Perhaps it is only appropriate that the Malbec grape that a Hungarian immigrant spread, legend recounts, throughout France would itself only find redemption and acclaim by leaving its home country. Around the beginning of the 18thcentury wine from the Malbec grape first gained attention in Russia when the ruler of the country, Peter the Great, pronounced that this libation had cured his troubling bout with stomach ulcers. Whether or not the wine really held curative powers is certainly debatable, but the idea would spark admiration for Malbec with the Russian ruling family and the entire court.
At the end of the 18thcentury, one of Peter’s successors, Catherine the Great, further brought prominence to Malbec when she ordered Prince Vorontsov in the Crimean region to import strains of the Cahors vine and plant them on his farm near Alupka in 1828. These imported grapes produced a wine that was called “Kaorske” or “Caorske” that was sometimes used as communion wine in the Russian Orthodox Church. This wine is no longer produced in the Ukraine region although a variant called “Kahor” is made that combines the fermented juice with aromatic herbs and honey to make a sweet wine. Similarly in the Republic of Georgia the Cahors grape is used to make a fortified wine similar to port.
After the Gold Rush in America, the growing of wine grapes in northern California became a major enterprise. Many growers at this time decided to import cuttings of grapes varieties from the primary wine regions of Europe including Bordeaux with the hope of duplicating their success. Malbec became part of this immigration when a winery owner from the Santa Clara Valley near present day San Jose imported a selection of Bordeaux varieties for his vineyard in 1858. The vintner, Charles LeFranc, in the early 1860’s produced from his New Almadén Vineyard the first wine to commercially use the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. However, he actually called it a Cabernet-Malbec blend, although there is no reporting of the actual percentages used of either grape. As was the case in its home country, this would continue a legacy of Malbec being used primarily as a blending grape, especially to extend the Cabernet produced. Malbec was likely appreciated by the wine makers for its higher alcohol content and dark color, which would add body and intensity to the somewhat lighter Cabernet. In fact, by 1886 one California vintner was complaining that Malbec was being too often planted rather than Cabernet.
Leading into the early 1900s, Malbec was used essentially as a bulk wine grape that provided the basis for many low cost, “jug” wines. The onset of the phylloxera epidemic in California vineyards had the same impact on Malbec that had occurred in Cahors with the vines decimated and generally not replanted in favor of other grape varieties. Malbec did not come back to northern California until the overall redemption of the region’s wines in the 1970s, and the attempt to make a Bordeaux style wine that is now called “Meritage”. The plantings were still very small as the grape was often not much more than five percent of a Meritage blend. It was reported that in 1998 there were just about 200 acres of Malbec grown in the entire state of California. By 2012, this number had grown to around 2600 acres, which is still small compared to most other major varieties, and although it continues to be mainly a blending grape there are an increasing number of Malbec labeled wines on the market.
Most significantly, in the 19thcentury Malbec made its most fateful voyage when it sailed to South America. The grape is often most closely associated with Argentina, however, the first landfall of the variety was actually in Chile. In the years after Chile gained its independence from Spain, there was a drive to disassociate the country from all things “Spanish” and this eventually included the wine grapes of Iberian origin such as País, Criolla Chica, and Pedro Jimenez. During 1830s, the Chilean government invited several French vintners to come and invigorate the country’s wine education and industry including René Lefebvre, Claudio Gay, and Michel Pouget. The Quinta Normal de Santiago was established in 1841 along the same lines as a similar institution in Paris with the goal of training local farmers in the best viticultural practices. At the same time, grape vine cuttings from France were imported to replace the Spanish varieties, and thus Malbec likely entered South America in the early 1840s.
The fortunes of Malbec turned out to be even better when Argentina decided to follow in Chilean footsteps later in the 1840s. The cultivation of the grape was spurred by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a politician who had fallen out of favor in his home country of Argentina and had to seek exile in Chile during the critical years when that country was beginning its association with French viticulture. Sarmiento in his youth had grown up in a grape growing area of Argentina and therefore had a strong appreciation for the industry. In 1853, Sarmiento returned to his homeland, became active in government and pushed for the creation of a Quinta Normal in Mendoza similar to the similar facility in Santiago, Chile. Sarmiento also invited to run this new school in Mendoza the French agronomist Pouget who had previously been in Chile. The authorization for the school was on April 17, 1853, which has now become the date for Malbec World Day to honor the start of Argentina’s love affair with Malbec and the significant contributions made by the grape’s cultivation to the future economy of the country.
Next: The Mal of (South) America