Château Malbec: tracing history.

Published 12.10.2021
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For Castel Châteaux & Grands Crus, vineyards, estates, and Grands Crus are not simply owned. They are a legacy passed from one generation to the next.

Being custodians of an extraordinary viticultural, architectural and historical heritage requires a certain amount of research and conservation work. Château Malbec, acquired by the Castel family in 1991, is no exception.

In the 18th century, this property in Sainte-Eulalie, just outside Bordeaux, had several different owners, including the Malbec family. For a long time, it was believed that the château owed its name to its former proprietors, with no particular link to the eponymous grape variety. However, research from historian Léonard Laborie, a Malbec specialist, has brought new light to the subject.

Researcher at the French National Centre of Scientific Research (Sirice Laboratory, Paris), Léonard Laborie specialises in contemporary European history with a particular interest in technology, as well as in wine and the vine. At the behest of the Union Interprofessionnelle du Vin de Cahors, the wine region in the South West of France which has become synonymous with Malbec, he undertook a research project looking into the origins of the grape variety that began as a cross between Prunelard and Magdeleine noire des Charentes.

Getting to the root of the Malbec variety

Proud of their heritage, a great many Cahors winegrowers are “convinced that Malbec originated in Cahors, but this is far from certain as yet”, reasons Léonard Laborie. However, one thing is certain: the variety known as Auxerrois has been present in the region since at least the 16th century. Although other grapes were grown, it has been the region’s main variety since then. It was renamed “Malbec” in Cahors in 2017 in order to appeal to the international market, taking its cues from the Argentinian wine industry, which employed the same strategy to recover from the late 20th century crisis.

Most likely originating in Quercy, Malbec soon spread to wine regions across France. At the end of the 19th century, just before the Phylloxera crisis, it was the most widespread variety in France, present in the North, South, East and West. Its expansion began in the Fontainebleau region, where it was known as Samoireau. A Cahors winegrower had been tasked by King François I with bringing root-stock to the vineyard he was developing in the grounds of the royal palace, designed to represent all the major French wine regions.

It was than in the 18th century that the variety arrived in Bordeaux, where by the 19th century it was widely planted. This enthusiasm is explained by two factors. Firstly, “the period’s slightly warmer climate in comparison with the preceding centuries, with slightly higher average temperatures, enabled cultivation in Atlantic conditions”. Secondly, “this highly tannic variety, blended with local varieties, allowed Bordeaux winegrowers to propose fuller-bodied wines with more intense colour, and so with increased aging potential”. From Bordeaux, the grape variety now known as Malbec was subsequently exported around the world, including, in the 1840s, to Australia and Chile.

The etymological origins of the Malbec variety

The first appearance of the term Malbec dates back to 1784, as part of an enquiry ordered by Nicolas Dupré de Saint-Maur, Intendant of Guyenne. His correspondants in Bazas and Pauillac on the left bank of the Garonne tell of the “widespread plantation” of Malbec in the area. Secondat, the son of the writer Montesquieu, believed that the name was that of a winegrower named Malbeck, who had widely planted the variety in the Médoc. Another hypothesis brings in to play the Château Malbec, located on the right bank of the Garonne, which today belongs to the Castel family. According to Auguste Petit-Lafitte, botanist and professor of agriculture in the Gironde department active in the 1860s, Malbec took its name from the winegrowing Malbec family, who had contributed to the propagation of the variety in Sainte-Eulalie and in the surrounding area. “This hypothesis is partially verifiable”, reveals Léonard Laborie. “In the 18th century, a certain Malbec family, jurists at the Bordeaux Parliament, settled in Sainte-Eulalie". They owned a wine estate that was already well-established by this time, producing red and white wines. “Unfortunately, we know nothing about the varieties planted at the estate,” claims the historian. “We do, however, know that this family had no property in the Médoc.”

Further leads

On the basis of his reading and the existing somewhat contradictory theories, Léonard Laborie has constructed his own hypothesis. “Secondat’s theory implies a heavy presence of Malbec in the Entre-deux-mers at the end of the 18th century, although often with different names such as pied rouge, cote rouge, étranger…” recalls the researcher. “In my opinion, Malbec could well have been specific branch of the Côt rouge family, a hybrid variety created through a specific selection made by the Malbec family of Saint-Eulalie". Médoc winegrowers could then have bought their vines from the Malbec family in Sainte-Eulalie, in order to supply vineyards. In the time before nurseries, it was not uncommon for grape varieties to take their name from those who planted them.

A second slightly more farfetched theory suggests that the Malbec family of Sainte-Eulalie – the history of which can be traced up to the death of Jeanne Malbec at the end of the 19th century – and the Malbec family of the Médoc exchanged vines in one direction or the other. “This theory is, however, fragile,” warns the historian. “I discovered a Malbec family in Margaux, also jurists and who owned vines in Langoiran and Margaux.” Were these two families related? This is impossible to confirm. The only possible evidence uncovered by the historian is anecdote related to the Sainte-Eulalie estate. When she died childless in 1807, Jeanne Malbec bequeathed her property, made up of 18 hectares of vines, a tenant farm, a house and a vat-house, to one of her cousins named Jean-Baptiste Lacroix. Learning of her death, a man named Pierre Malbec made a claim on the inheritance, claiming to be Jeanne’s closest relative, and that she owed him a total of 1200 francs. A legal case was opened, which means that today we have a detailed description of the property. The case was resolved when Jean-Baptiste paid his aunt’s debt, before hastily selling off the property. No family link between Jeanne and Pierre Malbec is mentioned. Was Pierre Malbec one of the Malbecs? The enquiry continues…

Further reading: Patrice Foissac, Pascal Griset et Léonard Laborie (dir.), Vins de Cahors et du Quercy. Un recueil sur l’histoire des hommes, des lieux et des produits, Pessac, MSHA, 2020, 405 p.