Article By: Sandy Block, MW
ARGENTINE MALBEC CONTINUES TO SOAR on the American market. What’s surprising to me is that after what appeared to be a slight quality slump a few years ago, there is a renewed energy in the category and an apparent commitment to making more interesting and complex terroir-driven wines – albeit at a slightly higher price. If they are no longer the screaming bargains that they represented in the past, most of the country’s mid-tier Malbecs are better structured and showing more finesse and individuality, at least if my blind tastings of the 2OO9s and 2O1Os are indicative.
Now that the category is so firmly established, perhaps it’s worth reviewing what makes it special. Growing grapes at ultra-high altitudes and in semi-desert conditions is a good place to start. When you are in the vineyard regions of Mendoza you see mountains everywhere, from virtually every site. Altitudes range from just over 2OOO to above 5OOO feet, and the location relative to sea level profoundly effects not only temperature but also sunlight intensity. It’s apparent from visiting Mendoza that even small changes in elevation make nearby vineyards very different from a terroir perspective. In general, the higher up you are, the cooler (especially at night) and the more intense the rays of the sun, meaning the thicker the Malbec’s skins get and the more aromatic and riper the grapes taste. This is why Mendoza Malbecs, as well as those from elsewhere in the country, rarely display green flavors, as the grape tends to exhibit elsewhere in the world, and why alcohol levels remain fairly moderate. To complete some of the major points of difference, the growing season is very long and most of the vines are own-rooted.
Despite this generally consistent ripening profile, with strong, bright fruit aromatics, good acids and rich velvety tannins, Argentine Malbecs don’t all tell the same story due to major variations in soil and altitude. In my experience the slightly lower altitude wines tend to express more black cherry and chocolate characteristics, while those further up in elevation are more floral in perfume, more plummy and delicately spicy. The soil story is more difficult to entangle. Most of the Mendoza soils are alluvial, loose and stony, but there is virtually no homogeneity. There are fine particles of sand, silt and rocky calcareous pebbles interspersed with clay and overlaying one another. Much of the research into sub-soil types and their impact on Malbec is only now beginning, but a fascinating experimental plot by Sebastian Zuccardi at his family’s winery shows clearly the micro-terroir differences Malbec is capable of expressing in adjacent soils that are, for instance, rockier versus sandier.
These highly recommended malbecs are listed in ascending order of preference. All over-deliver for wines that offer value and flavor excitement in a medium price range.
VINA ALICIA LAS COMPUERTAS LUJAN DE CUYO, 2OO9
There are insiders who consider Lujan de Cuyo the epicenter of Malbec production in Argentina, although the Valle de Uco has been giving it a run for its money lately. Located in the northern part of Mendoza, it is definitely the champion in the heavyweight division, ripening fuller bodied wines with more robust tannins and highly extracted fruit flavors. A third generation family producer, Vina Alicia manually harvests this Malbec from grapes grown in the Las Compuertas sub zone in the slightly cooler western part of Lujan de Cuyo at an altitude of 33OO feet. They ferment these old vine Malbec grapes in stainless steel and then age the wine in French oak barrels for 12 months. It shows some toasted wood aromas along with a scent of exotic spices. On the palate there is a distinctly pruney, Port-like sensation, with high almost exaggerated extraction and jammy blueberry-like smokiness. Very good, but perhaps best suited for hard cheeses or slow cooked meats rather than dishes with subtle flavors.
COLOME GRAN ALTURA ESTATE CALCHAQUI, 2O1O
Salta is among the northernmost of Argentina’s wine growing zones; this is from the Calchaqui sub-region, which has what are described as among the highest elevation vineyards in the world, with grapes growing over 6OOO feet above sea level. With 15% other grapes blended into the Malbec, including Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Petit Verdot, this is a highly aromatic wine, with distinctive blueberry and violet aromas. Harvested quite late in the season, as might be expected at these extreme elevations, it is nonetheless ripe and chocolatey, with an enticing liqueur-like creaminess and silky medium intensity tannins. It has a well-integrated spicy finish and would be a fine partner to grilled lamb.
GRAFFIGNA GRAND RESERVA SAN JUAN, 2O1O
San Juan is a hotter, drier and sunnier – although windier – region than Mendoza. Many of the Malbecs I have tasted from this desert-like province taste baked and lacking in finesse, but this example from the Pedernal Valley was quite delicious, if a bit over the top. Made from grapes grown at 45OO feet, its engaging aromas of dried fig, blackberry and bacon fat suggest an extremely ripe fruit profile. This is aged for 18 months in half French and half American oak barrels. On the palate this extensive wood treatment plays itself out as an irresistible mélange of caramel, butterscotch, chocolate, and raisin flavors. This was the blind tasting group consensus winner and while I thought it was full of obvious charm, there were others that I felt had more flavor nuance and better balance.
LUIGI BOSCA LUJAN DE CUYO, 2O1O
Sourced from Bosca’s east facing La Linda Vineyard at over 3OOO feet in the slightly cooler Vistalba sub-region of Lujan de Cuyo, this is a real crowd pleaser. The old vine grapes are grown on shallow, well drained rocky soils with a mix of limestone and silt. Bosca is a fourth generation family producer founded in 19O1 who harvests manually and conducts fermentation in stainless before aging for 14 months in new French oak barrels. The wine has a baked dark fruit and spice aroma, with lush, rich, coffee mocha flavors. If you like an exuberant wine with lush, vanilla oaky characters, spiced with notes of blackberry and bitter chocolate, this dense and concentrated Malbec is something to enjoy with pork or roast duck.
CHENTO VINEYARD SELECTION MENDOZA, 2O1O
Another fourth generation producer, Chento sources from the Uco Valley, an hour south of the city of Mendoza. This is the zone that produces more delicately scented, less extracted versions of Malbec and the Chento is a good example. Aged for about a year in French oak, it shows a vanilla, slightly smoky, almost barbecued like aroma. The fruit is ripe but earthy and the texture very silky. On the palate, the fruit is clean, blueberry-like and invigorating, and there is a touch more balancing acidity than in some of the other Malbecs. This would be a good partner for grilled fish, as well as the more traditional red meat dishes.
SUSANA BALBO SIGNATURE MENDOZA, 2O11
The well-traveled Susana Balbo has developed a reputation as one of Argentina’s most accomplished winemakers. A blend of Uco Valley and Lujan de Cuyo fruit, this wine also incorporates 1O% Cabernet Sauvignon for structure. It is among the most delicate of the Malbecs aromatically, with mint, blueberry, floral scents and bit of tobacco. On the palate, the fresh acids reflect the slightly cooler 2O11 vintage, but the flavors are lush and velvety, with chocolate, allspice and dark berries in abundance. This is a Malbec that is delicious enough to enjoy on its own, but would be a great accompaniment for a steak au poivre.
ALTOS LAS HORMIGAS VALLE DE UCO, 2O1O
Renowned Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini (former head of enology at Antinori) crafts a very sensual Malbec from high altitude Uco Valley fruit. The wide swings in day and night temperature from this zone help create a Malbec that is florally perfumed, with dark plum and black cherry flavors. With subtle grace notes of smoke, coffee bean and mocha, this has a creamy richness that is a bit more understated than some of the other wines. Tannins are moderate and there is a suggestion of delicate fruit and herbs in the finish.
FINCA DECERO REMOLINAS VINEYARD AGRELO, 2O1O
This is among the most supple of the Malbecs we tasted, a big mouth-filling but layered wine from the northern Lujan de Cuyo sub zone of Agrelo. On the district’s alluvial sandy clay soils, at windswept 35OO foot elevations, Decero harvests low yielding vines to produce a wine of powerful cassis and black raspberry fruit with aromatic undertones of violet, molasses and smoke. Its fabulously sensuous texture and lingering spice flavors set it apart in the pure enjoyment department.
CASARENA RESERVA MENDOZA, 2O1O
My two favorite wines were from Agrelo. This one is spectacular. It had among the deepest colors, with an opaque hue right through to the rim. Fermented at relatively cool temperatures, the nose expresses essence of black raspberry, licorice and road tar. The rich raspberry follows through on the palate, along with delicate herb, roasted pepper, and coffee like notes. Superbly balanced, lingering and very youthful, a memorable wine that you can enjoy with anything from grilled swordfish to filet mignon.