Ask any wine geek about Malbec and chances are they will point to Cahors and the "black wine” of southwest France, considered the classic interpretation of the grape. Originally known as Auxerrois, later changed to Noir de Pressac and shortened for expediency to Pressac, it is also known as Côt.
Malbec is believed to have originated in the Bordeaux region of France, where it remains among the red grapes permitted in the traditional Bordeaux blend. Its presence there today, however, is negligible. Malbec is a capricious grape and a bad frost in 1956 triggered many Bordeaux vintners to give up on it altogether. It continued, however, in Cahors, where local growers had learned how to work with its nuances.
Although there are some excellent Cahors Malbecs, others can be hard, angular, sour, and tannic, testifying to the accuracy of the grape's name, said to derive from “mal bec,” meaning “bad mouthful.” Historically, Malbec was recognized for its intense color and austere structure, at times reinforced by blending with the even more impenetrable Tannat. This style has since fallen out of favor, and Cahors is very much in transition. Indeed, some non-French leading producers, such as California’s Paul Hobbs, are making a dedicated effort to apply New World techniques, including use of new wood and micro-oxygenation, to update its image and style.
California Malbec Timeline
Charles Lefranc imported Malbec from France to California. Charles Wetmore, Chief Executive Viticultural Officer of the Board of State Viticultural Examiners at the time, reported that Lefranc’s old Malbec vines were the only large planting of good red Bordeaux vines in California prior to the 1880s, with Lefranc’s Malbec block at New Almaden “the largest area of Malbeck in the State thus far.”
Colonel Agostin Haraszthy reportedly brought from France all grape cultivars used to make Bordeaux clarets. The catalog of cultivars imported during that trip includes Malbec, supposedly thereafter planted in his vineyard at Buena Vista Ranch in Sonoma County.
Charles Lefranc made the first commercially successful California “Médoc”, which he named “Cabernet-Malbeck.”
Malbec present in University of California vineyards, blended into inexpensive jug wines and prized primarily for its dark color.
Malbec and other Bordeaux varieties began to appear in vineyards outside Santa Clara County. Glen Ellen’s J.H. Drummond planted the first plot of useful Bordeaux vines in the North Coast in 1878, soon followed by Napa’s H.W. Crabb. By 1885 virtually every major producer interested in fine claret had Cabernet Sauvignon. Many also grew blending cultivars such as Malbec. Crabb initially favored Malbec, but later turned to Cabernet Franc. Gustav Niebaum first used Merlot and Verdot for blending, but cellar records indicate that Niebaum later favored Malbec.
In a summary of results from years of testing and observation, UC Davis observed that “Malbeck” showed poor yields and serious coulure at all experiment stations. It seemed best adapted at Paso Robles. Malbec was not recommended for California vineyards by the University, even as a blender with Cabernet Sauvignon. The grape swiftly fell from favor.
Post-prohibition, little Malbec remained in California.
Malbec began appearing by name in grape acreage statistics in California after five dedicated acres were planted in Napa in 1976. The total number of Malbec acres in the state in 1978 was estimated at 134 (bearing and nonbearing).
Malbec began increasing in popularity, attributable in part to growers and winemakers in search of new, different and interesting grape cultivars. Some planted what they called a “Meritage scheme,” a blended group of Bordeaux cultivars adopted as an alternative to pure varietal wines. These included Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, planted in Napa and other areas of the state.
Malbec acreage increased rapidly to a total of 826 ha (652 bearing, 174 non-bearing), i.e. 2,041 acres (1,611 bearing, 430 non-bearing)
California now accounts for 84% of the Malbec plantings in the U.S.
Total acreage for Malbec reached 1,547 ha/3,822 acres (bearing and non-bearing)
Malbec plantings stood at 1,578.27 hectares/3,900 acres (1,528.5 hectares/3,777 acres bearing and 49.78 hectares/123 acres non-bearing) through year-end 2021, representing 0.84% of total vineyard plantings of all California wine grapes.
Malbec is a natural cross of two esoteric varieties from France’s Montpellier region: Magdeleine des Charentes, also a parent of Merlot, and Gaillac, also known as “Prunelard.” Malbec remains one of the cultivars permitted in the Bordeaux blend. In 1992, Malbec finally appeared as a grape variety in most counties of California, led by Napa County. Prior, it was included in the “other blacks” category in the Agricultural Crop Report, along with more obscure varieties such as Early Burgundy, Grand Noir, and Saint-Macaire.
In recent years this originally French and now primarily Argentine grape variety has been making slow but steady inroads on the Golden State, led by Napa. It won't be replacing Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot any time soon, but the fifth and last red Bordeaux variety to arrive is in more bottles of Napa red than you might think.
Over 57,000 ha/140,850 acres of Malbec are planted globally, with Argentina accounting for about 80% – much more than any country in the world. To finish the equation, California accounts for fewer than 2.5% of the world’s amassed Malbec plantings.
For a deeper dive into the history and evolution of the Malbec grape in California please see Winegrapes of UC Davis.