An assault on the summit in the Andes
There is order in the New World countries: California is Cabernet, Australia is Shiraz, New Zealand is Sauvignon Blanc and Argentina is Malbec. The first part of the list is also a clear from an Old World-perspective, but what the heck is Malbec?
. The first part of the list is also a clear from an Old World-perspective, but what the heck is Malbec? Carrying out a bit of research, it turns out that it’s also French, and its roots go back as far as Asterix, and its embeddedness can be well illustrated by the fact that when a prominent ampelographer tackled the job of collecting synonyms for it, he found over a thousand. Today, however, the world knows only one of them: Malbec, and even that doesn’t recall France.
We tend to regard Malbec as a New World sensation of the 21st century and therefore treat it with some suspicion. The truth, moreover, is that it is neither new nor New World. It used to be a famous variety in the Gallic provinces during the Roman times; as ‘black wine’ it was a favourite drink of kings and popes in the Middle Ages; and when the estates of Bordeaux were classified in 1855, at least half of the wines of the then four First Growth châteaux – Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Haut Brion – were made from Malbec. The excellence of the variety has never been questioned, and its career in the motherland was only disrupted by phylloxera and its sensitivity to the cold. The last bastion where it still holds itself prominently within France is Cahors, where it is known as Cot.
Surprisingly, Hungary also appears in the official biography of Malbec. It sounds very strange to Hungarian ears, but according to French general opinion, a Hungarian named Malbek distributed the variety in France, which was then named after him. This is certainly just a legend, but no other explanation has yet been given for the origin of the name.
World success in the new homeland
It is so far away from us that we hardly recognise it, but Argentina is an intercontinental wine power. It is the world’s eighth largest country, with a population of 45 million people, who not only make a lot of wine but also drink a lot. Until the mid-19th century, Argentina was made up of sparsely populated pampas, so it was then made a national program to attract European immigrants. The plan succeeded, the population grew fivefold and the economy fifteenfold in half a century. Thanks to this wave of immigration, today’s Argentina is basically half Italian and half Spanish in origin, meaning there is no meal without wine. Before Malbec’s international career began, nine out of 10 bottles of it were consumed domestically. And it's not a small amount: on an annual basis, Hungarian wine production is 350 million litres, while Argentina's is 2 billion.
Along with many other varieties, Malbec arrived to Argentina from France in 1852, as part of a government program. But nobody who tastes an Argentinian Malbec and a French one from Cahors today will recognise much kinship. There are several reasons for this. At the foot of the Andes, in Mendoza, Malbec receives a sufficient amount of heat and sunlight – the lack of which has made its cultivation in Bordeaux risky. In Argentina, the vineyards were not devastated by phylloxera, so the local grapes are not grafted onto American rootstocks. The clones are also different and show much greater diversity than in their original homeland.
Malbec, which with its style has conquered the world, is somewhere halfway between the Super Tuscans and the Californian Cabernets: with all its details being pronounced, seductively intense, with perfectly ripe fruit, and velvety, sweet tannins.
Jumping up a level
Seventy percent of Argentina’s wine production is provided by Mendoza, on the western border of the country. The Uco Valley is a flat plateau with a desert climate at the foot of the Andes. To the European eye, it would appear to be a land that is not suitable for vineyards. There isn’t another major wine region in the world where the sun shines so much, although there is the mitigating factor that the nights are at least cool. The grapes grow close to cacti, and in an average vintage they would have no chance of surviving without irrigation. Fortunately, the streams that descend from the Andes provide an abundant source of water, making it relatively easy to grow grapes and produce quality wine in Mendoza.
Rich in alcohol and fruit, the full-bodied, barrel-made, velvety tannin Argentinian Malbec quickly became popular around the world. The question of whether it was able to provide more than that – that is special, unique wine that reflects its place of growth – arose only in the 1990s.
All experts agreed that the factor that limited the quality the most was the excessive heat and consequently, the rapid ripening. To jump up to a new level, the growing zone needed to be moved higher up, along with the selection of the best clones, while the right cultivation method also had to be found. In this way, the ripening is delayed, and there is more time for the formation of complex aromas and flavours. But that is not given for free: the danger of frost increases at such altitudes, and virgin plots had to be brought into yielding in places where there were no roads, no electricity and no water. But, as they often say, without risk there is no success.
The pioneer was Nicolas Catena: in 1996, he was the one who set up the base camp at a height of 1,500 metres. Many thought he was crazy, but the 25 years that have elapsed since then have justified his actions, and by today all the higher-quality producers have followed suit. And even more, there seems to be some kind of bidding war going on, and not surprisingly the highest vineyard in the world can be found there: with its height of 3,111 metres, Altura Maxima, belonging to the Colomé winery, is the champion. So, the plan did work out, and with a new generation of high-altitude wines, they managed to go up a level. Due to the extreme ultraviolet radiation, the skins of the grapes become thicker and almost black, with the smaller bunches and smaller grapes increasing the concentration, while the significant daily temperature fluctuation and prolonged growing season result in juicier, spicier, more floral, mineral and elegant wines.
Crossing the Andes
Nobody wanted to miss the Malbec Express, which was speeding up around the turn of the millennium. The next-door neighbour Chileans hopped on it first, then the French, the Italians, and of course the Americans. The Chilean Viña Montes, which has had huge success with Bordeaux varieties, established the Kaiken winery in Argentina, in 2002. The name stylishly refers to the Magellan goose that commutes between the two countries over the peaks of the Andes. Since then, Kaiken has been running three estates in Mendoza, cultivating a total of 120 hectares and together with bought-in grapes, it produces and sells 3 million bottles of wine every year. From an empire of this size, we expect reliable, modern wines that faithfully reflect consumer tastes. Kaiken has always made the maximum of this, but never pushed the boundaries. However, on tasting its new wines, it became clear that Kaiken had longed for more than that and had been working behind the scenes for a long time to expand its repertoire.
The aim is to expand the Malbec universe, and instead of showing the varietal character flawlessly, Kaiken seeks to capture the individuality of the Argentinian places of growth through the wines.
Travel and adventure
The cornerstone of the new range is Kaiken Indómito. ‘Indómito’ means unbridled and restless, and with these wines the intention is to convey the message of Malbec and Cabernet Franc, grown in Argentina, to the younger generations. They are intense, easy-going and modern wines that are approachable for everyone.
The clearest indication of the change in emphasis is shown by the Aventura series: the shift from power to elegance, from concentrated fruit to finer notes, from weight to freshness, from large output to small batches. The grapes are grown on young vines of virgin areas, 130 kilometres southwest of Mendoza, 1,250 meters above sea level. In order to show the joint values of the grapes and the landscape without any refraction, the most neutral processing method is carried out: the wines are fermented and matured in concrete tanks. The screw cap and the fairytale label with the funny wild goose do not prepare the consumer for what they’ll get – intense, precise, pure and natural wines that are rich in different notes, full of life and tempting details.
The charming nose of Norte brings blueberry, blackberry and graphite aromas, followed by a juicy, vibrant palate with ripe fruit and firm tannins.
The aroma spectrum of Sur is closer to the lighter side, with red fruit also emerging, alongside the blackberries. However, the real excitement on the nose is caused by the thyme-like herbiness and aromas reminiscent of violets. It is characterised by a silkier texture and softer tannins than its northern counterpart.
Mai stands at the top of the range. It’s 100% Malbec from 100-year-old vines.
Anyone who tastes this wine will inevitably conclude that the goal set by Argentinian winemakers a decade and a half ago has been achieved: defined muscles, seamless movement, noble elegance and unmistakable individuality.