Ratings: The Best Malbecs to Drink Right Now
Malbec, the fruity, palate-pleasing red wine with notes of dark berries, vanilla and chocolate, exploded in popularity when it burst onto the international wine scene in the late 1990s. Though the grape has been planted in France for centuries, Argentine winemakers are largely responsible for its current popularity. The South American nation accounts for more than 75 percent of the world’s Malbec plantings, 85 percent of which are rooted in the region of Mendoza.
While budget-friendly versions produced in Argentina have long dominated the Malbec conversation, the multifaceted grape has more recently spread across the globe—and garnered increasing acclaim. From Argentina and Chile to France, Australia and the United States, anyone interested in exploring the grape can find a variety of interesting expressions suited to a range of palates.
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“One of the interesting aspects of Malbec is its versatility,” says Sarah Clarke, wine director at République, Manzke and Bicyclette in Los Angeles. “Not only is it great for blending, to give a little color and possibly tannin, but it is fantastic as a single-varietal wine as well.“
In fact, now is a great time to start buying Malbec, as it’s just beginning to come back into fashion after spending a few years under the radar due to climate challenges. Here’s everything you need to know about Malbec and the best bottles to snap up right now.
What Is Malbec?
Malbec, or Côt as it’s known in the Cahor, is a black or purple grape variety that hails from France, although it’s not commonly planted there in modern times.
In its homeland, there are just a small number of plantings in the Loire Valley and, to a larger extent, in the town of Cahors about 120 miles east of Bordeaux. However, it was once quite popular in southwest France. One of six grapes allowed in red Bordeaux blends, Malbec suffered greatly during the severe winter of 1956, which killed many of the vines. More glamorous alternatives were replanted, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson.
The thick-skinned grape needs more sun and heat than either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to mature. However, “Malbec is very successful in warm climates, partly because of [that] dark, thick skin,” says Clarke. “It is definitely a good grape to withstand climate change.”
Where Does Malbec Grow?
Today, Malbec grows across the globe, from Argentina and Chile to France, Washington State, California and Australia. As mentioned, the vast majority of Malbec is planted in Argentina—which has over 112,000 acres of under vine.
The dark, inky grape first came to Argentina in the mid-19th century. French agronomist Michel Pouget brought many grapevine cuttings from France, including the very first Malbec vines planted in the country. Argentina now grows vastly more Malbec than anywhere else in the world.
Its neighbor Chile also grows the grape with about 5,000 acres of Malbec. Some of these vines date back more than 100 years. Many can be found in Colchagua, where they are usually blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.
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In Washington State, younger plantings of Malbec are often used in single-varietal bottlings. “I would say wholeheartedly that you can make some of the best Malbec in the world in Washington,” Anna Schafer Cohen, partner and winemaker at àMaurice Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington, told Wine Enthusiast earlier this year. “It just does so well here, and there are so few places in the world where it really does well.”
It also excels in Australia. There, Malbec grows in warm and cool regions, including Margaret River, McLaren Vale, Rutherglen, Hunter Valley, Orange, Mudgee, Granite Belt and Swan Hill. In hot regions of the country, however, the acidity of the wine may be too low, which can cause it to taste flabby and weak.
The French Connection
In France’s Cahors region, which is the modern-day capital of French Malbec production, the cooler climate brings out higher acidity than many of its popular New World counterparts. In spite of its growing quality, the region’s Malbecs have yet to gain the same international attention.
“I think that French Malbec isn’t as popular internationally for a few reasons,” says Clarke. “The Southwest [of France] is overlooked in general for wine, even though it is a region I love and is fun to visit. I also think that people chose Bordeaux and don’t realize how much Malbec is in it. [Producers in] Albi, Bourg, Blaye and Entre-deux-Mers use quite a bit of it.”
That will likely change as more wine professionals continue to sing the praises of French Malbec. “There have been incredibly exciting wines coming out of Cahors the last few years, overshadowing the overly structured and rustic, cliche wines made for decades,” says master sommelier Michaël Engelmann. “Cahors ‘ain’t cool’ on social media—a shame—people who trust their palates will enjoy stunning wines for great value.”
What Does Malbec Taste Like?
According to a study by the American Society for Enology and Viticulture, the phenolic profiles of Malbec wines produced in Mendoza and California are quite distinct from one another. This basically means Malbec tastes different depending on where it’s grown.
Entry-level wines are often fresher and juicier, a result of minimal oak aging. Expect red fruit notes of tart cherry, raspberry and red plum, plus soft tannins. Pricier examples of Mendoza Malbec are often aged for longer and use the area’s best grapes, frequently harvested from old vines or high-altitude vineyards at the top of Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. These wines tend to be bolder, with notes of black fruit, chocolate, mocha and blueberry.
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Meanwhile, in France’s Cahors region, those dark berry notes tend to be earthier, while the body often skews lighter and more elegant with higher acidity than in Argentine versions.
Significant flavor differences are common among neighboring regions, as well. The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that “Chile’s version tends to be more tannic than Argentina’s and may be blended with the other Bordeaux grapes which Chile grows in such profusion.” If we generalize, a South American Malbec has more fruit and ripeness, and a French one has more tannins and structure, adds Per and Britt Karlsson in Forbes.
Washington Malbec, on the other hand, is unique due to its ability to reflect more nuance. “It expresses so much Chinese five spice or Moroccan bazaar spice, where you’ve got coriander and star anise and clove and those kinds of sweet spices,” says Cohen. “You can get that in Washington State.”
Top-Rated Malbec Wines to Buy Now
Altos Las Hormigas 2019 Appellation Malbec (Gualtallary)
The Appellation series shows the terroir’s characteristics of subregions in Uco Valley. This one comes from limestone soils in Gualtallary. Violets, blackberry and cherry meet with hints of salt and oak spices on the nose. Well structured, the delicate palate features excellent acidity and chalky texture. Plum, blackberry and cherries merge with aniseed and tobacco. It’s delicious now, but is ageworthy. Drink now through 2029. Cellar Selection. 94 Points —Jesica Vargas
Neyen 2019 Espíritu de Apalta Malbec (Apalta)
This is deliciously spicy and savory. The nose opens with light notes of aniseed, cumin and incense, joining bay leaf and cherry. The palate is fresh and steady with firm tannins holding subtle notes of cranberry and tart cherry. Fruit flavors are accented by light notes of nutmeg, cummin, black pepper and dried herbs. It’s flavorful and has a mineral texture and focused acidity. Editor’s Choice. 93 Points —J.V.
Argento 2020 Single Vineyard Finca Altamira Organic Malbec (Paraje Altamira)
Young winemaker Juan Pablo Murgia offers an elegant savory Malbec. Made with organic grapes from Altamira, a geographical indication in the southern part of the Uco Valley, this red reveals an inviting nose. A blend of flowers, herbs, blueberries and blackberries (with a dash of chalk) rises from the glass. Vigorous acidity holds crunchy red- and black-fruit flavors on the round palate. It has a mineral texture and a herbaceous finish. 92 Points —J.V.
El Enemigo 2019 Malbec (Gualtallary)
Aged 15 months in foudres, this is an elegant Malbec from Gualtallary in the Uco Valley. The nose offers subtle spices, a dash of aromatic herbs, hints of black pepper and vanilla bean followed by plums. Silky tannins and excellent acidity provide a nice frame for this layered red. Rosemary, cherry, plums and dark chocolate contribute to the wine’s complexity. Drink now through 2027. Editor’s Choice. 92 Points —J.V.
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How Do You Pick a Good Malbec?
To find standouts, first consider the region. It’s usually safe to choose a Malbec from Argentina’s Mendoza appellation (Indicaciones Geográficas or IG), but for something a bit outside the norm, explore a bottle from Cahors, Washington State, Chile or Australia.
Malbecs should be a deep, dark red/purple with magenta tones toward the outer rim. Its particularly dark hue is why grapes grown in Cahors’s Lot Valley earned the name “the black wine of Lot” from the English.
No matter the growing region, these richly colored bottles should range in alcohol anywhere between 13 and 15 percent. Flavorwise, Malbec should sit somewhere between bitter and sweet with pleasing notes of dark berries and chocolate.
But like all wine, it’s important to pick a Malbec based on personal flavor and style preferences. “I tend to enjoy the rusticity of the Malbec in Cahor,” says Clarke. “But some who like rich, ripe fruit might prefer Argentina.”
What Foods Pair Best with Malbec?
Malbec’s signature fruity aromas make it “super-friendly on the table,” says Cohen. “It’s kind of like an adventuresome version of Merlot.”
Given its diversity, the best pairings depend upon the growing region. “Old vintages [of Cahors] can offer great value,” says Engelmann. “Give me that and a classic duck confit or duck breast with my dad and I’m happy—it’s cliche or classic, whatever you wanna call it, but it works.”
Malbec also excels in a traditional steak and wine combination. Clarke says she “would pair rich proteins with Malbec, especially beef which is great for Argentina. Grilled foods are also good with the earthy quality of the grape.”
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Is Malbec a Cheap Wine?
Easy-to-pair Malbec bottles range from budget-friendly to over-the-top. That’s why our roundup of the best Malbecs to drink right now includes a wide range of price points. Consumers can score great bottles for under $20 or upwards of $150.
Clarke believes bottles on the lower end of the price spectrum future for Malbec is bright. “Not only will it be able to grow in warm weather, most Malbecs are really a great value for the money,” she says. “As Burgundy, Bordeaux and Napa wines get more and more expensive, Malbec is a great alternative.”
Can You Cellar-Age Malbec?
It’s generally rare to bottle age bright, fruit-forward Malbecs, but Santiago Achaval, founder of Achaval-Ferrer Winery and Hand of God Winery in Argentina, believes there’s an opportunity to do so with the highest quality offerings. The Stanford-educated winemaker has been pushing this theory for close to a decade and you’ll see it reflected in some of Wine Enthusiasts’ top choices, which are five or even six years old. Some bottlings might be worth cellaring for 20-plus years.
Last Updated: September 27, 2023