Malbec is on the rise, with local winemakers producing plush expressions of the elegant grape, writes Max Allen.
This is a treat. We're standing among the old malbec vines at the legendary Wendouree vineyard in the heart of South Australia's Clare Valley. We've walked down a few other rows and tasted a few different varieties of grape: liquorice-scented shiraz berries; sugar-bomb mataro berries. Now winemaker Tony Brady hands us a cluster of blue-black malbec jewels. I pop one in my mouth and chew.
And there it is: an explosion of perfume, violets and purple fruit, and a long tannic bear hug on my tongue.
If, like me, you're a fan of red wine made from malbec you'll know that Wendouree vineyard is Mecca, Lourdes and the MCG rolled into one: the oldest malbec vines here date back to 1898, and the wine is dense, elegant and intense - the essence of grape and place.
You'll also know that the grape - and wines like those from Wendouree - has been overlooked for years. Luckily, though, that's changing. Thanks to the increasing popularity of big, ballsy imported malbecs from Argentina, and a renewed focus on the grape among local producers in both traditional malbec strongholds such as Clare Valley and newer outposts such as Heathcote, the grape's enjoying a resurgence.
Wendouree's Tony Brady is philosophical: "Shiraz wasn't fashionable not that long ago. Now look at it. The best thing to do is to recognise what your vineyard does best and stick to it. And wait for the fashion to come round again."
My visit to Wendouree was one stop on a malbec pilgrimage I undertook last year with an old mate.
We had this crazy dream of making a small batch of malbec ourselves, so we went in search of Australia's best to convince someone to sell us some grapes. The project hasn't got off the ground (yet), but the vineyard tour did give me a great insight into the variety.
Apart from Clare Valley, the South Australian region most strongly associated with malbec is Langhorne Creek, on the shores of Lake Alexandrina, south of Adelaide. The grape has been grown here since the 1860s, famously at Bleasdale, where winemaker Paul Hotker took us through barrels of young wine from strikingly different vineyards, and opened bottles dating back to 1989.
Hotker is obsessed with the grape: he even travelled recently to Cahors, in south-west France, where malbec originated, to pick up tips on how to improve his wines. "I had some excellent discussions," he says. "Now everyone in the winery is rolling their eyes at my propositions for enhancing our wines." He doesn't need much help, really. The Bleasdale Generations Malbec in particular is already a gloriously sumptuous and chocolatey expression of the variety.
That's not to say improvements can't be made, of course; Hotker and fellow winemaker Rebecca Willson from nearby Bremerton Wines are involved in a trial with renowned viticulturist Libby Tassie, making small batches of experimental wines from young plantings of malbec - cuttings sourced from various vineyards around the country, including Wendouree, Bleasdale, Kalimna in the Barossa and one in Western Australia, where the variety flourishes in the Frankland River region. It'll be fascinating to see what this viticultural diversity can bring to the flavours and characters of Langhorne Creek malbec: each clone of malbec from each site behaves slightly differently and makes wines with different personalities.
"I love that all this focus on malbec is bringing attention to the region and its history," says Willson as she pours us a glass of her deliciously rich, plush Special Reserve, a superb example of the variety.
Heathcote seems to be leading the malbec renaissance in Victoria, thanks in part to extensive new planting at the Chalmers family vineyard: the fruit from this one site not only ends up as malbec under the Chalmers' own Arturo label, but is also sold to other producers such as Matchbox and Chapter.
Heathcote malbec is nothing new, though. David Anderson first planted some in his Wild Duck Creek Estate vineyard back in 1979. And he still loves it.
When we arrive at the winery, raw young Wild Duck Creek malbec is being pumped from one container to another, and the air is full of deep purple splashes. My mouth starts watering just from the smell.
"We're going to plant more malbec," says Anderson, as winemaker son Liam hands us glasses of Yellow Hammer Hill shiraz malbec. "It's a drop-dead beautiful grape." I take a sip and he's right: hedgerow blackberry fruit, sweet black composty soil, and a big black bear hug of tannin.
Illustration Tom Bingham