Malbec — A Guide to the Basics

Malbec is the most important red grape variety of Argentina, but it also produces excellent wine in many other countries around the world.

Malbec grapes at harvest in Mendoza
Photo: Cristian Martin / Getty Images

Malbec has become the most important vinous calling card for Argentina, as the grape variety is responsible for the country's most famous and highly regarded wines. Indeed, Malbec and Argentina are, among a wide swath of the wine-drinking public, considered more or less synonymous. Yet while Malbec arguably is best able to reach its peak of quality and expressiveness in Argentina, it is also grown and crafted into fantastic wine in many other countries around the world. In fact, its roots aren't even based in Argentina — they're found in France, which remains home to many excellent Malbecs. To understand all that Malbec has to offer, check out our guide below.

What is Malbec Wine?

Malbec is a wine produced from the grape of the same name. It is most often a red wine, but like all other red varieties, it can be made into white and rosé, too. Historically, white Malbec was a rarity, and while it still is, there are a handful of examples notably being produced in Argentina. Malbec rosé is far more commonly seen, but the grape really shines most brightly as a red wine, whether bottled on its own or as a component of a blend.

Where Does Malbec Wine Come From?

Malbec is most commonly associated with Argentina, but its roots go back to Cahors in southwestern France, where it contributes to a notably dark and tannic red wine. The grape there is referred to as Côt. Malbec, and is also one of the five main blending varieties in Bordeaux, alongside Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. But it's in Argentina that Malbec reaches what many professionals and consumers believe to be its peak, literally, in the case of the high-altitude vineyards around Mendoza where it particularly thrives.

The first generation of Malbec red wines from Argentina to make a serious impact on the American market were relatively inexpensive bottlings from Mendoza; they generally hit their stride in the early-2000s. These days, while everyday-priced Malbecs are still an important part of the category, it's the higher-end and higher-altitude expressions that garner the most excitement. Sub-regions like the Uco Valley and Gualtallary are of particular interest, and as climate change continues to impact how and where wine grapes are grown, it's these high-altitude (and therefore often cooler) locations that seem to produce the most nuanced wines, with often more assertive tannins, vivid acidity, and aging potential.

Patagonian Malbecs are also a growing category. There are excellent Malbecs from Chile, Uruguay, California, Australia, and New Zealand, too. For the latter, look for Malbec from Decibel, which is produced by an American who lives in New Zealand. It's excellent.

Why Should You Drink Malbec Wine?

Wines produced entirely from Malbec have the unique ability to shine both on their own as well as alongside a wide range of foods. In Argentina, an asado often calls for several bottles of Malbec to pair with all of that magnificent meat. But even after the fire has died down, Malbec's unique ability to express dark cherry, brambly berry, and plum fruit alongside notes of tobacco and spice (as well as a plush texture that's well-structured, but not typically dominated by its tannins) means it also works alongside less heavy foods. Mushrooms tend to pair with Malbec, as do cheeses that range from more mild like gouda to more assertive like gorgonzola, Even a nice pepperoni pizza is fantastic with it. Malbec from Cahors, on the other hand, tends to possess more assertive tannins, which has an impact on the kinds of foods it pairs best with. In that case, more protein and fat are called for: Duck confit washed down with Cahors is terrific.

Malbec also blends well with a number of other grape varieties. It's one of the five main permitted grapes for red wines from Bordeaux, yet even in Chile, it's not uncommon to find it blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.

How Much Does Malbec Cost?

When it comes to price, Malbec can be found across the spectrum. Decent bottles for less than $15 are often just what you need on a Tuesday evening, and more expensive ones — they can climb north of $100 —are worthy additions to any collection and can stand the test of time as they evolve in the bottle over the years.

What Does Malbec Taste Like?

When vinified as a red wine, Malbec tends to boast aromas and flavors of dark cherries, brambly berries, and plums. These are often seasoned with notes of spice, and if the wine has been aged in new oak, suggestions of vanilla, chocolate, and coffee are not uncommon. The tannic structure of Malbec ranges from medium to more assertive, depending on where it's grown and the character of the vintage, and it often has enough acidity to keep things lively, without being anywhere near tart. Often, a sense of plushness is conveyed in each sip. In some cases, hints of violets may be discernible. Malbec is best enjoyed at slightly cooler than room temperature, and from a wine glass that allows for vigorous swirling and generous oxygenation, which allows it to open up.

Five Great Malbec Wines

There are countless great Malbec wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all that Malbec has to offer.

Catena Zapata

Catena Zapata has become one of the most important producers of Malbec in Argentina. From inexpensive examples like Vista Flores to cellar-worthy ones like the Argentino, they excel at it all.

Clos La Coutale

One of the more well-known producers of Cahors, the flagship red of Clos La Coutale is a blend of approximately 20% Merlot and 80% Malbec.

Viña Montes

The Montes Alpha Malbec proves that delicious examples of the grape variety are made on the Chilean side of the Andes, too. For around $25, this bottle offers expressive berry and plum fruit layered with more savory notes.

Pascual Toso

Pascual Toso produces a number of Malbecs, and even their most affordable option — around $10 or so — is a solid offering.

Susana Balbo

One of the pioneers of Malbec in Argentina, Susana Balbo has been at the forefront of the country's wine industry for decades. Whether it's the Crios line or the Signature, Balbo's wines are reliably well-crafted.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles