Monday 14th October 2013, 10:00AM BST.
Richard Allisette’s A to Z guide to lesser-known red grapes hits the middle of the alphabet, with altitude-loving malbec kicking off this week’s glass acts…
TWENTY years ago, if you’d asked even the keenest wine anorak to describe the taste of malbec, you may have been met with a shrug of the shoulders and a blank stare.
Unless that anorak had taken a holiday in the Lot valley in southern France and drunk the local wine, Cahors.
And yet today the malbec grape has become a staple on virtually every restaurant wine list. It’s not because we’ve all suddenly grown to love Cahors, but because Argentina has made the grape its USP.
It is especially popular in restaurants specialising in beef or steak, because malbec and seared steak is one of those marriages made in heaven.
It was originally grown in Bordeaux where it was used to soften the harsh tannins of cabernet sauvignon. But the grape is susceptible to rot and when the great frost of 1956 decimated the vineyards of Bordeaux, many growers chose to replace it with merlot, which has the same softening effect but is much hardier.
However, cuttings from Bordeaux malbec had found their way to Argentina around a hundred years before that. The Mendoza area is particularly suited to the variety as the vineyards are at altitude and that [cool nights] helps retain the grape’s acidity and elegance. In fact, the highest vineyard in the world is in Argentina and is planted with malbec – Colome’s is grown at 2,600m above sea level.
In the past, a lot of Argentinian malbec was too much of a good thing – heavily extracted and using lots of oak, wines that were impressive in the competition room but not so enjoyable at the dining table. Thankfully, the pendulum is swinging the other way and I discovered lots of juicy, fruity easy-drinking malbec at a recent Argentinian tasting in London.
Of course it is still grown in Cahors and must make up at least 70% of the blend. The wines are generally lighter in style with more of a raisiny, tobacco edge than their Argentinian cousins. I like them a lot and often find them far better value than everyday claret.
In the Loire, malbec is known as cot (pronounced with a silent ‘t’ as in Seb Coe). I find it very variable in quality, with too many growers trying to squeeze flavour out that isn’t really there, but it’s worth trying if you see cot on a wine list when on holiday.
Malbec is found in Australia and New Zealand but rarely on its own – it’s used in a Bordeaux-style blend most often, so maybe things have come full circle.
This is a particular favourite grape of mine and I drink it often. It is found in Bierzo in north-west Spain and makes everything from juicy-fruity quaffing wines to much more serious oak-aged versions.
I first came across it in a tapas restaurant in London when I asked for a glass of red to match some slow-cooked lamb I was eating – it was a perfect combination. Meaty winter casseroles are ideal partners for mencia, which cuts through the sticky richness. In taste, it is not far removed from cabernet franc, though it is a little riper and softer. So if you like Loire reds like Chinon and Saumur Champigny, it’s worth trying.
Actually sangiovese, this is a great grape of Tuscany. But while sangiovese is known as brunello in the town of Montalcino, it becomes morellino in Scansano on the coast of Tuscany. I mention it because Morellino di Scansano is worth looking out for – it is a little lighter than Chianti, but is perhaps easier to drink when young – and because it is not as well known, it is often cheaper. Perfect wine with something like veal marsala.
Regular readers of this column will probably have heard of this because our ‘house’ red chez Allisette is nearly always made from this grape.
It is best in Puglia in southern Italy, where it makes a rustic, raisin-flavoured wine that could only come from a hot climate – you can almost smell warm earth in it, and it sometimes has a farmyard edge – but don’t let that put you off. Look out for wines from Copertino and Salice Salentino – perfect reds for slurping with pizza and pasta. A few winemakers are trying to clean negroamaro up and make it more international in style, but I like the old-fashioned, rustic one best of all.