To Malbec !

Frank Corr celebrates with Argentina

This article appears in the June-July issue of 'Hotel and Restaurant Times'

‘Please- not another Arthur’s Day’ was my initial reaction to an invitation celebrating  ‘Malbec World Day’.

If Malbec can climb on this band-wagon are we to be assailed by ‘Days’ celebrating every grape varietal on Earth?.

Hopefully not, but regional wine producers will certainly be looking with interest at the publicity for this particular grape and wines of Argentina, generated by the third annual ‘Malbec Day’ in key territories. They will also take note of the edgy theme of this year’s event which has enlisted the support of graffiti artistes who will either enhance or vandalise  (depending on your viewpoint), various public spaces around the world. The message that ‘Argentina wines are for the young’ is however very clear.

Celebrations in Ireland are low-key and centre around a wine tasting featuring some wines that are new tothis market.  Organisers Jean Smullen and  Wines of Argentina can be quietly satisfied about the progress of their wines in Ireland in recent years. Nielsen figures to September 2012 show MAT volume sales of Argentine wine increasing by 14.7% with value sales for the same period increasing by 18.2%.  This however is from a low base of 91,000 cases or a mere 1% of the market. Nevertheless the trend is positive with sales driven by a growing recognition and appreciation of Malbec.

The grape has its origins in South West France, where it is called Cot and is used in making wines with a hard, tannic style. Due to their intense colour and dark hues, Malbec wines were known as  ‘the black wines of Cahors’. They became popular in England and later in other European markets. When phylloxera destroyed French viticulture towards the end of the 19th century, the ‘Cot’ fell into oblivion

Some time earlier, in 1852 the Argentine government asked agronomist Michel Pouget to source some new grape varietals which would be suitable to their soil and climate. He responded by importing the first Malbec vines which were immediately successful, responding to the varied terroirs offered by Argentina’s landscape. After the phylloxera wipe-out therefore, Argentina became the only country to have original Malbec vines of true French heritage.

Argentina is to-day the world’s largest producer of Malbec with around 76,000 ha of vines. It is well ahead of France while small quantities can also be found in Spain, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. The grape is planted along the Andes mountains from Salta to Patagonia with varying degrees of control and quality as only some regions operate a DOC system.

The growing popularity of Malbec probably owes much to the success of Shiraz  which is similar in many respects. Malbec has an opaque intense black colour and it smells of cherries, plums and soft fruits. It is warm and soft in the mouth with a sweetness and usually very soft tannins.  Good to look at, nice to smell and easy to drink- it ticks many boxes for consumers in the large markets. Much of the Malbec on the market is unoaked and is designed to be consumed while very young.  Wines which are aged in oak for a few months are best after two to three years while icon wines can last for a decade. It is a fine accompaniment to red meats and therefore very popular with the beef-loving Argentinians.

There is of course more to the wines of Argentina than Malbec, which accounts for 36% of plantings. Bonarda (known in California as Charbono) represents 18% of vines and is increasingly blended with Malbec. Other red wine varietals include Cabernet  Sauvignon (17%), Syrah (13%), Merlot (11%) Tempranillo (10%), San Giovese (6%) and Pinot Noir (5%) while Pedro Ximenez , Torontes Riojano and Chardonnay are prominent among the whites.

The production and consumption of wine in Argentina dates back to over four hundred years ago when the first specimens of Vitis vinifera were brought to the Americas by the Spanish colonizers in the early 16th century.

In 1551, the first vines were planted, spreading rapidly in the central, western and north-eastern areas of the country. Favoured by the optimum soil and weather conditions of the Andean region, the winemaking industry experienced rapid, extensive growth. Catholic priests who came to these lands planted vineyards near their monasteries to ensure the provision of wine for the celebration of Mass.

In 1853, the Quinta Normal – the first school of agriculture in the country – was created in Mendoza. Michel Aimé Pouget was appointed as the Quinta's Principal and was the first to introduce French vines in Mendoza, to promote their cultivation and to teach scientific methods to improve fruit development.

A modernisation and consolidation programme for the wine industry was completed in the 1960's with large winemaking establishments, bottling plants and a solid distribution and retail network in place. When wine consumption declined in the 1970s however thousands of acres of vines were uprooted. The opening up of the Argentine economy in the 1990s led to further investment and a policy of producing high quality wines in smaller quantities, principally for export markets.

Most of the major Irish importers list wines from Argentina and those represented at the trade tasting included Alta Vista (Mitchell and Sons), Andeluna (Wines on the Green),  Dona Paula (Gleeson Group),  Domaine Bousquet (Tindal Wine Merchants),  Finca Sophenia (James Nicholson Wine Merchants),   Luigi Bosca /Familia Arizu (Searsons Wine Merchants),    Bodegas Lurton (Febvre and Company),  Trivento/ Masi Argentina (Findlater Wine and Spirit Group),   Mentel (Wines on the Green), Bodega Callia (Mackenway Distributors), Catena Zapata/Alpamenta  (Cassidy Wines), Michel Torino (Classic Drinks);  O. Fournier (Quintessential Wines),  Pascul Toso (The Vineyard, Galway), Bodegas Renacer (Tindal Wine Merchants),   Salentein (Wines on the Green),   Santa Ana (Classic Drinks), Trapiche (Coman Wines),  Trivento (Findlater Wine and Spirit Group) and Familia Zuccardi (Barry and Fitzwilliam)





















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