Understanding Malbec

Understanding Malbec with Managing Director of Catena Zapata, Dr Laura Catena


Before we jump into the Q&A with Dr. Laura Catena and I want you to understand a little but more why this women is one of affectively a rockstar. She demonstrates ambition, intelligence, passion and pure intention to help people. She’s a fourth generation Argentine Vintner. Now the managing director of Catena Zapata, which was founded in 1902 in Mendoza, which is Malbec Argentinian home. Her father, who is equally as inspiring Nicholas Catena Zapata has been referred to as the Robert Mondavi of Argentina. It’s fair to say. He expedited Argentinian Malbec fame to the world. Laura has graduated from Harvard and has a medical doctor degree from Stanford university whilst having three children. She’s also used science to work with nature and promotes Malbec across the world. She has been an emergency physician for 30 plus years, volunteers to help the homeless. She’s an author of three books, Malbec Mon Amor, Gold in the Vineyards and Vino Argentino.

FUN FACT ABOUT MALBEC: When we look at the DNA of Malbec we can see it is a crossing. A natural one that happened way more than a thousand years ago. It shares the same mother as Merlot, a grape called Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. Charentes is a region about 80 miles north of Bordeaux. And the father of Malbec, is a grape that comes from Gaillac, which is in the Southwest of France, between Bordeaux and Cahors, called Pruneland.

Yes. So, we plant Malbec in most new locations because Malbec has a different flavour in each place and in this way, it’s somewhat similar to, you might say Pinot Noir. But it’s even better because Pinot Noir, if you plant it somewhere a little bit warm, it doesn’t do well. Malbec does really well in very cool climates and it can do well in somewhat warm climate. If it’s too hot, you should plant Bonarda because Malbec, if it’s too hot, it doesn’t do well, but it has a bigger range than Pinot Noir or even Cabernet Sauvignon. If you have a Malbec from cool climate, high altitude, limestone soils, it’s going to go in the, what I call the Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc direction, because it’s never as textured and bitter as Cabernet Sauvignon because it’s got smooth tannins. But it’s going to be more floral with a little more fruit. Sometimes if it’s from a very gravelly soil it’s more in the Cabernet Franc direction. But then when you go to some of the warmer regions like Salta, even if they have very high altitude, it’s a little bit warmer, but they have these clouds that live by the little hill that are next to all the vineyards. And so, you get a Malbec that sometimes will even have some pyrazines, like a Cabernet, which is a little unusual, they’re more herbal yet the alcohols are higher. So, it’s kind of a contradiction and that’s because it’s quite hot, but that’s exciting in itself that it’s a different flavour. And you know, a lot of these things also depend on how late you harvest, you know, what you’re looking for, what your soil is. You know, altitude is not everything, you know, heat is not everything, but what’s exciting about Malbec is that it really soaks up terroir. And so, it will provide a very different flavour, but a great flavour in many different locations, different latitudes, different altitudes. And so, I never get tired of tasting different kinds of Malbec, because they’re all different. In Patagonia people think, oh, it must be so much colder there, right? Because it’s further south. South is colder, but the altitude is almost at sea level. Whereas, you know, Mendoza’s up to 5,000 feet in Salta, which is almost near the tropics. We have vineyards up to 8,000, 10,000 feet elevation. So in Patagonia, it’s not really cooler than in high altitude Mendoza, but they have a lot of wind. What the wind does is it really dries out the vineyard? So, it’s really great for organic farming because there’s just not a lot of disease pressure. But there’s a little more underground water in Patagonia. So, the vines are a little less stressed. Patagonian wines tend to be sort of ripe, not too tannic, they’re kind of elegant with good acidity, but not as high acid as Mendoza. You can really play with the harvest time and get these riper wines, or you can get these more mineral wines that are a little more green. And a lot of that you can do because you don’t have the altitude to deal with and you don’t have a lot of an issue with water. There’s actually more water underground in Patagonia than Mendoza, which in some ways could be an advantage with climate change because in Mendoza the glacier water is really going down. And so every year we have less water.
Malbec is a variety that is so much better known from Argentina than from France. And the history goes that when the Roman Legionnaire went through Gall through France, they identified two regions. They identified Cahors, because Bordeaux was not developed at that time. Médoc really becomes important in the 17th century. And it’s thanks to the Dutch who drained the swamp in Médoc. But before that, the main regions were Burgundy and Cahors, which was in the Southwest of France and in Cahors, they made Malbec. So Malbec and Pinot Noir are two very ancient varieties. So that’s where the history sort of starts. Then you have all these stories about Eleanor de Aquitaine, who was the first Queen of France and Queen of England. So she brings Malbec to England and then, you know, it, it starts getting exported all over Europe and for her, it was really important to keep the Lords in Aquitaine happy and the way to keep them happy was to buy their wine. And so that’s how Malbec becomes really important in Europe. But then the Bordelaise are trying to wage commercial war against Cahors and they try to block the exports. There was a French king who actually had to help Malbec survive because otherwise it would’ve been eliminated. And that’s one of the things I like about Malbec is that it almost becomes lost to the world multiple times, and then it always survives. And then during phylloxera, Malbec was actually just as important as Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux, when the 1855 classification happened. There was actually more Malbec planted than Cabernet Sauvignon. And this is actually a reference from the Encyclopedia Britannica and also the same reference in the Encyclopedia Francez. So, there’s real data showing that Malbec was not a minor grape in Bordeaux. It was very important, just as important as Cabernet because they played the role of bringing some fruit and softening the tannins of Cabernet. But then what happens is that Malbec ripened at the same time as Cabernet, and they were looking for a grape that maybe ripened earlier and also had these soft tannins. And that was Merlot. And that’s why today, most of the blends of Bordeaux have a majority of Cabernet and then Merlot. Now Cabernet Franc has become newly important, but really the main blend was Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Phylloxera, this plague that decimated the vineyards of Europe in the late 1800s causes Malbec to disappear when they replant as they replant with Merlot. Fortunately before that, Malbec comes to Argentina, where it becomes widely planted, and there is no writing on why. There’s nothing in the history books of Argentina for why it was Malbec and not Cabernet Sauvignon, and not Sangiovese etc because all these European varieties were brought to Argentina. I think what happened is that they did trial error and planted Malbec alongside over varieties but Malbec was always good. And I think that it really is kind of a marriage, made in heaven. It gives a different flavor in different places, but it always makes a beautiful wine. And I think there’s something about this combination of sunlight and climate. And it’s also the plant selections that today no longer exists in Europe and are only in Argentina. So that could also be part of the secret.
I have to say that I love Malbec with steak, but I also like Cabernet Sauvignon with steak.  But there’s something that Malbec does that I think there’s not many other red varieties that compare with, really gamey food. So, for example, something like a quail or a chicken Curry, you’re not going to pair Cabernet Sauvignon with a more white meat. Also something gamey like lamb with a chutney or pork. I actually think that because Malbec has those sweet tannins that are not from sugar, it has a lot of polysaccharides, so you get the sweet sensation, but it’s not sweet. It can go really well with some of these more gamey meats and meats that you do with a sauce, that maybe does have a little sweetness. Malbec with salmon. It goes really well, especially if you do a cool climate Malbec, but another favorite of mine for Malbec is foods with umami. And you know, of course steak and meat has umami, but mushrooms have umami. So one of my favorite pairings is mushroom risotto with Malbec. There is nothing better, or grilled vegetables where you get a little bit of that umami from the grilling. It’s incredible. And I don’t know if you’ve had Paneer, that Indian cheese that you can grill? I think Malbec goes really well with Paneer with some spice and that comes from those sweet tannins. So, Malbec is a red wine that can take some spice. Usually people think, okay, with spicy Asian food, you know, let’s have a Riesling, or let’s have a beer, but actually because of those high acid, but sweet tannins of Malbec, they compare with some of these more exotic foods. And that’s something that I feel like I’m the only person talking about this because, as you said, most people talk about Steak and Malbec.
I would say aromatically, it’s going to have a mix of fruits. And if it’s from a cooler climate, it will get more of what we call the blue fruits. And if it’s a warmer climate, it will be more of the black fruits. They’re all delicious. And it will have a little bit of florals. And that’s very particular of Malbec from the Uco valley, a little bit of floral. And then it will have quite a bit of texture on the palette and it’s very dark in color. So, if you want to win a blind tasting competition and a wine is kind of light, it’s not Malbec. It used to be called the black wine. So, look at the color. So you’ve got this fruits, a mix of black and red, sometimes a little bit of spice depending on the region. And then the palate will be very rich and long, but always smooth tannins. And the acidity will depend on how much cool climate fruit there is, but it doesn’t taste super high acid. Pinot Noir tastes more high acid. Even if they have the same acidity, Pinot Noir will taste more high acid than Malbec. And that’s because of these smooth tannins. Some people call it the velvet glove. I think that’s, that’s a good analogy. And the sweetness again is not from sugar. So, if you’re on a low carb diet, this is a way to cheat, because Malbec is dry, but you get a sweet sensation because it really doesn’t have carbs. That’s a very particular thing about Malbec, that you feel big tannins, but they are very smooth and velvety with a touch of sweet flavor. 

This was taken from my much longer chat and interview with Laura, featured on the Eat Sleep Wine Repeat Podcast – Episode 111. See below to have a listen, or you can find the podcast on all podcast platforms such as Apple and Spotify.

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