"Working by Hand" (Winemaking)
- Most common styles
- Winemaker choices and option
- Virtually all winemakers make use of available options (skin contact, ML, lees stirring, choice of fermentation vessel, etc.)
- All options used from stainless steel, concrete, oak (barrels, vats, barriques, oak alternatives)
- Aging Potential
- Yes. Most are best between 3-8 years after release while the best bottlings have the potential to age up to 30 years or even more.
- Presented solo or frequently blended with
- Happy both ways. There are pure 100% bottles out there while blended still wines made from ‘fraternal’ varieties predominate. Finally, some vintners enjoy combining Malbec with other red grapes in the increasingly popular red blend category.
Working by Hand
Leave either the pre-fermented juice or post-fermentation wine in contact with the skins of the grapes.
What it does
As flavors, tannins and color derive entirely from the skins, macerating with skins allows the winemaker to pull out the desired amount by choosing how long and when (pre- or post-alcoholic fermentation) to do so.
Pre-fermentation maceration is somewhat common with Malbec (3-4 days in the New World, closer to 16 or so days in France, including primary fermentation) and is primarily implemented to enhance pigmentation and fruit character. Color and aroma extraction is straightforward and Malbec stands up to over-oxygenation and any yeast you care to throw at it.
What it does
Proponents of wild yeast embrace the unique characteristics derived from “place,” including savory and matchstick-like aromas that many love and associate with minimal intervention. Cultivated yeasts are more predictable and can be selected/customized to contribute specific flavors and aromas.
Some winemakers blend the two -- sometimes starting with native yeast, reserving use of commercial yeast only if something does not go right (e.g., fixing a stuck fermentation). Others may create cuvées/cocktails of specific commercial yeasts to achieve a desired flavor profile, since each strain contributes something different.
The wood employed for most wine barrels, used for aging the wine or actual fermentation of the wine in the barrel. Barrel decisions include the type of wood, the amount of toast (when the staves of the barrels are bent over an open flame), size (smaller = higher ratio of wood to wine = stronger oak influence) and the age of the barrels.
What it does:
- Chocolate, mocha and vanilla flavors that many identify with Malbec come not from the grape but from oak-aging.
- Heavily toasted barrels impart more intense roasted flavors (caramel, molasses, toffee, coffee and burnt sugar).
- Oak bestows a waxy, velvety texture and can add a perceived sweetness to the wine.
- New oak contributes much more flavor than older, previously used oak which, depending on the wine and the grapes, may be a better choice.
- Small (barrique-sized) barrel fermentation, at warmer temperatures than those in stainless steel and over shorter increments of time, also imparts a richer, smoother texture to the wine
Today, there is a movement towards keeping oak in check, i.e. minimizing “over-oaking,” even using no oak at all. Unoaked wines (fermented in stainless steel, concrete or other neutral vessels) exist in the popular price segment, allowing the “purity” of the fruit to shine through. Unoaked and lesser-oaked Malbec is typically on the less expensive side. But today, older and larger oak, stainless steel, and increasingly concrete are preferred as it is so easy to over-oak this varietal and mask its charm. Use of oak alternatives would be more typical in less expensive wines.
The vintner's practice of working with the tannin, minimizing or maximizing its presence in the wine. Tannins can be maximized through letting the wine spend extended time on the grape skins (which also adds color) both before and after fermentation
What it does
Controls texture and mouthfeel, and mitigates bitter, stringent elements, flavor-wise and tactilely.
Tannins can be minimized by cutting back on maceration or through gentle filtration. To soften hard tannins, vintners are increasingly turning to a process called micro-oxygenation, while bringing out the bright character of the fruit and adding a rich mouthfeel. As most Malbec is de-stemmed, pressing is important- Malbec grape berries are generally bigger and juicier than Cabernet berries and some pressing will always help. If the tannins are less ripe, then less pressing.
As noted above, Malbec is most often made as a wine of less than 100% pure variety. Traditionally, the Bordeaux model assembles Cabernet Sauvignon with its familial cousins (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot) in varying percentages to make a classic “Bordeaux blend.” When the percentage of Cabernet falls below 75%, it can no longer carry the Cabernet Sauvignon label moniker (85% for exports).
What it does
Malbec deepens color and mid-palate, while also contributing mouth volume/weight and, when ripe, fruit sweetness and floral elements.
Blends result in different styles. Increasing the proportions of other grapes can augment Malbec’s potentially less-assuming, softer character, adding nuanced flavors from the other varieties and if/as needed tannins. In Argentina, the role is reversed, with Malbec being the lead grape in cortes, blended with Cabernet, Tempranillo, or even Bonarda (Charbono).