Last Tuesday night, the Bennington Wine Tasting Meetup enjoyed our first blind tasting. Now, this wasn’t a blind tasting like the kind somms do, but for us it was a fun challenge.
Why A Blind Tasting of Malbec?
Since returning from France I’ve been devouring everything I can about terroir. My education in garrigue—while literally being surrounded by it—made the concept of terroir click. And so I began scouring everything I could for tastings that explore expressions of terroir.
Thanks to a helpful post from Wine Folly I began to conceptualize our tasting. The idea was simple. First, understand the key differences in two malbec-producing regions and then blind taste to see if we could identify them based on what we learned. Feel free to use this post to design your own study in terroir and malbec.
A Grape in Exile: Argentinian Malbec
Malbec originated in France where it is one of the five main red grapes allowed to be blended when making red Bordeaux. It’s susceptible to frost and not the best grape to grow in the region. It is still found in red Bordeaux. And in Cahors, in the southwest of France, it’s used to make a varietal wine, often labeled by the grape’s original name, “cot.”
Despite it being native to France, chances are what you think of when you think “malbec” is Argentinian. That’s because 70% of the world’s malbec is produced in Argentina. Wait . . . what’s a French grape—and one used in beloved Bordeaux no less—doing in Argentina? It’s living in exile. Okay. It’s not that dramatic.
In the mid 1800’s malbec was brought to Argentina and it has been rockin’ the Argentinian wine scene since. It flourishes in high altitudes and sun. Argentina has plenty of those conditions. This is why Argentinian winemakers use malbec more to produce varietal wines than blends.
The grape absolutely flourishes in Argentina’s climate making wine that is low acid, plush, fruit forward with plum being a common note along with incredible spice and earth as it ages. You can thank the alluvial soil and clay for the incredible feel of Argentinian malbec, too.
Back in France…
In addition to being blended in Bordeaux, malbec is found as a single varietal in Cahors, France. This region, in the southwest of the country, produces an edgier version of malbec, with serious tannins. Limestone makes the roots really work, imparting a completely different taste despite coming from the same grape. It will smack you in the mouth with blackberry while young, but as it ages the complexity is off the charts. Meat, tobacco, coffee… definitely age your malbec from Cahors!
Blind Tasting (or Tasting) Malbec to Understand Terroir
Malbec is thin-skinned. As a matter of fact, it’s this thin skin that allows malbec to express terroir so well. Kind of like that other thin-skinned darling of the wine world. No, not me! Pinot Noir! Tasting for terroir is the best way to learn about the term everyone loves to hate – here’s how we did ours.
At least one bottle of the varietal from each region. If you want to get fancy, get your hands on an aged bottle of Cahors. I provided two bottles for our tasting and others brought their own. We tasted six altogether.
Sleeves. Those micro-fiber sleeves for traveling with a bottle are perfect. Scrap paper or newspapers waiting to be recycled also work for those of us who are eco-minded. Please ignore the fact that I used sticky notes in an unfriendly to the earth move. I wasn’t expecting so many bottles to appear!
Tasting Sheets. You can use your wine journal, or make your own based on what you’re looking for or use my favorite, the Wine Folly Tasting mats. Guess what, I made one for you!
Informational Sheets. Consider providing some informational sheets. A printout of this blog post is an easy way to avoid reinventing the wheel.
After discussing the differences between the two regions and their expressions of malbec, systematically go through a blind tasting of each wine and discuss. Have participants keep their own notes. Notes can be in depth or as simple as noting whether they think the wine is from Argentina or France. We have one group member who can correctly identify the alcohol level of every wine so be sure to take advantage of these types of super powers. We always enjoy it!
Blind tasting sounds scarier than they are. In fact, these are one of the best ways to enhance your tasting ability and truly grasp concepts you just can’t learn from a book. Be sure to check out my tasting notes and photos, taken by LM Blakely (except the snacks; I took that because I was so proud of them).
Wine 1: Medium intensity (color), Garnet with medium viscosity. Med-low intensity with berries and red currant on the nose. As I swirled I got distinct cocoa notes. On the palate it was med-light bodied with distinct minerality, was off-dry with medium acid, well-incorporated tannins that were less than I would have liked. I guessed 11.5-12.5% on the alcohol. I guessed Argentina.
Wine 2: Deep purple/ruby with med-low viscosity. I got raspberry and flowers on the nose along with licorice (almost mentholly) and herbs (yup, garrigue!). Had a chapstick quality – not in texture but on the nose and palate… like the pink/red one from my youth. I didn’t get any oak. On the palate it was off-dry with med-low acidity, medium tannins. I guessed 11-11.5% alcohol. The bodium was on the lighter side of med-light. I guessed it was French although this was a strong instinct from what I could only believe was garrigue. Lots of other indicators pointed to Argentina. The stronger tannins also made me think it was possibly French.
Wine 3: As our newest member, Roz declared, “This wine knows what time it is!” Deep purple/ruby. At this point I was falling behind so my notes aren’t as good as they could be. Med-med-high viscosity. On the nose it was medium intensity but opened. Overall it was spicy and tannic and I said it was from Argentina. This one messed with my head because the spice was tricky! It was excellent.
Wine 4: I was still behind so I just tasted and went with Argentina for this one, too.
Wines 5 & 6: For both I guessed low alcohol and Argentina.
I got every country right. I completely missed that #3 was a blend from Argentina, but I wasn’t the only one. At the end of the day, I am definitely a better taster and far better versed in malbec than I was before tasting these.