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05.2006

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Sandy Block, MW

Malbec is a fine grape that is gradually attaining widespread popularity even though it's never particularly been hyped. The Argentine's are doing wonders with it and forging a new category based on three of the hottest trends in wine: it's red, flavorful and moderately priced. You know, the kind of wine you can drink a glass or two of any time and it won't make even a slight dent in your monthly budget. But Malbec is no newcomer onto the world wine scene. Its centuries long lineage in Bordeaux is enshrined in the AOC laws, making it one of only five permissible red grape varieties. Even though it now contributes just a small percentage to most of the final blends, there are Chateau owners who maintain that, although it is a vital ingredient, they don't want to grow it too extensively because of issues it has setting fruit during the region's typically dreary spring weather. The problem, if there is one, is that Malbec labors in obscurity. But then again, the fact that it has never enjoyed any cachet before is probably the main reason it's such a good value.

As we continue to drink more imported wine every year and as Argentina's fortunes in the US keep rising, it's logical that Malbec, the country's signature grape variety, would reap the rewards of this growth. What is surprising is how good virtually all of the Argentine Malbecs we've tasted lately are. This is beginning to strike me as the contemporary red wine version of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc circa 1995. Back then the brand didn't matter, because whichever one you picked up, almost at random, would deliver the goods. Not quite as true about today's crop of Malbec, but almost. The parallels are interesting: both prized for their assertive personality and strong distinctive flavor despite coming from a place that is not on the radar screen of too many consumers as a purveyor of choice. But unlike its Southern Hemisphere counterpart, Argentine Malbec has deep roots in the country, going back to the mid nineteenth century. In fact, there are still patches of old vine Malbec that are ungrafted.

A bit about the wines as a group: they were more consistent in style and quality now than in the past. The predominant profile of Argentine Malbec appears to be dark in color, relatively low in acidity, medium-bodied, and moderate in tannin. The fruit is deep, black and juicy, sometimes with a spicy edge. Despite the soft acids, most of the wines I've tasted are balanced and appear quite versatile as to the type of food that they would complement. The ones I didn't like so much were more red fruit cranberry in style or too flat and simple, without much extract. Only a few were heavy-handed and clumsy. But this is a question of degrees, which is sometimes the case with comparative tasting pitting one against the others and it might just be splitting hairs. For the most part they were very good.

THE FOLLOWING ARE LISTED IN ASCENDING ORDER OF PREFERENCE.

TERRAZAS de los ANDES MALBEC, MENDOZA, 2OO4 I'd tasted this wine a number of times in a blind context and, good as it is, it scored higher several months ago. It strikes me as much softer and creamier than on previous occasions. Smoky dried fruit fragrances are intriguing and the texture is very round, with milk chocolate and ripe concentrated black cherry flavors in evidence. But the wine actually lacks a bit of vibrancy and life at this point. Long on flavor but perhaps somewhat lacking in structure. The mountain grapes that produce this and the other wines listed here are ideal for building intrigue into the juicy Malbec fruit, but at this point Terrazas de los Andes 2OO4 strikes me as an ideal quaffing red, or a quiet backdrop to a spicy dish, more so than anything else. $11

CATENA ALAMOS MALBEC, MENDOZA, 2OO4 This is a really good bargain. Produced by one of the most venerated winemakers of South America, Nicolas Catena, this wine had a bright fresh red berry aroma which tipped off the style immediately: not a blockbuster. Polished and mellow, with scents of vanilla and crisp, juicy red berry and plum flavors, the wine has a lot of delicious youthful fruit. The flavors fades out to a slightly bitter plummy end that lends grace and complexity. Barbecued beef comes to mind as a complement. $1O

SEPTIMA MALBEC, MENDOZA, 2OO4 We're going from sublime bargain to ridiculous steal. The Septima had a nice floral, red berry aroma leading one to believe that the wine would be delicate, fruity and understated. It's anything but. Ripe and succulent, it has a touch of a chocolate accent, with big, smoky, chunky blackberry fruit. There's a roasted fruit quality and the tannins are pumped up as well. Add it all together and this is a Malbec for savory meat and vegetable stews or a well-seasoned peppery steak. And if you just have a glass, the rest of the wine will probably be even better the next day. $8

PASCUAL TOSO MALBEC, MAIPU VINEYARDS, MENDOZA, 2OO3 The notes here were all mountain fruit: wildflowers, citrus, smoky, mushroomy, leather. Throw in some toast from the barrels and you have a whale of a wine in a big, bold, velvety rich style. This was probably among the most extracted of the moderately priced Malbecs I tasted. I had tried this wine months before and liked it but now it seems to have taken on more flesh. Some might be put off by the sweetness of the vanilla flavors, but to me the structure was there to support it. I would drink this with chili-accented dishes. It definitely has enough fruit to stand up to and even quiet down the heat. $1O

ELSA BIANCHI MALBEC, MENDOZA, 2OO4 And the winner is . . . another amazing deal. I haven't tasted too many other red wines from anywhere lately with this degree of complexity for less than ten dollars. This wine had among the deepest colors. The nose showed blackberry jam, fresh herb, bacon, coffee, licorice, and roasted peppers. No kidding, all that and more. Smooth and delicious, with grace and supple mouth-coating black fruit flavors, this is an exciting discovery that you can serve a touch on the cool side if you like outdoors with unpretentious food like burgers, or with a sizzling charcoal broiled steak. $9

IN SUMMARY, YES, THESE WINES ARE THAT GOOD FOR THAT LITTLE MONEY.



Every once in a while there is an anomaly in the market and it takes a while for prices to adjust. The thing to do is take advantage of it. People are buying more Argentine wine now, and especially Malbec, for a reason: it's got everything they want, and the price is most importantly right.

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