Thursday is World Malbec Day and while I'm not a fan of treating grapes like saints and giving them their own day, I feel an exception should be made for the malbec grape.
Once known as étranger (stranger) in Bordeaux, this varietal interloper came to the region as the 'black wine of Cahors', which is in south-west France, and was used to bring muscle and colour to skinnier clarets. The half-sibling of merlot, the malbec grape remained a minor variety in Bordeaux until relatively recently and was still known as cot or auxerrois in its heartland of Cahors.
That changed when Argentinian Nicolas Catena, a Decanter magazine man of the year, took it up. It exploded on to the international stage in the early 1990s, becoming as quick a hit as any grape variety can be. When that happened, it shone a new light on its place of origin. On the terraced slopes of the Lot Valley, Cahors, they now proudly parade their links to malbec. And they are finally doing justice to the variety, by producing flavoursome reds which are much in tune with the modern taste for bright fruit flavours.
It hasn't all been plain sailing for the grape, though. By 1990, 80 per cent of Argentina's original 50,000 hectares of malbec had been lost, as growers switched to more lucrative crops. Back up to 30,000 hectares today, it accounts for three-quarters of all malbec planted worldwide. I have long extolled the virtues of Argentinian malbec and am particularly fond of the delightful 2011 Luiga Bosca, £15.99, buy 2 = £12.99, Majestic. Also, new instore is the 2011 Tesco Finest* The Trilogy Malbec, £12.99, a classic, blackberry-rich wine with opulent dark chocolate undertones.
Chile is less well known for its malbec, but a worthy pioneer here is Viu Manent, a producer in the Colchagua Valley, which uses century-old vines. Their 2012 Malbec Le Secret de Viu Manent, around £10, Oddbins, Wholefoods, Flagship Wines, St Albans, is a lip-smacking fruit bomb of a wine, delivering liquorice spice and opulent blackberry aplenty. It is both refreshingly juicy and savoury.
Europe still, however, puts on a very good show. On a trip to Cahors recently, I observed at first-hand just how well malbec has adapted to the 21st century with much-improved viticulture and winemaking. Take, for instance, Pascal's Verhaeghe's 2010 Château du Cèdre, £18.50, Lea & Sandeman, a finely-hewn modern classic with aromatic dark-red-fruit notes behind a mulberry fruit concentration. Or the majestic 2008 Château de Chambert Grand Vin, £21.36-£23.50, thedrinkshop.com, West Mount Wines, a rich wine whose sweet and dark cherry flavours are polished by oak hues.