Working the Land

"Working the Land" (Viticulture)

Viticulture: Malbec At-A-Glance
Vigor (low/high)
Mildly vigorous but still in need of control of leaf growth through rootstock, soil, and clone matching, as well as, where legal, irrigation management.
Requires sunny, dry weather conditions. If grown in favorable conditions, Malbec is a vigorous variety adaptable to a wide range of soil types; Performs especially well in limestone soils.
Yield (potential)
Moderate to high, depending on vigor and winemaker intent; Must be managed.
Growth Cycle
Mid-season ripening, and needs to be fully physiologically and phenolically ripe to achieve optimal results.
Prone to coulure, particularly with high vigor or cool weather during bloom. Known to lose berries when fruit approaches full ripeness. Susceptible to leafhoppers and Phomopsis (dead arm).

Growing and Making Malbec (In California)

Known for its plump, dark fruit flavors and blue floral notes, Malbec offers a delicious alternative to higher priced robust wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. However, there’s more to Malbec than just value. That said, while Argentine Malbec regularly ticks the price-value box, producing plenty of sub-$25 bang-for-your-buck reds, this isn't a slot premium California is going to be filling with its Malbec. The Golden State’s interpretation is significantly more expensive, due to high land prices and the cost of growing the grape. And compared to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – the state’s two most planted red Bordeaux varieties – Malbec's yields are much lower, making it unattractive for the region's premium grape growers. Other big differences between California and Argentina (a more useful comparison since it is also of  New World provenance): productive Malbec vines in Mendoza are significantly older than Malbec vines in California. Moreover, and while it’s not empirically important, Malbec vines in Mendoza are most often grown on their own roots, while Malbec vines in California are propagated on rootstocks. Finally, many vineyard sites in Mendoza, Argentina and beyond are at a significantly higher altitude than sites in California (1103+/-133m and more above sea level versus 190+/-200m above sea level, respectively). 

Working The Land:

Does soil influence the flavor of the final wine?

Traditionalists answer unequivocally “Yes!” Soil is a key element of “terroir,” the natural environment in which the vines grow, along with climate (temperature, rainfall), topography (altitude, drainage, slope, aspect) and sunlight.

A more unorthodox view holds that the influence of soil on what you taste in the glass is a myth. Maynard Amerine and Ann Noble, two famous names at UC Davis, California’s premier wine school and wine research facility, did a study on the topic. Though the study is based on Chardonnay grapes, they concluded that the following holds true for all winegrapes: “no outstanding sensory differences were observed in wines produced from different soil type locations.” The key word is “sensory” (sight, smell, taste). They are not saying that the soil doesn’t affect vine behavior (yield, growth cycle, etc.). 

The subject is most certainly up for further debate. That said, here is a brief review of how Malbec, according to the classic view, expresses itself in the glass based on the type of soil in which it is grown.

Alluvium/Alluvial Fans

Each alluvial fan has its source from a single channel of run-off from the mountains and are usually made of various sizes of sediment. These soils are well-drained, and vines grown on them typically have very deep root systems. Depending on the size of the sediment, an alluvial fan will have a different degree of slope. Larger debris is sloped more steeply, but rarely more than 10 degrees. Vines grown on bench land soils are usually healthy and produce high-quality grapes. France’s Bordeaux and Cahors, as well as most Argentine high desert vineyards, are based on alluvial gravels, known in Argentina as franco soils. Classic modern Malbec, replete with dark fruits and mineral scented earth, can be found predominantly in alluvial soils.

  • CA locations: Napa Valley (Rutherford Bench, Oakville, etc.), Sonoma County (Dry Creek Conglomerate, Alexander valley), Lodi (Mokelumne River), Paso Robles (San Miguel), Santa Barbara (Happy Canyon)

Mountain/Colluvial Soils 

Mountain fruit is often compact and concentrated, its berries tiny from seasons of struggle and loaded with flavor due to lower yields. Very good for Malbec as the accompanying thermal amplitude elongates the growing season and ripening. The key to this can be grounded in the success of Malbec in Argentina, where the combination makes for perfection. Further, at higher altitudes, UV protection is less and skin pigmentation is extra-pronounced (as grapes protect themselves via developing thicker skins, ergo more pigment). Finally, with above-the-fog line ample sun, tannins fully ripen and soften, keys for Malbec as a grape , a stark difference from what one finds in most other low-altitude spots in which Malbec is planted (hello Bordeaux and Cahors!). Higher altitudes seem to equate to more pronounced blue-floral signatures (e.g., violets)

  • CA locations: Sonoma’s Moon Mountain, Sonoma Mountain, Fountaingrove; Napa Valley’s Mt. Veeder, Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and Atlas Peak, the Santa Cruz Mountains

Limestone Soils

Limestone is made of calcium carbonates, has a high pH and is usually gray in color. Sometimes a region’s hydrology will leach carbonates out of limestone. What's left is an iron-rich clay, void of calcium, and the iron oxidizes to turn the clay into a rusty, reddish color, known as “Terra Rossa.” In limestone soils, as are found in many parts of Cahors and in portions of Argentina’s Uco Valley, Malbec can be floral, fine, elegant, and more acidic.

  • CA locations: Gabilan Mountain Range in Central California, San Benito County, Paso Robles

Malbec skews toward a vigorous canopy that, left unchecked, means Malbec puts all its energy into growing foliage rather than grapes. The variety is not always easy to grow, requiring sunny, dry weather conditions. In favorable conditions, Malbec is a vigorous variety, adaptable to a wide range of soil types. It has large leaves and unusually strong lateral shoot growth, leading to a dense canopy in the fruit zone that might interfere with grape maturation. Since Malbec is a notoriously vigorous vine to tame, many growers pinch the tips of the growing shoots at flowering,thus diverting that energy elsewhere – setting the fruit.  Historically, Argentine Malbec was planted in the pergola system, locally known as parral, to protect fruit from the immense heat near to the ground and to provide shade. Today in Argentina, as in California, Malbec vines are primarily grown with vertical trellises, allowing for more modern canopy management techniques and drip irrigation. Either way, canopy management is imperative to ensure proper shading from harsh sunlight.

More so than with many other grapes, selection and clones of Malbec are paramount. Early on producers were limited to older clones that tended to be alternate-bearing, so one year you get an OK-to-good crop, the next you don't get anything. Most California producers are using a selection of clones including UCD’s  3, 4, 5, 9 and ENTAV 595. While happy with the quality of fruit these clones produce, the quantity – or lack of it – was and is often an issue. Today, in addition to the classics, there are clonal selections from Argentina. Argentine Malbec clones, from pre-phylloxera French plant materials brought over the Andes from Chile in the 1800s, differ in appearance from clones from France. Some of the Argentine clones used in premium Malbec wines were specifically selected and developed to generate small berries and bunches for concentrated flavors. Immense research on Argentinian plant materials has been conducted by the Catena Family and shared worldwide. Nicolas Catena led the now-famous trial of 145 selections of Malbec propagated in his Angelica vineyard to identify the best choices for Mendoza.  

For more information on Malbec clones in California, please see Malbec & Cot by UC Davis.

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Sustainability and California

As an agricultural industry, the California wine community has a long history of adapting to change and demonstrating its commitment to sound environmental practices and social responsibility. Building on these efforts are the educational and certification programs of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) covering practices from the ground to the glass. Established by Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, CSWA is the most comprehensive and widely adopted wine sustainability program in the world, and– together with other important sustainability programs in regions throughout the state– has also made California wine a leader in addressing climate change.