Eleanor of Aquitaine, Teenage Queen Of France and The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Malbec

The twisted story of the Malbec grape is intertwined with the reputation of one of history’s most powerful women, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the only woman in history to have been both Queen of France and Queen of England.

Malbec was, during Eleanor’s reign in the 12th century, the centrepiece wine of South West France. It was at the heart of wines from the three main wine growing regions in those days, Cahors, the Pyrenees region which today we would understand as the region centred on AC Madiran and largest of all, Bordeaux, which then meant the lands we today call the right bank, St.Emilion, Bergerac, Cotes De Bourg, Fronsac and the Entre de Mers.

What is thought of today, as Bordeaux, including famous wine regions like Margaux, St.Estephe, Pauillac or St.Julien, home to illustrious names like Chateau Lafite, Chateau Latour and Chateau Leoville Barton, was unknown in the medieval period.

In fact, Bordeaux as wine lovers know it today was only created towards the end of the 17th century. This was because the Medoc, the land to the north of the city of Bordeaux, was essentially a swamp, a vast watery delta at the mouth of the immense River Gironde. The Medoc only became the source of great wines and beautiful chateaux after Dutch engineers were paid to come and build polders and drain it.

Eleanor was Duchess of Aquitaine, and her lands ran from the Loire to the present Bordeaux with Spain at Biarritz. She ruled almost a third of what is today France. She inherited her vast fiefdom at the age of 15 on the death of her father. He had taken the unusual step of making Eleanor, his daughter his heir rather than other male relatives.

Eleanor was well known to be an independent young woman, and a champion of the hardy rustic wines of Cahors, her heartland.

The wines of Cahors were valued at this time because they were very dense, hard-wearing wines that kept well and grew in abundance.

This contrasted with the rather more refined wines of the Loire and Burgundy favoured by the French court.

Malbec wines were about to make their first leap into fame and fortune, because Eleanor, aged 15 was about to marry the King of France’s son. Eleanor married Louis, and within a month Louis father died, making Louis, King and Eleanor Queen of France.

The wines of Aquitaine became the de facto royal wines and Eleanor, a shrewd and astute politician championed their success across France. A very important factor here was that Eleanor uniquely kept Aquitaine in her own name, it would only become part of France in the hands of her male heir. She never had a son with Louis VII.

It is from this time that tales about the miraculous nature of the Black Wines of Cahors start to circulate in earnest. The Malbec driven wines of Aquitaine became hugely fashionable.

Even better times were ahead.

At the age of 30 after 15 years of tempestuous marriage to King Louis VII, Eleanor divorced him, gave up the crown of France and returned to Bordeaux.

Four weeks later, she married, Henry, Count of Anjou, better known to us today as Henry II of England.

Eleanor subsequently became Queen of England and this delivered Aquitaine, the modern Bordeaux region and the South West of France, to English control establishing Bordeaux wines as the core of English and Irish wine drinking.

Under her sons, Richard ‘The Lionheart’ and ‘good’ King John, Bordeaux and Cahors wines continued to flourish.

The Malbec Effect

Today we have become increasingly used to what we call single varietal wines, a bottle of wine labelled for example Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon.

In even the recent past this kind of monoculture was considered very dangerous and really only practiced in regions with very highly priced wines where it was worth the risk, like Burgundy.

The problem was that if you have one variety of grape everything falls or succeeds on the weather or the health of that one type of grape.

To guard against this, many different varieties were planted. If the weather was unkind and the Cabernet Sauvignon did not ripen enough, then Merlot with its reputation for softness and fruitiness on a little less sun, or later ripening could save the vintage.

If after the grapes were harvested it turned out that the Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot had light small crops, the entire harvest could be saved by the very hardy, big boned tannic and huge cropping grape the Cahors and Bordeaux winemakers called Auxerrois, Malbec or Cot.

Eventually Malbec became known as the great saviour of Aquitaine. It always produced a big crop, it was not very fragile and it added heft and firm tannins to any red wine.

Malbec did have a weakness however, it needed dry weather above all, warm was merely a bonus, so it worked well in the Loire with long dry, reasonably warm rather than hot summers.

It also worked brilliantly well inland in Aquitaine, in places such as Cahors, situated around 200km in from the Atlantic and enjoying a continental climate, rather than in the cooler and wetter Medoc at 40km from the Atlantic or St.Emilion, some 75km in land.

Phylloxera, the vine louse disease that wiped out Europe’s vineyards in the 1880s was the final undoing of Malbec.

Malbec was by the 19th century regarded as a bit of an ugly brute in France. Railway transportation and steam boats meant that the value of hard-wearing, blocky, hugely tannic wines that could survive long perilous journeys was less highly prized.

It was great to swell out a poor or underweight vintage, but on its own it was rough, tannic and often quite brambly or stalky.

Increasingly with the drive towards fine wine, rather than bulk crops Malbec was replaced by the more noble Cabernet Franc or Merlot as the bulking agent in many blended red wines.

Then in 1956, rot killed vast swathes of Malbec in Bordeaux and across France. Most vineyards and chateaux took the opportunity to rip up this increasingly, old fashioned and unloved grape.

This rejection of Malbec did not extend to South Western France, where in Cahors and in Madiran, they replanted Malbec in huge acreages.

Michel Rolland, the world’s most famous consultant winemaker, part owner of brilliant Argentine Malbec winery Clos de La Siete, and consultant at Cahors winery Chateau Lagrazette  believes that Cahors vignerons replanted simply because of its easy big cropping nature.

Co-Operative wineries, which dominated the south of France  mainly pay by weight not quality for grapes from each member, so a large crop, not a quality crop, was traditionally the key to a good living.

Today most of the finest Co-Ops like those in Chablis and Tain Hermitage in the Rhone, highly value quality over quantity and pay accordingly, which of course has produced much better wines, albeit in lower volumes.

Cahors growers had little time for such niceties and this sent Cahors reputation spiralling downwards during the 1960s and 1970s, just at a time when the town finally received Appellation Controlee status. Cahor’s poor reputation seemed sealed when the AC rules for Cahors stated that they must use a minimum of 70% Malbec in every wine.

Dark, tannic, headache inducing wines that needed hours of decanting and only reached drinkability after a decade, became a prominent image for AC Cahors wines. They were the epitome of glugable, rustic wines.

Malbec’s New World Salvation

The image of Malbec created by poor Cahors wines was hugely unjust. The idea of Cahors wines being ‘black wines’ long predated the dark, tannic headache bombs of the 20th century and actually referred to the ancient practice of picking grapes at night that was fairly widespread in the South of France. This practice was believed to make fresher wines, long lived wines.

So, Black Wine was used as a positive description dating back almost to Eleanor of Aquitaine, rather than the byword for pain it became.

The best wines in Cahors, all during this time continued to be highly regarded as a secret, hidden delight for those in the know. Wineries like Chateau De Cedre, Clos Triguedina and Chateau Lagrezette owned and lavished upon by the Alain Dominique Perrin, head of luxury Richemont Group owners of Cartier, Mont Blanc and Piaget.

Despite this Malbec plantings in France went into near terminal decline outside of Cahors and the south west.

Salvation, however was waiting in the wings, in an very unlikely location.

In the middle of the 19th century as Argentina was finding completing its struggle for independence,  the possibility of a wine industry became apparent to many agricultural scientists and businessmen alike.

Happily French oenologist Miguel Pouget brought over a potential sure thing with Auxerrois or Malbec. Here was a grape that produced huge crops without too much fuss in warm, but above all dry climates. Hot and dry is the essence of the Argentine climate in the main vine growing regions, irrigation, not drainage is the problem in Argentina.

Unfortunately in many cases, quality lost out to quantity. Argentinean wines became known for large rustic commercial crops, with an emphasis on high alcohol Cabernet Sauvignon mostly for local consumption.

In the last 20 years, Argentina has transformed its wine industry, the soupy, high alcohol wines aimed at local production gave way in the long recessionary years of the 1980s and 1990s to fine wines aimed at the foreign currency, overseas markets.

This lead directly to a massive leap in quality.

The first place to see this was Malbec wines. Reducing the crop, lavishing fine wine attention on the Malbec vineyards and vinification produced unexpected results, intense wines of great piercing fruit, fine tannins and with smooth multi-layered, complex notes on the palate.

The kinds of Malbec only produced in occasional vintages in the best French vineyards were being produced annually in Argentina.

“It has really become our national grape.” Says Argentine Ambassador to Ireland Maria Esther Bondanza. “We are very proud of what these Malbec wines say about Argentina and of how they have brought Argentina to the attention of the world.”

Today, Malbec is so identified with Argentina and indeed as a perfect foil to Argentine beef that perhaps it is wise and fortuitous that the wines of Cahors do not place the grape varietal on their labels.

The best Argentine Malbec from producers like Clos de La Siete, Dona Paula, Alta Vista, Cantena Zapata, Trapiche and Familia Zuccardi are not just great examples of Malbec they bring Malbec to the status of a great wine comparable in the finest examples to the other great New World rebirths of European grapes like Napa Cabernet Sauvignons, Australia’s Clare Valley Rieslings or New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blancs.

As a wine they have surpassed and differentiated themselves from their French ancestor. Indeed in Malbec’s case there is even a growing physical difference, Argentine Malbec grapes being smaller and tighter clustered than their French cousins.

Modern Malbec

Today Malbec is still standing in the shadow of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Pinot Noir.

This is to the advantage of we wine lovers, because it means that Malbec is still largely undervalued, yet it is a wine with as illustrious a history as any of these grapes and today deserves our attention.

The best of new, quality orientated Cahors produce elegant, more savoury Malbec wines at prices far below comparable red wines from nearby Bordeaux. While Argentine Malbec is now offering a fine, deep rich dark fruited, slightly spicy polished red alternative to increasingly pricy Californian and Australian Cabernet and Shiraz.

Malbec is a grape whose pricing and quality in both New and Old world versions has fortuitously hit a peak when we the hard pressed wine lovers most need a exciting, well priced hero.

Malbec Heroes

Chateau du Cedre, le Prestige 2005 (90) around €21

Chateau du Cedre, AC Cahors 2007 (91) around €22 (formerly Le Prestige)

Clos Triguedina, Cahors New black wine 1994 (93) around €25

Don David, Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina 2007 (89) around €12.50

Altos Los Hormigas, Malbec Mendoza, Argentina 2009 (90) around €14.99

Alta Vista Malbec Premium, Mendoza, Argentina 2008 (90) around €15.95

Terrazas Reserva, Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina, 2008 (89) around €17

Achaval-Ferrer, Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina 2007 (91) around €18

Argento Malbec, Mendoza Argentina 2008 (88) around €9.50

Norton Barrel Select Malbec Argentina 2008 (88) around €9.99

Dona Paula Estate Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina 2008 (91) around €12.99

Clos de los Siete, Mendoza, Argentina 2008 (91) around €18.99

Wines available in Le Caveau, Market Yard, Kilkenny; Redmonds of Ranelagh; O’Briens Wines nationwide; Cases Wine Warehouse, Galway; Thewineshop.ie; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street, Dublin 2;  Sweeney’s of Glasnevin; Fallon & Byrne, Exchequer Street, Dublin 2;  Mitchell and Sons, CHQ in the IFSC, Glasthule and online at mitchellandson.com and specialist wine shops nationwide