In early 2009 I wrote about the fantastic value to be found in Argentinian Malbec wines. Thirteen months on, and many tastings later, I felt compelled to revisit the Malbec grape variety and the considerable diversity of wines produced.
Just to recap, while Argentina must get credit for putting Malbec on the map, its origins lie in France, and specifically in Bordeaux. Malbec is a very old variety. Today it has almost disappeared from the vineyards of Bordeaux, but is still very much alive and well in neighboring Cahors in southwest France, where it makes full-bodied, inky, tannic wines.
Since Malbec's introduction to Argentina, the grape has adapted perfectly to its new homeland. According to many Argentinian winemakers, Argentinian Malbec grapes have evolved into smaller clusters, with thinner skins and sweeter tannins than their counterpart in Cahors.
Though considered New World, wine production in Argentina dates back to more than 400 years ago, when the first wine grape cuttings were brought to the Americas by the Spaniards in the early sixteenth century.
Mendoza represents the most important wine region in Argentina, accounting for about 80% of the country's wines and vineyard area. A vast hot area, Mendoza is what you will see on most labels of Argentinian Malbec. However, watch out for Luján de Cuyo and Maipú, two very old, sub-regions, which are particularly highly regarded for top quality Malbec. In these sub-regions, high altitude vineyards (up to 3600 feet above sea level) provide cooler micro-climates that make for finer, more structured wines.
Over the past six months, I have tasted my way through many Malbec wines in an effort to even better understand the diversity of style and terroir expressions that all fall under the umbrella 'Malbec from Argentina'.
For me it breaks down into three broad categories of style:
- Simple, fruity, medium-bodied, easy drinking wines that cost between $8 and $10
- Honest, robust, well-structured, stylish, full-bodied wines that cost from $10-$25
- Ambitious, extracted, concentrated, powerful, modern, international style wines that retail for anything between $30+ and $50
While I appreciate the intrinsic quality of the top wines, often from top sites and single-vineyards, my preferred wines to drink fall into the middle category. To me these wines represent a greater typicity of the Malbec grape. Neither diluted nor over-extracted, these wines can convey a real sense of place.
In terms of taste, Malbec wines are deep in color, robust, with intense plummy, damson, wild berry and bramble fruit aromas and flavors, with notes of tobacco, liquorice, spice, exotic earth, leather and sometimes lifted floral hints. They are usually full-bodied, with lots of tannin and have fairly high alcohol. Most undergo some oak maturation.
Full bodied with lots of tannin, Malbec wines are perfect for meat dishes or complex proteins, such as beans and lentils. Just this weekend we enjoyed the 2007 Catena Malbec with marinated and char-grilled flank steak served with creamy polenta. With spring in the air, many of us have started to fire up the barbecue. Malbec is a perfect partner for grilled steaks, burgers and sausages.
Excellent Malbecs that I have enjoyed and noted over the past six months include:
• 2007 La Posta Paulucci Vineyard, $18 – An explosion of ripe cherry, bramble fruit, wild raspberries with hints of butterscotch, caramel and spice.
• 2007 Kaiken Reserve Malbec, $14 – Dark ruby with purple hue. Intense ripe raspberry, black cherry, damson and bramble fruit with notes of exotic earth, baking spices and subtle toffee, vanilla hints. Elegant and very smooth.
• 2007 La Posta Pizzella Vinayard Malbec, $18 – Still very youthful aromas of vibrant red cherry, raspberry and bramble fruit – chocolate, toffee and sweet spices.
• 2007 Alta Vista Premium Malbec, $16 – Smooth, seductive nose of ripe black cherry, damson and blackberry. Rich texture with notes of mocha, nutmeg pepper.
• 2007 Famiglia Bianchi Malbec, $17.99 – Full-bodied, baked cherries, roasted sweet pumpkin, earthy bramble notes – firm and good tannic grip
• 2007 Dona Paula Estate Malbec – Enticing layered aromas of ripe black plums, raspberry, black cherry with notes of tar, liquorice, espresso and sweet spice.
• 2007 Catena Malbec, $18 – It would be hard to write about Malbec without including Catena, one of Argentina's most renowned wineries. Intense ripe fruits – wild berries, damsons, black cherry mingling with notes of sweet spice, earth, warm leather, coffee and butterscotch.
Until next week - enjoy some great Argentinian flavors!
Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.
(Images: Mary Gorman; wine producers)