyards, previous Prunelard vines were replaced by higher-yielding grapes. Prunelard is another grape that is now virtually extinct except for some efforts to expand the few remnants that exist.
How and when these two grapes met in order to create Malbec is still a mystery that will likely never have solid evidence as viticultural records from Medieval times and before are very scant. There are a number of chroniclers of Malbec who have stated that Côt (Malbec) was being grown in Roman times around the 1stor 2nd century AD particularly in the grape’s most renowned viticultural area of Cahors. Reportedly, famous classical authors such as Horace and Virgil heavily praised these wines. One writer has even claimed that the grape is one of the five oldest cultivated grapes that were originally tended by prehistoric humans. Although wine grapes were certainly grown around Cahors in the Roman era and greatly admired, investigation for this blog shows that the grapes used were not Côt. Recorded identification for Côt’s parents does not appear until the Middle Ages (prior to the 10th century) at the earliest. So even if it took a couple of centuries for actual documentation to appear, the parental grapes were not really known during Roman occupation. There is written evidence of wine that appears to have been made from the Côt grape by the 12th century, and specific reports of this wine being sold in London by the 13th century.
The primary growing areas for the two parental grapes are about 230 miles apart which would have been a significant overland distance during the Middle Ages. The home of Prunelard in Gaillac is only about 50 miles from Cahors, so we can speculate that someone may have brought some of the grape to Cahors as an experiment. Similarly, we can posit that the same person or someone else may have imported small amount of Magdeleine Noir vines to Cahors, perhaps in the adjoining vineyards and the offspring occurred from there. The scientific crossing of different grape varieties was not a common practice at this time so mostly likely the pairing came about as a result of a random pollination that created a grape that the vintner recognized as having character unique and better than others. Given all of the written information, it appears most likely that this birth took place in the 11th or 12th centuries and quickly grew in fame over the next couple of centuries.
Next: The history of Malbec in France