Malbec, the signature varietal that put Argentina on the world stage
By Mr Mauricio Llaver - Photographs: courtesy of the estates, posted on 19 January 2024
In just over 30 years, Malbec has catapulted Argentina into the competitive international world of wines. It arrived in the South American country in the 1850s and subsequently managed to avoid the ravages caused by phylloxera in France, thus preserving its original genetics. Fast forward to 2022, and it accounted for 56% of Argentina’s total wine exports.
Fortunately for Argentina and wine drinkers around the world, Malbec held onto its original genetics despite the phylloxera plague that ravaged France shortly after the mid-1800s. In Argentina it was popularly known as the ‘French grape’, and for more than a century it was used to make table wines, blended with other varietals, due to domestic consumption being almost entirely focused on this type of wine. But from the 1990s onwards, Argentina discovered that Malbec had enormous potential to make great wines, and the trend began to change.
Wineries began to experiment, to enter international markets and to leverage the varietal’s benefits. Suddenly the country became synonymous with Malbec at international level. Michel Rolland best defined this leap in quality: “What Argentina did in ten years with Malbec, no one else in the world has done”.
The phenomenon has since swept across the entire Argentinean wine industry, with Malbec grown across the country, producing wines spanning the price brackets. One poignant figure that demonstrates its success is that in 2022, 56% of Argentina’s total wine exports were Malbec.
3Sapas: a Swiss adventure in Mendoza
“Friendship. Love for wine and nature. Mendoza”. These are the initial components of the unique story of 3Sapas, a project that was born in 2017 when Arnaud Frésard, born in La Chaux-de-Fonds (Switzerland), arrived in Buenos Aires for a study exchange aged just 26. After a few trips to Mendoza, he met a compatriot who introduced him to the world of wines. Later, after his brother Florian joined them, Arnaud's dream took shape, inspired by the memory of a maternal great-grandfather who owned a small vineyard in the Veneto and produced his own wine.
From the outset, the idea was to found a winery that would represent his generation and bring a breath of fresh air to a very traditional world. “A young, irreverent and sustainable winery”, as Arnaud defines it. Thus 3Sapas was born, an acronym for “three Swiss at the foot of the Andes”. The winery is located in Gualtallary, in the Uco Valley, and has 46 hectares, 35 of them planted with vineyards switching over to organic.
3Sapas grows 18 grape varieties, nine red and nine white, and the percentage of Malbec is between 55% and 60% of the total varietal range. According to Frésard, “when it comes to marketing our wines, one argument that underscores Malbec's position as Argentina's emblematic variety is its plasticity. It is one of the most adaptable grape varieties to the climate of our region, which allows us to produce a wide range of iterations, from rosé and white wines to wines with texture and great minerality, as well as wines matured in oak barrels. Consequently, Malbec allows us to offer our consumers different wines that result in a unique experience of the world of Argentinean Malbec”.
Also, in partnership with NGOs, 3Sapas is developing the ‘One bottle = one tree’ programme, which supports the planting of a native tree in areas threatened by deforestation or damaged ecosystems for each bottle of its wines sold.
The 3Sapas team: Jonas Lépine (Sales), Florian Frésard (Operations and Design), Arnaud Frésard (President and CEO), Luis Coita Civit (Winemaker and Agronomist) and Fernando Sota (Winemaker).
The 3Sapas vineyard in Gualtallary, Uco Valley, at the foot of the Andes Mountains.
A team driven by a very clear philosophy: “Friendship. Love for wine and nature. Mendoza”.
Winemaker Luis Coita Civit at 3Sapas, and his love for wine.
Familia Crotta: ninety years of tradition in the Central Valley
Mendoza has very diverse areas for wine production, and one of them is the Central Valley, located in the east of the province. This is where the largest amount of grapes are grown in Argentina and where Familia Crotta is located. The company boasts 90 years of tradition and owns almost 400 hectares of vineyards, producing 18 million litres a year.
“Out of our total production, Malbec represents 35%, because we also grow Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Torrontés, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and Moscatel”, explains Mario Bartolucci, the company’s export manager. Bartolucci has been working hard for years to open up foreign markets – Familia Crotta is a strong player in Argentina’s domestic market, where it sells 70% of its production.
“Malbec is our flagship and is always the most requested varietal by buyers, which is an advantage because, we take advantage of it to introduce other varieties”, he explains. “It is a very natural and noble varietal, which has found in Mendoza a perfect terroir to express itself. From a winemaking perspective, it is versatile and allows us to make wines that can be young or show great concentration”.
Familia Crotta: a family with a 90-year history in Argentina’s wine industry.
Familia Crotta markets Malbec across its lines and ships them to 18 foreign markets where it already has a presence. The young varietal range features a single varietal Malbec under the Crotta brand; Com1enzos line contains a blend of 50% Malbec and 50% Bonarda; there is a Malbec partially aged in oak barrels, and the Gran Reserva Malbec Familia Crotta, matured for 12 months in oak barrels. “Malbec is therefore present in each line and expresses its different qualities”, concludes Bartolucci.
Familia Crotta produces 18 million litres a year and exports 30% of its wines.
The young Com1enzos line, where Malbec provides traction for the other varietals.
Tierra Fértil: Malbec as an identity
Taking advantage of his foreign trade skills, Bartolucci is also developing Tierra Fértil, his own project with a strong export focus. “For our family, Malbec forges an identity, so we make a Malbec in each line, all with grapes from different areas of the Uco Valley. Out of our total production, 70% is Malbec and the remaining 30% is Chardonnay”, he says.
Tierra Fértil's export focus is borne out by the fact that exports represent 90% of total sales. The company currently has a presence in Brazil, Panama and Poland, and is working on the development of markets such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and China.
“Malbec is our flagship globally, and in most countries it is the wine that facilitates penetration of other varieties. We always promote Malbec as our identity, reflected in every bottle we produce, because the world almost always associates us with it”, stresses Bartolucci.
The wines are Malbec Tierra Fértil (matured for six months in oak barrels), Malbec Reserva Tierra Fértil (matured for 12 months in oak barrels), and Malbec Gran Reserva Tierra Fértil (matured for 18 months in oak barrels). For 2025, the company is preparing a blend that will have 45% Malbec, 30% Cabernet Franc, 15% Petit Verdot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. “It will be a very high quality wine in limited quantities”, predicts Bartolucci.
Mario Bartolucci: “For our family, Malbec is an identity”.
Doña Paula: where Malbec helped define a style
Martín Kaiser, manager of winemaking and viticulture at Doña Paula winery, defines the meaning of Malbec unreservedly: “It is our star varietal for different reasons, but the most important is that, throughout Doña Paula's history, we have managed with Malbec to find our style of what a good red wine should be”.
Martín Kaiser, head of winemaking and viticulture at Doña Paula, claims “Malbec helped us find a style of what a good red wine should be”.
Doña Paula is a Chilean-owned project that settled in Mendoza and produces a long list of labels with the varietal, such as Selección de Bodega, Parcel Alluvia, Parcel Los Indios, Altaluvia, Single Vineyard El Alto, Estate, Los Cardos, Rosé and Unique. In addition, in some blends, it use Malbec as a majority grape in five wines: 1100, Estate Black Edition, Estate Blue Edition, Smoked and Los Cardos Red Blend. Doña Paula has a strong focus on foreign markets -70% of its exports are Malbec – and 60% of its vineyards are planted to the variety.
As Kaiser explains, overseas, Doña Paula highlights the fact that the terroir where they source their Malbec is very different to most of the world's major regions. “We have areas with relatively cool summers, but with great sunshine, which produce fruity wines with pleasant tannins. This style is highly sought after by global consumers who find Malbec easy to enjoy and feel it pairs well with a wide range of foods”.
Malbec accounts for 70% of Doña Paula's exports and 60% of its varietal range in the vineyard.
Another advantage is that it is a relatively easy variety to farm in the vineyard: “The vines are very rustic and adapt to soils of all types. They even tolerate some soil pests, such as phylloxera and nematodes, better than other fine varieties. Malbec is also tolerant to conditions conducive to fruit diseases that occur in some summers with higher rainfall”, concludes Kaiser.
Aluvia Vineyard: a high altitude experiment on the edge of the Andes.
Staphyle: pioneering high altitude Malbec
The Staphyle winery has blazed the trail for high-altitude Malbec wines in Potrerillos, a mountainous area in the foothills of the Andes, in Luján de Cuyo. Here, its vineyards border the Potrerillos reservoir, a relatively new landscape for winegrowing in Mendoza.
Staphyle stresses that every market assumes that an Argentinean winery must have some Malbec.
Sebastián Olalla, the winery’s CEO, explains that “for Staphyle and Argentina, Malbec is the ultimate iconic varietal and it represents 75% of our exports”. Logically, 60% of Staphyle's vines are Malbec, and vineyard management is designed to cater to its portfolio, which includes Malbec in every range, from entry level to luxury wines.
Staphyle's Malbecs are already exported to 28 countries, and Olalla stresses the importance of having a flagship varietal: “As a varietal that has already achieved international prestige, there is really no need to insist too much about why we make Malbec. Also, markets assume that, as we’re an Argentinean winery, we have to have Malbec”.
However, new challenges are arising on the export horizon, notes Olalla: “In the world there are mature markets with consumers with a relatively high level of knowledge, for whom an 'acceptable' or 'drinkable' Malbec is no longer sufficient. The wines’ particular characteristics, such as their origin, terroir, particular winemaking techniques or history have to be highlighted”.
In terms of portfolio, Staphyle produces Iris Malbec, a young varietal wine that is not matured in wood; Vástago de GEA Malbec, a very fruity varietal with a percentage of American oak maturation; Staphyle Premium Malbec, which shows very good structure and elegance and is matured in French and American oak barrels; Staphyle Partida Limitada Malbec, a very expressive and complex range, matured in French oak barrels for twelve months; Staphyle Dragón de Vino Malbec, born among the mountains in the Potrerillos Valley, with features defined by its high altitude; and Staphyle Malbec Microterroirs Series, made with grapes from three very significant sub-regions in the Uco Valley: Gualtallary, Vista Flores and El Cepillo.
Staphyle has Malbec in all ranges, from entry level to high-end.
Don Rosendo Wines: Malbec as a cornerstone
The mission of Don Rosendo Wines is very clear: “To cater to consumers’ highest expectations, to be an icon of service, and to be instrumental in taking Malbec and Argentinean wine out to the world”. Based on this premise, it produces a long list of Malbec-focused labels from grapes grown in Alto Agrelo (Luján de Cuyo) and La Consulta (Uco Valley). Patricio Pereyra Iraola, who belongs to a traditional Argentinean family and is director of the company, explains that “Malbec is the basis of our wines, and as an iconic grape from Argentina it represents us as a country and is what we sell most. We have 100% Malbec varietals and it is also the most important component of our blends”.
At Don Rosendo Wines, Malbec represents 75% of the wines it produces, while 60% of its vineyards are planted to the varietal. “On our Alto Agrelo estates, we produce deep, characterful, fresh and very fruitful Malbec wines, whilst our Malbec from La Consulta is very elegant and complex, with fruity and floral characters”, explains winemaker Gabriela Zavala.
Patricio Pereyra Iraola, director of Don Rosendo Wines.
The company’s main export markets are the United States, China, the European Union and Brazil. The main brands are Don Rosendo Special Selection Malbec (matured for 9 months in French oak barrels); Don Rosendo Select Malbec (matured for 12 months in French oak barrels); Picabuey Oak Cask Malbec; Picabuey Reserve Malbec (matured for 12 months in French oak barrels); Jamaaz Malbec (matured for 15 months in French oak barrels); Doña Fina Malbec; Doña Fina Reserve Malbec (matured for 9 months in French oak barrels), and Doña Fina Royal Select Malbec (matured for 12 months in French oak barrels). Among its blends, Argentina's flagship varietal accounts for 50% of Don Rosendo Select Malbec/Carménère. “Malbec is a variety that has found the ideal conditions for its development in Argentina. We love our country and we are convinced that Malbec is the soul of Argentine wines. It represents us, and we proudly introduce it to the world”, concludes Pereyra Iraola.
Don Rosendo’s mission is to “To cater to consumers’ highest expectations”.
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