Happy Malbec World Day! I’m a little leery of this as an event, to be honest. I wrote up a post about a lovely wine for Global Carignan Day and it felt like I was the only one who had turned up at a party. Then again, to me Carignan is an interesting grape but by no means a favourite. Malbec, on the other hand, is the first grape variety I sought out by name, so much so that I’ve made a point of visiting both Cahors and Mendoza, two places where it is at home. Today, it’s a wine from somewhat closer to my home, Kangaroo Island, where a Frenchman is making some very interesting wines. I give you The Islander Estate Vineyards Majestic Plough 2006.
Malbec is a well travelled grape, having been one of the original red grapes of the Bourdeaux blend, though it’s nearly vanished there. It is now more at home in the southwest of France, in particular in Cahors, where it’s known as Auxerrois or Côt. It’s also found in the Loire Valley in France, though when I went looking for it there last July I was told “oh no, you are thinking of Cahors” in most every wine shop I found. I did manage to find a nice bottle from Touraine where it was also called Côt, despite the person on the desk at the Maison du Vin in Saumur also assuring me there is no Malbec in the Loire. Sigh. There are other places in which Malbec is grown within France, but I suspect they would be even more difficult to track down.
Were it not for plantings of Malbec outside of France, the grape might be very obscure indeed. Fortunately, it’s not only taken root (albeit in limited plantings, generally) around the world, it’s become the national grape of Argentina. This date for Malbec World Day was chosen to commemorate April 17, 1853 when Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who would later become president of Argentina, submitted a proposal to the Argentine government regarding the future of the national wine industry. In conjunction with that, the first plantings of Malbec were brought from France to Argentina.
In addition to Mendoza, where it is arguably best known, Malbec is grown throughout Argentina, and in limited amounts across the mountains in Chile. There are plantings throughout the rest of the New World, both as a component in Bourdeaux-style red wines, and as a varietal, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the USA. Within Australia in particular, it has long been found in the Clare Valley and Langhorne Creek, while this example from Kangaroo Island is a relative newcomer to the scene.
A natural question to ask would be why has it largely disappeared from Bordeaux? As with many regions post-phylloxera, vignerons in Bordeaux took the opportunity to reevaluate their mix of vines as they were replanting, and in most cases decided to replace their Malbec vines with something else. Malbec, though capable of some lovely wines these days, has a decidedly rustic streak, and in the vineyard has some vulnerabilities that make is less that ideal in Bordeaux. Thin skinned, it ripens mid-season, but needs more sun and warmth than Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. It is sensitive to frost, downy mildew and rot. It can also have poor fruit set, leading to either a complete lack of berries or millerandage, sometimes known as hen and chicken, with small and large berries on the same bunch.
That said, obviously there are reasons that the grape continues to be cultivated. Under the right care, which can involve very high density plantings and grape sorting tables, Malbec can produce some stunningly good wines. Care must be taken against over-extraction, but Malbec can give very dark and densely coloured wines, with a rich perfume and plenty of tannins. It does particularly well in dry areas, particularly at high altitude, notably in Mendoza, where it is the dominant grape.
This is not the first beverage I’ve covered from Kangaroo Island, but given that the other was Kangaroo Island Spirits Wild Gin I should probably speak a bit about the terroir. It is in fact an island, and kangaroos do live there, so it gets points for living up to its name. It is the third largest island of Australia, with Tasmania being the largest and Melville Island being second. (Mainland Australia itself isn’t much thought of as an island by those who live here, but I leave continental discussions to C.G.P. Grey.) It’s off the coast of South Australia in the eastern part of the Great Australian Bight, about two hours by car and an hour by ferry from Adelaide.
Kangaroo Island is somewhat unique within Australia, in that it’s a cool, maritime climate. Having only been there in winter, I can personally attest to the cool, wet winters, and the broody atmosphere that made the warmth of the Southern Ocean Lodge so appealing. (Coincidentally that is where I first tried The Islander Estate Vineyards wines.) Summers are cooler and winters slightly warmer than the other, nearby wine regions. While there are convenient hills to allow vines to catch more sun, the island as a whole is not blessed with any great altitude and as such the sea breezes are felt throughout. No point on the island is more than 30km from the sea, and many vines are planted within sight of it. The soil is sandy with a limestone base and very little water retention, which means irrigation is typically required.
There have been numerous attempts to cultivate vines on the island over the past hundred years, and a minor trade was established in 1990 with grape growing, but it wasn’t until Jacques Lurton arrived that Kangaroo Island was really put on the map in terms of wine. (It was literally put on the map in 2000, the wine map that is, with the entire island being declared an official wine region.) Yes, things have come full circle, and having written about Australians making wine in France, Australians making wine in Austria, and Australians teaming up with Canadians to make wine in France and Australia, finally I’m writing about a Frenchman who has come to Australia to make wine.
Jacques Lurton was famous well before he set up shop on Kangaroo Island with his winery, The Islander Estate Vineyards. He worked his first vintage in Australia in Griffith, New South Wales in 1984 with McWilliams, but achieved his success and fame in Europe. He manages a vineyard in Bordeaux, but also produces wine in the Loire under his own name and has acted as a consultant for at least two wineries in Spain. He arrived on Kangaroo Island in 1997 with an aim to start a winery and in 2000 he planted 11 HA of vines on a 300 HA property in roughly the middle of the island. His plantings include Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Shiraz, Grenache, Viognier, Semillon, and of course this Malbec. He built a modern winery from scratch, importing most of the equipment from France. Most of his Islander wines are blends, but he does a Cabernet Franc called The Investigator (with a dash of Sangiovese so small he doesn’t need to declare it on the front label), as well as this Malbec, The Majestic Plough.
This wine is a deep purple colour, opaque at the core, only showing that it’s not actually black at the rim. It has very slow legs when swirled. On the nose it is perfumed, with plums, blackberries, and both sweet and savoury spices. It’s clean, with signs of development and medium plus aroma intensity. The palate is dry, with more blackberries, some blueberries, and leather. It’s very concentrated, with medium plus acidity, medium plus fine grained tannins, medium body, medium plus flavour intensity, and medium plus alcohol. It has a medium plus length and a pomegranate finish.
This is a very good quality wine. It’s not what I would call classically big, with the acidity keeping the fruit in check, and not overly extracted. The fruit is more Cahors than Mendoza, and certainly far from the Malbec grown in Langhorne Creek. It’s actually a bit tight, despite being six years old, and I expect it will improve with a few more years in bottle.