Someone has done a great job convincing lots of folks that malbec is an Argentine grape. True, malbec is the most widely planted grape in Argentina and it also has more malbec under vine than any other country. However, France — its country of origin — has been fighting back, and in several regions there are wines made from malbec that give Argentine malbec a run for its money.
Malbec is the grape of Cahors, an appellation in southwestern France. Sometimes blended with merlot or tannat, Cahors wines are generally rustic, intense, inky and robust. The locals refer to the grape as auxerrois (not to be confused with the white grape of the same name found in Alsace), though the rest of us usually say malbec.
This is not true in the Loire Valley, where malbec goes by “cot.” Not only is the generally accepted name of the grape different, but also the wines have a completely unique character.
Not nearly as heavy as Cahors, Loire cot is often spicy and floral. Climate surely accounts for some of the differences, as Cahors is warmer than the Loire Valley and, as such, the wines tend to have more body and alcohol.
In spite of having a more frivolous nature, cot can make complex wines, and some very old vineyards render tremendously concentrated fruit.
Malbec is also an important blending grape in Bordeaux. It was more widely planted before the frost of 1956 than it is now, though it is on the rise again in the new Cotes de Bordeaux appellation that includes Blaye and Cadillac. When blended with the other Bordeaux grapes, it adds color, tannin and body.
Not to take anything away from Argentina, the French renditions of malbec are surely worth tasting. Here are three not to be
Clos Siguier Cahors, 2006: Giles Bley’s family has been making wine for generations and today, as Clos Siguier, he still operates it as a small mom-and-pop kind of place. Composed of 95 percent malbec and 5 percent Tannat, this wine is not as huge as some other Cahors, yet it still has plenty of gumption. With notes of black tea, anise, gingerbread and spice, this unassuming wine is a treasure. Suggested retail: $10.99
Rocher des Violette Touraine, Vielles Vignes, 2007 (Loire Valley, France): Owner/winemaker Xavier Weisskopf is much younger than the 110-year-old vines that went into producing a good part of this wine. After spending a few years at Chateau Saint Cosme in the Rhone Valley, Weisskopf bought 22 acres in Touraine in 1995 — and while most of his production is made from chenin blanc, this cot has attracted as much attention as his white wines. The wine is medium-bodied with beautiful floral aromatics, fresh black pepper and dried huckleberries; it is easy to understand the acclaim. Suggested retail: $18
Chateau Haut Monplaisir Cahors, Cuvee Pur Plaisir, 2005 (Southwest, France): By law, Cahors has to be composed of at least 70 percent malbec, but this is 100 percent. Situated on one of Cahors’ prime sites, Haut Monplaisir sold its fruit to negociants until 1998, when Cathy Fournié — the daughter of the owner — stepped in. Rich with gripping fruit tannins and lavish blackberry, black cherry and baking chocolate flavors, this wine is juicy but at the same time massively delicious. Suggested retail: $38
Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.