When a single grape makes you think of a specific country or region, people in the wine business refer to it as a signature variety. Some well-known pairings include sauvignon blanc and New Zealand, pinotage and South Africa and cabernet sauvignon and the Napa Valley. Throughout the last decade, Argentina has attracted its fair share of interest from the international wine world. Driving all the curiosity is its signature red grape: malbec.
I continue to marvel at the growth of interest in malbec in North America. From almost nowhere, this practically extinct Bordeaux grape variety has singlehandedly decapitated the Australian shiraz market and to some extent cabernet sauvignon sales. The latter was once thought to be impervious to such an assault, but cabernet has taken a hit as red wine drinkers reach for the softer, less acidic version of shiraz and a similarly softer, this time less tannic, example of cabernet sauvignon.
The success comes from mostly small producers winning over wine drinkers one label at a time. Names such as Catena, Dona Paula, Jean Bousquet, Cobos, Flichman, Finca La Primos, Achával Ferrer, Altos Los Hormigas, Trapiche, Terrazas de los Andes, Chakana and more. One by one, their colourful names and individual labels have drawn consumers into the Argentine category where they appear to revel in the voluptuous, black fruit flavours of malbec that finish with a strong, earthy savoury undercurrent.
Only one thing can kill the success of this category, greed, which leads me to think it will come sooner or later, most likely in the form of large price hikes -- or worse, bargain-basement, cheap malbec trading on the good will of the aforementioned names. One need only look to Australia and the inane pursuit of Yellow Tail by wineries that couldn't come up with anything more interesting than another critter label from an appellation as large as half the country.
In an age of instant information, and even faster global mapping, provenance matters and it resonates with wine buyers paying to tag a flavour or a taste to a place. It would appear the only people who do not get it are retailers and distributors looking to make a fast buck.
In the meantime, there are still myriad choices of authentic Argentine malbecs available in Canada especially at the affordable end of the price spectrum where its price/quality, plus its oomph-in-the-glass ratio, is as good as it gets in the wine business.
Today we look at six malbecs (not all sold in government stores) you should enjoy exploring.
A new label, Valle Las Acequias Malbec 2005 from Medrano, Mendoza, entices with its mix of violets, red fruits and plums. The palate is an impressive mix of silky high altitude Medrano unoaked fruit with intense flavours of plums and licorice flecked with smoke and bits of vanilla and chocolate. Long and complex for malbec. Well-done and good value.
Always appealing, the Don Miguel Gascon Malbec 2007 is built with soft edges and plenty of warm, smoky, white pepper and floral fruit. The palate is a mix of meaty savoury licorice-flavoured plums and black fruit with bits of vanilla and chocolate. Rich and balanced, it totally over-delivers for the price. Try this with a variety of grilled meats.
Not every quality malbec is made in Argentina, as evidenced by the Viu Manent Malbec 2008 from Chile's Valle del Colchagua in the sub-region of Rapel. You get a lot of sweet spicy sappy red wine for $14, with intense black plums, bits of tobacco smoke and gamey notes. The entry is smooth with spicy black pepper and plum fruit notes on the palate with a lacing of savoury licorice and grilled mushrooms flavours. The finish is smooth and silky. Amazing quality for Chilean malbec.
Speaking of quality, consistently well made is the story of Pascual Toso Malbec 2008. Always rich and savoury, it offers plenty of licorice and sweet black fruit up front and a warm, minty, peppery, smooth back end. A crowd pleaser without a lot of complexity but plenty of long showy fruit. Steaks, anyone?
Ikella Malbec 2006 from the Agrelo District of Luján de Cuyo in the heart of Mendoza is the impressive second label of the Melipal folks. Look for a deep-coloured, fragrant, peppery plum-scented nose with bits of black fruit and grilled bread. Round supple soft fruit entry with plums, black fruit and dried herbs. Classic savoury malbec with soft, easy-sipping tannins. Ready to drink.
Finally, Xumek Sol Huape Malbec 2007 offers an appealing style of malbec that hails from north of Mendoza in San Juan. The nose is fragrant, offering up floral, peppery, ripe red fruit with bits of chocolate, coffee, dried herbs and blueberries. The palate is silky smooth, showing youthful oak and vanilla throughout the finish. Cellar for another three to five years or drink now with roasted meats and fowl. Good value.
VALLE LAS ACEQUIAS MALBEC 2005, MEDRANO, MENDOZA, ARGENTINA
Remarks: Delicious, silky, high-altitude unoaked malbec fruit.
DON MIGUEL GASCON MALBEC 2007, MENDOZA, ARGENTINA
Remarks: Rich and balanced, it totally over-delivers for the price.
VIU MANENT MALBEC 2008, VALLE DEL COLCHAGUA, VALLE DEL RAPEL, CHILE
Remarks: Smooth, silky, peppery finish. Amazing quality for Chilean malbec.
PASCUAL TOSO MALBEC 2008, MAIPU, MENDOZA, ARGENTINA
Remarks: A crowd pleaser with plenty of bright, showy fruit. Steaks, anyone?
IKELLA MALBEC 2006, AGRELO DISTRICT, LUJAN DE CUYO, MENDOZA, ARGENTINA
Price: $20, private wine shops only
Remarks: Classic savoury malbec with soft, easy-sipping tannins. Drink now.
XUMEK SOL HUAPE MALBEC 2007, SAN JUAN, ARGENTINA
Remarks: An appealing style of malbec that hails from north of Mendoza in San Juan.