It’s no big secret that I’m not a fan of winter. The Holiday Season? Yes, of course I love that, but once January hits, it seems as if it’s just long months of cold, darkness, and long hours spent anxiously awaiting next summer to arrive while daydreaming of tropical beaches and Mai Tais. A couple of months ago, however, a good friend and I were talking about creative ways to get through this upcoming winter (she shares my extreme dislike for winter) and one of her ideas was to form a book and wine club (a little twist on your traditional wine club if you will). Along with the chosen book of the month we would also have a wine and each member would bring a bottle of the pre-selected varietal (or theme) and one person would be nominated to speak about the wine.
I love wine, and books, so I thought this was a brilliant idea… and thus the Wine & Book Club was created. Since the two of us were discussing the idea she decided to host the first month at her house and asked me to present the first wine, which we decided to be Malbec.
We had an excellent turnout for our first meeting, with around 13 guests. Guess you don’t have to twist a lady’s arm to come to an event filled with girlfriends, good food, good books, and good wine. Once everyone arrived and poured herself a glass of Malbec I spoke for a few minutes on the wine of the month.
Malbec, once popular in Bordeaux, is still permitted by all major red Bordeaux appellations, but it is now usually more of a minor blending grape (usually less than 10% of the blend). The grape became less popular in Bordeaux after 1956 when frost killed off around 75% of the crop, becoming replaced with other varietals less susceptible to frost. Malbec, which was at one time planted in nearly every area of France, began losing acreage to other more popular varietals, like Cabernet Franc in the Loire.
Although Malbec (which has hundreds of local synonyms) has lost significant popularity in France, it still remains the backbone grape in Cahors (located in Southwest France), where the grape is known as “Côt”. Here “Côt” must constitute a minimum of 70% Malbec (with Merlot and Tannat usually making up the remainder).
These days the word Malbec is synonymous with Argentina where it is the major red varietal planted. In fact, Argentina is the worlds fifth largest wine producer with over 60% of wine production being red wine (and a majority of that being Malbec)… basically, there’s a lot of Malbec being produced in Argentina!
Malbec was introduced to Argentina by French agricultural engineer Michel Pouget in 1868. However, for the next 100+ years the wine being made was basic jug wine, with no real worldwide popularity or accolades. In the late 20th century things changed when Argentinean wine producers shifted their focus to exporting and Malbec there increased significantly in quality and finally hit its boom.
Today, Malbec is most widely planted in Argentina with Mendoza being the most important wine growing province, accounting for about 70% of all Argentina’s wine production. The grape grown is different from Malbec in France in that it has smaller, tighter, clusters and creates dark color with intensely ripe fruit flavors with a velvety plush texture and light tannins and goes down way too easy. One of my personal favorite things about Argentinean Malbec is its incredible value! You can find absolutely delicious bottles easily for around $10 a bottle making it one of my favorite everyday wines year round.
Outside of Argentina and France, Malbec is also planted in Chile and small amounts in Australia and the US where it is more often used as a blending grape in Meritage (Bordeaux style) blends.
So there you have it. Malbec, in a nutshell.
At the book club I had actually made a false assumption that most people would bring an Argentinean Malbec, but instead we had quite a variety represented. I brought a Cahors (since I’m such a French wine whore), and surprisingly we also had a Seven Hills Malbec from Walla Walla, WA, a Steltzner Vineyards from Napa, along with a selection of five different Argentinean producers. This provided a nice spectrum of flavors of Malbecs grown in different regions.
All in all, wine was an excellent addition to a book club and I’m already debating wines to bring for the next one, where we will actually have two featured wines during the evening – Sparkling Wine & Pinot Noir! I have a feeling the book discussion may take a far second in importance to the wine discussions for this next event.
So, if you’re looking for a way to spark up your gloomy winter months, I highly recommend something like a Wine & Book Club! It’s a great excuse to get together with friends and enjoy an evening together. And you DON’T have to know a lot about wine either. Start with a grape or region you are interested in and do a little bit of research. Or have somebody volunteer to do the work and speak about the wine. Or if you don’t even want to go that far, just assign a type of wine and have everybody bring a bottle and just sip and discuss the different flavors and enjoy while talking about your book.
Finally, just in case you were curious, here is a list of the wines we had represented at our inaugural Book & Wine Club. As for where to purchase these wines, I am not positive on all of the wines, as I did not get the information from each member. The prices below represent average retail prices I found online.
2008 Gouguenheim Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina, $10.99 (Whole Foods downtown Portland & cork • a bottle shop) 3 bottles (highly recommend for this price point)
2008 Gascon Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina, avg. retail approx $10.00
2008 Altos Las Hormigas Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina, avg. retail approx $12.00
2006 Vistalba "Corte C" Malbec-Merlot, Mendoza, Argentina, avg. retail approx $12.00
2008 Doña Paula Estate Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina, avg. retail approx $13.00
2005 Cosse Maisonneuve le Combal, Cahors, France, $18.75 at cork • a bottle shop
2006 Seven Hills Malbec, Walla Walla Valley, WA, $28
2005 Steltzner Vineyards Malbec, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley, CA, retail approx $36