Australian Malbec

A big future for an oft neglected Australian red?
5 minutes

When people around the world think of Australian wine there are many things that could spring to mind. Deliciously diverse Shiraz is likely top of the list. Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and even Grenache would also be up there. But how about Australian Malbec? Not likely… 

Contrary to public belief, Malbec is a variety with a rich history and huge potential in Australia. While current plantings and exports are miniscule when compared with Shiraz and Chardonnay there has been clear growth in both areas in recent years. Combine this with a bunch of evangelical winemakers in key Australian regions and the future for Australian Malbec is looking brighter than ever.

Malbec – Another French Globe Trotter

Like many grape varieties, the true history of Malbec is likely lost to the sands of time. There is evidence that a variety like this comes from northern Burgundy and was known as Côt. This name still persists in much of France, though the variety has long since moved on from this original location.

Today the spiritual home of Malbec is Cahors in the south west of France. It has long had a strong presence but came to dominate the region after a catastrophic frost in 1956 that meant the vast majority of the region had to be replanted. In what was a blessing in disguise, vignerons had the chance to start from scratch and plant the varieties best suited to the region. As a result, Malbec and Cahors have now become as a perfect match as the Barossa and Shiraz or Coonawarra and Cabernet Sauvignon.

But enough talk of France and the spiritual home of Malbec, Australia also has a long history with this stylish and versatile grape. Customarily we’d now discuss James Busby and his amazing collection of vines gathered from some of the great vineyards of Europe. But Malbec is different to other traditional Australian varieties, including how it arrived on Australia’s shores.

For many years we thought that Malbec was part of the Busby’ collection. But it turns out that the most likely scenario was that Malbec was misnamed by Busby. Thanks to the ‘other’ key founders of the Australian wine community, the Macarthurs, we know that the variety arrived from Bordeaux in 1844. The Macarthurs were instrumental in vines spreading from their home in New South Wales to the emerging colonies of South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia.

Malbec finds a home in Langhorne Creek

While the wines it produces can be powerful and heroic, from a viticultural perspective Malbec is quite a sensitive variety. It is prone to frosts, rots, downy mildew and grape diseases. Today, new clones and vineyard management techniques have solved many of these problems. In the past, these issues were negated by growing Malbec in regions with a reduced risk of these hazards. Enter Langhorne Creek and the Clare Valley.

The history of Malbec in Langhorne Creek goes back to the very early days of the region. The variety was one of the first Frank Potts planted on the banks of the Bremer River when he was building his vineyard and winery. The proud tradition of Malbec at Bleasdale is carried on today by the sixth generation of the Potts family. Since 2008 they’ve been joined by winemaker and certified Malbec nut, Paul Hotker. Paul has taken the Malbec wines at Bleasdale to another level.

Paul is just one winemaker in the region who has identified Malbec as one of the region’s signature varieties. Winemakers like Bec Willson at Bremerton, Ben Potts at Ben Potts and Australian winemaking legend John Glaetzer at Gipsie Jack are all big believers in the potential of the variety in the region. They are experimenting in the vineyard and the winery to get the best out of the variety. They are discovering and refining the regional signatures of the grape within the context of their house styles.

Each year the area is getting more and more attention for these wines. The success of Malbec in places such as Argentina and California has put a spotlight on Malbec that’s been missing for the last hundred or so years. The wonderful combination of region and variety is attracting the next generation of winemakers looking to make their mark. There are truly exciting times ahead for Langhorne Creek Malbec.

Spotting unicorns in Clare Valley

Wendouree. It could be seen as a strange looking and sounding word for those unfamiliar with it. For those that are familiar with it, the mere utterance of the name can send shivers of excitement and anticipation down the spine. For wine lovers around the world it is the very definition of Australian winemaking tradition. From the dry grown old vines to the winemaking methods that have changed little since A.P. Birks founded the winery as a hobby in the late 19th Century.

While the straight Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon wines made a Wendouree get the lion’s share of attention there are many who believe that Malbec is the winery’s trump card. The oldest Malbec vines at Wendouree were planted in 1898 and have been very comfortable in this unique patch of fine Australian terroir ever since. Those lucky enough to have sampled the Malbecs from this special place have been known to become lifelong advocates for it, Wendouree and Australian wine. Now, where did I put my unicorn spotting kit...?

A bright future for Malbec in Australia

While the Australian wine community may have the French to thank for first sharing Malbec with us all those years ago, we have the Argentinians to thank for reviving interest in the variety around the world. While Australian Malbec isn’t yet a global phenomenon, there is huge potential for growth. Australia has regions like Langhorne Creek and Clare Valley with storied histories and proven track records with the variety. These have been joined by regions like Heathcote in Victoria and Frankland River in Western Australia, adding diversity and excitement to our Malbec. The future for Malbec in Australia is brighter than ever. We’ll leave the last word to Tony Brady, custodian of Wendouree…

‘Shiraz wasn't fashionable not that long ago. Now look at it. The best thing to do is to recognise what your vineyard does best and stick to it. And wait for the fashion to come round again’.

Tony Brady, Wendouree

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