Malbec Musings

© Cape Times Friday 17th April 2015

Recently, I’ve been musing on Malbec, one of the ‘also-ran’ grapes in a red Bordeaux blend. Yes, I said red Bordeaux and I bet a few of you thought that that stopped at Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot didn’t you? Actually, there are six black grape varieties permitted in Bordeaux with Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc being the next best-known, whilst the recent success of Carmenère in Chile is leading to new plantings back in the old country of France as well. Chile is now regarded as the ‘home’ of Carmenère and South Africa has been consistently building up a reputation for world-class Cabernet Franc for many years, but in my view, the grape which has travelled with the most success to date is undoubtedly Malbec.

At some time in the mid nineteenth century, some bright spark decided to take cuttings of Malbec from its home in Bordeaux and South-west France to Argentina. Planted there at high altitude, on poor, sandy soils, Malbec makes arguably the finest expressions of the grape in the world. Not long after the cuttings were taken, a little louse called phylloxera started to attack the vineyards in France causing the vines to die, and when they were eventually replanted, it is thought that a different clone of Malbec was used. It’s certainly true that the bunches of Malbec grapes look different in the two countries and the flavours also differ massively, with the wines made in France being rather chunky and rustic as opposed to the sleek, velvety, plushy and sweetly-fruited versions from the Southern Hemisphere.

Malbec is being planted here in SA as well and for the most part, it’s used in Bordeaux blends, most notably the Vilafonte ‘M’ which is mostly Malbec with Merlot and a tweak of Cabernet Sauvignon. But increasingly, people are making it as a single variety wine, offering something a little bit different from the norm. I find the best Malbecs always have a lovely violet or perfumed note to them along with a rich palate and a lovely inky-purple colour. All of which was deliciously in evidence at a lunch last week with Plaisir de Merle. In accordance with their name, they had given us the pleasure of lunching at The Test Kitchen to show off their recent vintages, all of which are well-made, well-priced, very pleasant drinking wines. Except for the Malbec.

As soon as I sniffed that wine, I knew I’d found my story. Winemaker Niel Bester has been at Plaisir de Merle since the cellar was built in 1993 and freely confesses to a strong love of Bordeaux varieties. He doesn’t like to overwhelm them with too much new oak, preferring to let the sweet, ripe fruit and the soft tannins shine “What I taste in the grape is what I want to taste in the wine” he says. The 2012 Malbec (R260 cellar door) is only an occasional wine with most of it going into the flagship blends. But, as Niel says with a wry smile, when you are working for a big company (Plaisir de Merle is part of Distell’s boutique portfolio, Cape Legends), it’s a lot of trouble to launch a new wine, so he tries to take every opportunity he can to keep the existing wines in the portfolio.

He’s onto a winner with this Malbec – perfumed and aromatic black berries giving way to succulent, juicy ripe plums with layers of liquorice spice and an earthy texture. It was a conversation-stopper, but for all the right reasons as most of us around the table took a sip and gave an appreciative and collective ‘ooooh.’ It’s probably only going to be available from the farm and release is scheduled in about a month’s time, but I’d advise you to take a trip out and find it as soon as you can. Is it the best Malbec in SA? I can’t say without trying some others, but with a surname like Niel’s, and a wine like this, I wouldn’t be surprised.