Now that your hangover from Malbec World Day has cleared here is some history about the increasingly popular grape...
Early 1852 was fairly uneventful in Santiago, Chile. The capital of the young Republic was a sleepy town of a few thousands set on the side of the Mapocho river and against the breathtaking backdrop of the Andes. Many of the rich families in town had escaped Santiago’s hot and sunny summer for the coast, giving the town a ghostly feel. This town and that summer would serve as the stage where two strangers would cross paths and, by butterfly effect, would help redefine the destiny of one of the leading wine regions in the world.
Domingo Faustino Sarmiento was a classic man of the age of enlightenment, in the tradition of the American forefathers. Strong willed and self-taught, the San Juan (Argentina) native, was well versed in several languages and a strong advocate for universal education. His arrival in Santiago wasn’t an accident. His liberal ideas had landed him on the wrong side of the opinion of Manuel de Rosas, the brutal, arch-conservative governor of Buenos Aires and Argentina’s de facto leader. He would return to Argentina many years later, as President, after having lived overseas, including the time he spent in the United States where he was appointed Ambassador of Argentina in Washington DC. His natural curiosity and thirst for learning accompanied him everywhere.
Michel Aime Pouget, was his kindred spirit. The adventurous Frenchman had reached Santiago in search of opportunities. Formally trained as oenologist and horticulturist, he had arrived on the shores of Chile seeking the kind of untapped, untamed, unlimited possibilities that a whole New World could provide. In exchange he could provide know-how and experience backed by hundreds of years of history and tradition. He was smart, fearless and like Sarmiento, was moved by a powerful sense of curiosity.
We know little about the circumstances that brought the two men together, but we do know that, having dried up some of his prospects and at the behest of Sarmiento, Monsieur Pouget would embark on the crossing of the Andes. Time was of the essence. Waiting for the end of the summer might have delayed the entire enterprise by a whole year, due to the harsh conditions of an Andes crossing in the 1850’s. A trip we do today in 27 minutes at 35,000 feet while sipping red wine, was a deadly journey that demanded days. It was rough.
Despite Sarmiento’s fallout with the authorities in Buenos Aires, his name still carried a great deal of weight in Mendoza and the rest of Cuyo. Michel Pouget probably realized early on that many doors would open for him at the sole mention of Sarmiento. And he used that to his advantage. Realizing the tremendous potential of the area for agriculture, and in particular for the production of vitis vinifera, he approached local authorities with a plan to start a local school of agriculture. The local authorities, impressed by the young European, gave him a resounding yes and threw their full support behind him. The day was April 17, 1852. A Saturday. The day the small plantings of cabernet, merlot, cabernet franc and other classic French varietals officially found a home in Mendoza.
Among them, an ugly duckling. Cox, or was it Cot? Or auxerrois, cote noir… nobody was keeping track. The obscure little grape, the spinster sister that the great houses of Burgundy and Bordeaux used to hide in shame had a thousand different names. Was it originally from Eastern Europe. Or had it been first recognized on the damp shores of the Brittany? Either way, it would find its home in the clay, sand and limestone that used to lie at the bottom of the Pacific a million years ago and that were now guarded and nourished by the Andes. Plenty of water from rivers and three hundred and thirty days of sun a year and a marriage of convenience to the strong and disease resistant American stock found everywhere from Canada to Patagonia would ensure its survival.
And thus it thrived. And like so many others before and after who would arrive destitute, disregarded, and overlooked to the shores of the Americas, this little grape would one day take a new name. It would proudly call itself MALBEC and slowly but certainly, it would one day take the world by storm.