Fool Me Once, Shame on Malbec


Malbec.  It goes by another name in my wine group.  Okay, maybe I’m the one that calls it by that name.  Have you ever blind tasted a Malbec and thought it was a Cabernet Sauvignon, or maybe a Zinfandel, or maybe a Merlot, or maybe a Syrah?  No, when the bag comes off, it turns out to be a f@#%ing Malbec.

Malbec can have all three fruit colors, red, black and blue.  But so can Zinfandel.  Malbec can have a purplish hue, but so can Syrah.  Malbec can have notes of bell pepper, but so can Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  It’s a chameleon that likes to impersonate other wines.  But what are the qualities of Malbec?

Originating in France, Cahors and Bordeaux, most of the Malbecs we see now are from Argentina.  It is a thick skinned grape usually with new oak aromas such as smoke, toast, vanilla and spice.  It can have some bell pepper aroma, but it won’t be as strong as in a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Merlot.  It may have a purple hue and aromas of red, black and blue fruit but it won’t have the black pepper aromas of Zinfandel and Syrah.  The Malbec grape has a phenolic aldehyde called vanillin.  It’s the same vanillin that is found in oak, the phenol that gives wine a vanilla flavor.  Some people, including the wine-whisperer in our group can taste the difference between vanillin from grapes and vanillin from oak.  The vanillin from grapes has a more candied quality to it.

So if it tastes like a Cabernet Sauvignon, but not quite, or tastes like a Syrah, but not quite, or tastes like a Zinfandel, but not quite, or tastes like a Merlot, but not quite…and has a candied vanilla flavor…it’s a f@#%ing Malbec!  It fools me every time.


D7E1D699-35E9-42CB-B6D9-82954496D245“I’m looking for a Bordeaux. It has a white label with cursive writing.” For anyone who has eyeballed any Bordeaux selections lately, you will realize how far short this description falls from identifying the particular Bordeaux for which my customer was looking. “Do you know if it was right bank or left bank?” I asked hoping to help her find the bottle she was seeking. “No,” she said, “but it had a picture of a castle on the front, if that helps.” It really didn’t.

Most Bordeaux bottles have white or cream labels with black, sometimes brown writing and a picture of a castle on the front. There are exceptions, but the colorful Bordeaux labels are few and far between. It’s like Bordeaux’s uniform if Bordeaux were in Catholic school.

At last week’s tasting of rosés I noticed that most of the wines had white labels with black lettering in a block style. The labels were all very neutral as if trying to not be noticed in order to let the beautiful colors of the rosés shine through. One’s eye hardly notices the label, as it is drawn to the many shades of pink and salmon shimmering in the glass bottle.

Many customers tell me that they pick their wines by the label. But when I’ve pulled out our best selling bottles and looked at the labels, they are almost always cream or white with simple lettering, in other words, not eye-catching at all, but fairly nondescript. I like to believe that most people realize it’s not the label, but what’s inside that matters.