Malbec, or Côt as it is referred to in its native French tongue, is a velvety, robust, fruit-driven wine grown primarily in Argentina. It’s somewhat of a gentle giant, with a full-bodied, big fruit flavor tempered by mild acidity. Big flavors make it a standout with grilled meats and barbecue, though it’s equally compatible with fried foods and just about any cheese you can think of.
Malbec is a widely popular red wine variety grown mainly in Argentina, France, and the United States. It’s a wine prized for its vibrant fruit flavor, dark plum color, and surprisingly mild tannins.
While Malbec originated in France, where it is known as Côt, it was given a “rebirth” in Argentina. In fact, it put Argentina on the map as a major player in the New World of winemaking.
In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into this plush red wine, its many growing regions, tasting notes, and of course, plenty of food pairings. Interested in learning more about red wine? Consider reading our guides on Tempranillo, Port, and Petite Sirah wine next!
Characteristics of Malbec
Malbec is a dry red wine that comes from thin-skinned, dark purple berries. Its parents are two obscure French grapes, Magdeleine Noire des Charentes and Purnelard. As mentioned earlier, Malbec is grown worldwide though it’s had the most success in Argentina, France (Bordeaux and Southern France), and the United States.
In Argentina, Malbec is almost always found as a single varietal. Elsewhere, it’s usually blended to add rich color and dark fruit flavor. Despite its supple tannins, Malbec does lend well to aging. More upscale bottles can easily be cellared for upwards of seven or more years.
Speaking of color, if you ever find yourself in a blind tasting, Malbec’s intense violet appearance is usually what gives it away.
When you open your next bottle of Malbec, you can expect a full-bodied wine, with medium tannins, medium acidity, and medium to high alcohol, around 13-15% ABV. Oak aging is common, though it’s not as long as some other reds like Syrah or Cabernet. That’s because Malbec is naturally fruity and doesn’t need much oak to soften.
The biggest difference in Malbec will come down to whether it’s grown in a warm climate or a cool climate. The warmer the climate, the more you’ll notice aromas and flavors of black fruit, chocolate, tobacco, and black pepper. The cooler the climate, you’ll tend to notice more raspberry and red cherry flavors.
Malbec Tasting Notes
With full-body but mild tannins, Malbec is a punchy, vivacious wine with dark fruit flavors and a chocolatey finish. On the nose, you can expect aromas of blackberries, black pepper, leather, and cocoa. One sip and your palate will be washed over with flavors of black plum juice, cocoa, blueberries, and a subtle meatiness.
As mentioned, warm climate Malbec will have more dark fruit flavors and stronger spice and pepper notes, making for a wine more akin to Syrah. Conversely, cooler climate Malbec will have more youthful energy, with raspberry, red cherry, and white pepper notes.
How to Serve
Malbec is best served in a standard red wine glass at room temperature (60-68F). Older vintages can benefit from decanting for at least 30 minutes- 1 hour. While no definite amount of time is required, an aged bottle of Malbec will open and reveal more aroma and depth of flavor following decanting.
Notable Growing Regions
Malbec’s birthplace is France, though it’s gained worldwide popularity for its success in Argentina. Regardless, each region produces Malbec with unique flavors, textures, and aromas.
In France, Malbec (Côt) is found in Bordeaux and Cahors, in Southern France. In Bordeaux, it’s one of the only five red varietals permitted in Bordeaux blends, though its use has declined due to its propensity to frost. Today, Malbec is a very minor player in Bordeaux blends.
Cahors is a different story. Here, Malbec tends to have more edge, with an inky, almost black appearance, firmer tannins, and more structure. You can expect black fruit and earthy notes, with bottle aging far more necessary than elsewhere.
Today, over 75% of the world’s Malbec comes from Argentina, specifically the Uco Valley and Luján de Cuyo in Mendoza. The vineyards are often at high altitudes, with abundant sunlight and cool evening breezes.
Argentinian Malbec is almost always displayed as a single varietal. Here, you can expect flavors of red plum, blackberry, vanilla, tobacco, and a delightfully smooth chocolate finish.
While Malbec is still an up-and-coming varietal, it has gained popularity in the Napa Valley area in California and Washington State. In Napa, it’s typically blended with Cabernet to produce incredibly jammy, fruit-forward, and earthy Bordeaux-style blends.
In Washington, specifically Walla Wall, Horse Heaven Hills, and Yakima Valley. Here, there’s plenty of sun to go around, making for fruity, peppery, and meaty wines.
Malbec Food Pairings
Malbec is a velvety, fruity, earthy wine that pairs seamlessly with many dishes. The hardest choice is whether to opt for a more rustic, robust Malbec from Cahors or a more fruit-driven one from Argentina.
When made in the rustic style of Cahors, Côt is best paired with protein-rich dishes, either roasted or grilled. Venison, barbecue, salty cheeses, burgers, or roasted duck are all great options. A few of our favorite recipes that go well with Malbec include Duck Legs with Chinese Five Spices, and Juicy Patty Melts.
In its more youthful expression from Argentina (and, to a lesser extent, Napa and Washington), Malbec wine is an ideal pairing partner for blue cheese, mushroom dishes like Sausage and Cream Stuffed Mushrooms, red meat favorites like Rosemary Roasted Lamb Chops, roasted chicken, or even for dessert with chocolate like these decadent chocolate cookie butter cookies!
Luckily, you don’t have to serve it with food to get the most out of your bottle. Malbec is easy to drink all on its own and wonderfully versatile with just about anything.