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Is Aussie malbec the next big thing?

Publish Date: 25 Aug 2017

Authored by: Halliday promotion

Malbec could become as big as shiraz in Australia according to Bleasdale Vineyards’ Paul Hotker, the newly crowned Halliday Wine Companion Winemaker of the Year. Here he explains why this intriguing grape, known for its punch-packing colour and tannin, is moving up the roster at wineries around the country and is more highly regarded than ever in his own Langhorne Creek.

Paul Hotker in the vineyard by Peter Fisher
Paul in the vineyard (Photo: Peter Fisher)

On the malbec map

Malbec has been part of the Bleasdale Vineyards story since the 1860s and was the first table wine released by the family-owned winery when fortifieds were still the fashion. Paul says if you can find a Bleasdale malbec under decent cork from the mid-1980s, you’re in for a treat. When he joined the team 10 years ago, a decision to sell a stockpile of malbec project wines gave rise to the three-tier malbec range we have today. 

Early Bleasdale malbec

He explains: “To meet demand we had to create the richer, fuller Generations Malbec with a focus on oak maturation as well as the lighter, fresher Second Innings for everyday drinking.” For collectors there is the Double Take made only in the best vintages, not to mention premium wines like the Frank Potts cabernet blend in which malbec plays the charismatic co-star. “Malbec brings mid-palate richness to our aromatic cabernet, as well as the colour and tannins to give it fantastic longevity,” says Paul.

Fortunately, says Paul, the difference between growing conditions in Langhorne Creek and malbec’s adopted home of Argentina is not as great as one might think. He explains: “In Mendoza it’s the cool gully breezes – not the elevation – that helps the fruit build colour and flavour, and we enjoy similar cooling effects here from the summer breezes off Lake Alexandrina.” In contrast to the young soils of the Andean foothills, however, the older clay soils of Langhorne Creek contribute a unique mid-palate richness at a lower alcohol level. 

Closer to home, Paul says the malbec of the Clare Valley tends be more spiced with star anise characters than that of Langhorne Creek, where boysenberry and plum characters prevail, while West Australian malbec is more crunchy in its acidity.

In pursuit of perfection

As well as different maturation techniques, Paul is trialling a series of malbec clones from vineyards across SA, WA and Argentina. He says: “We want to look at how other things perform in Langhorne Creek to check whether what we have could be even better, but so far the Potts clone is still delivering the best quality. That said, it will be 10-15 years before we find out for sure, and we did get some clonal material from Wendouree last year that’s looking particularly strong.” In more positive news for Australian malbec, Paul says the Bleasdale phone has been ringing steadily of late with people seeking advice on the best clones.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a winemaker described by James Halliday as a ‘master blender following eerily closely in the footsteps of Wolfgang Blass’, the challenge that malbec poses in the vineyard is far outweighed by the rewards in the winery. Paul says: “Malbec can be difficult to grow properly and, because it’s all about flowering, it can be anything from the first fruit we harvest to the last.” 

When blended, malbec often brings about that eureka moment when a wine “evokes a choir singing in perfect harmony”.  He adds: “[The winemaking team] might be lining up 30 glasses to test the difference between 15.5 per cent and 16.5 per cent, and doing that day after day, but when we find what we’re looking for it’s worth it.”

Paul Hotker by Peter Fisher
Paul in the winery (Photo: Peter Fisher)

Shiraz successor?

Paul believes the powerful plum and cherry flavours of malbec offer a juicy mid-palate experience similar to that which has made Australian shiraz so iconic. “Malbec has the same ability as shiraz to produce wines for fine dining, for the cellar, and for your backyard barbeque; it’s not as challenging as cabernet or nebbiolo; plus it’s easily pronounceable!” he says.

malbec grapes

For new arrivals to malbec, the affordable Second Innings label is a good place to start. “You could think of it as pinot for the claret drinker,” says Paul. “There’s enough stuffing and concentration there for people who like Bordeaux but it’s approachable and offers a different style of perfume.”

As for sure-fire food matches, Paul says beef gratin or duck are top of the list.

View the tasting notes for the 2015 Generations, 2014 Double Take and 2015 Second Innings malbec wines featured in the 2018 Halliday Wine Companion.

Next article: Paul Hotker named Winemaker of the Year for 2018

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