On this date in 1853 president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento of Argentina asked Michel Aimé Pouget, a French soil expert, to bring new vines to Argentina to invigorate the nation’s wine industry. The day is now celebrated as Día Mundial del Malbec or Worldwide Malbec Day, with official events in over 60 countries. Pouget experimented with the adaptation of French varietals to Argentina’s diverse soils and ecozones and determined that Malbec grew well, especially in the up lands of Mendoza by the Andes. A decade later, France underwent a Phylloxera Plague that affected the Rhône region devastating ages old vineyards. Meanwhile, stocks in the Americas were resistant, and Argentine Malbec vines flourished. Malbec became the dominant varietal wine in Argentina, whereas in France Malbec grapes are used in blends to make Bordeaux wines.
Until the 1990s, Argentina was more interested in quantity rather than quality, and “Argentine wine” was synonymous with “cheap rotgut.” But, in the 1990s, the Argentine government teamed up with French vintners to elevate the quality of indigenous varietals. Argentina’s most highly rated Malbec wines originate from Mendoza’s high altitude wine regions of Luján de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. These districts are located in the foothills of the Andes mountains between 800 m and 1500 m elevation (2,800 to 5,000 feet). Argentine vintner Nicolás Catena Zapata has been widely credited for elevating the status of Argentine Malbec and the Mendoza region through serious experimentation into the effects of high altitude.
The grape clusters of Argentine Malbec are different from its French relatives, having smaller berries in tighter, smaller clusters. This suggests that the cuttings brought over by Pouget and later French immigrants were a unique clone that may have gone extinct in France due to frost and the phylloxera epidemic. Argentine Malbec wine is characterized by its deep color and intense fruity flavors with a velvety texture. While it doesn’t have the tannic structure of a French Malbec, being more plush in texture, Argentine Malbecs have shown aging potential similar to their French counterparts. Increasingly Argentine Malbecs take home top prizes in European competitions.
In 2011, Wines of Argentina, responsible for promoting Argentine wines around the world, established April 17th as Malbec World Day. Lis Clément, their Head of Marketing and Communications at the time, founded this day because she was convinced this celebration would help position Malbec as one of Argentina’s wine gems. Nowadays, more than 60 cities around the world (coordinated by the Foreign Affairs Office of Argentina) host events around Malbec, Argentine food and lifestyle. Each year, a theme is created to link Malbec and Argentine culture. This framework allows every celebration to be creative and adapt to each country’s culture. Although Malbec originated in France it is fair to say that Argentina is its new home.
When I lived in Argentina, any night out with friends involved a bottle (or two or three) of Malbec. In fact, in Buenos Aires “wine” and “Malbec” are virtual synonyms. Empanadas were a common accompaniment. I have mentioned Argentine empanadas before, and given recipes, but this time I will give you a version from Mendoza – Malbec country. They are a little spicier than other empanadas and contain boiled eggs (and sometimes abundant onions).
3 cups flour
1 egg yolk
½ cup lard, chopped in small pieces
¾ cup to 1 cup warm milk
½ tsp salt
1 lb ground beef
3 cups diced white onions
½ cup lard
2 tbsp smoked paprika
2 tsp chili powder
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh oregano
½ tbsp ground cumin
1 bunch green onions, finely chopped
3 hard boiled eggs, sliced
¼ cup sliced green olives
salt and pepper to taste
1 egg, white and yolk separated and lightly whisked
Sift the flour and salt into the bowl of a food processor. Add the lard and pulse until you have a mix that resembles coarse sand. Add the egg yolk and a small amount of milk. Pulse and continue adding milk until small dough clumps start to form. Turn the dough out on to a board and knead into a ball. Divide in two, wrap in foil and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
Combine the ground beef, paprika, red pepper, cumin, salt and pepper in a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together. Melt the lard in a large frying pan, add the onions and salt, and cook until the onions are soft. Add the meat mixture to the onions and cook on medium heat until the meat is browned, stirring frequently. Let the meat mixture or picadillo cool down, and then mix in the chopped green onions and chopped oregano.
On a lightly floured surface roll out the dough into thin sheets and cut out round disc shapes for empanadas using a small plate as a guide. Add a spoonful of the meat mixture on the center of each empanada disc, add a slice of egg and some sliced olive. Brush the edges of the empanada discs with the egg whites. Fold the empanada discs and seal the edges gently with your fingers, twist and fold the edges of the empanadas with your fingers, as a final step use a fork to press down and finish sealing the empanadas. (Getting this part right takes practice – and watching professionals). Lightly brush the top of the empanadas with the egg yolk and let them rest in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes or until ready to bake.
Pre-heat the oven to 400°F/200°C. Bake for about 20-25 minutes, or until golden on top. Serve warm.