Hopefully a few readers have undertaken my 12 month challenge to try a number of different wines. If this isn’t the case for you let me provide a little nudge. There are so many different wine grape varieties, so many respectable wine regions and so many expressions of particular wines there is no reason to not slip a few "outliers" into your wine cooler. The best news is that you don’t have to spend megabucks to try new wines; many fine examples can be had for less than $20.
This month’s grape varietal is one that many of you are probably familiar with, although it might not get the attention that it deserves. The grape is Malbec; particularly Argentinian Malbec. This grape is definitely on the low end of the risk scale for those whose cupboard is filled with California Cabernets and red blends, in that it tends to be full bodied, fruit forward and on the moderate end of the acid and tannin scale. The fact that high quality Malbecs can be had for quite reasonable prices is a bonus.
While Malbec and Argentina have become synonymous for most wine shoppers many will be surprised to learn that Malbec is actually a French grape that hails from the southwest regions of France - Cahors in particular. Malbec is one of the six grapes permitted for use in the celebrated red wine of Bordeaux. One tends to see far less French Malbec on retail shelves as production is significantly less than Argentina and Malbec from France tends to be a bit more earthy and tannic, making it less popular for U.S. consumers.
When taking a close survey of wine departments for Argentinian Malbec it will become readily apparent that the majority of this wine is produced in the province of Mendoza. This region dominates winemaking in Argentina and accounts for more than 70 percent of the wine produced in the country. Mendoza lies in the shadow of the Andes Mountains, about 700 miles west of the country’s capital, Buenos Aires. Much of the vineyard area in Mendoza is planted in desert conditions and receives water for irrigation in the form of runoff from the Andes Mountains snowmelt. A key factor for Mendoza’s growing conditions is altitude, with most vineyards situated above 2,500’ and some in the Uco Valley rising as high as 4,600’. Vineyards at higher altitude benefit from intense sunlight, which invigorates the growing cycle of the vines. A secondary attribute of these higher elevation vineyards is the variance between the daytime and nighttime temperatures (diurnal shift) which promotes maximum berry development.
When shopping for Argentinian Malbec there are a few general rules of thumb to consider: The sub-region of Lujan de Cuyo has the reputation of producing some of Mendoza’s best wines. Many of the super-premium Argentinian blended wines are produced using Malbec from Lujan de Cuyo. Wines from this area tend to be soft and round, possessing a sweet spice element. Maipu is situated just east of Lujan de Cuyo and at a lower elevation. It is home to some of Mendoza’s largest and oldest wineries. As stated earlier, the Uco Valley contains some of Mendoza’s highest vineyards. Wines from this cooler climate area tend to be lighter in body and more floral. On occasion Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Bonarda are used as blending partners with Malbec. That being said, wine regulations in Argentina stipulate that single-varietal wines must contain at least 85 percent of the listed variety. Additionally, a Malbec that is labeled "Reserva" must be aged for at least 12 months prior to release. Argentinian Malbec pairs well with grilled meats and should be a principal wine served at your backyard BBQ.
There are many fine choices when it comes to Malbec, a few wines that are available in this area that I recommend are:
- Antigal Wineries Uno Malbec (about $12)
- Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec (about $16)
- Achaval-Ferrer Malbec (about $25)
- Clos de los Siete, a Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon blend (about $20)
If you missed your opportunity to try out the wines from the first three months of the challenge: Grenache, Tempranillo and Viognier, it’s time to catch up or just jump on the bandwagon with an easy drinking Malbec and enjoy!
An archive of my previous articles as well as additional wine suggestions can be found on the Saddlebag Notes upgraded website: Saddlebagnotes.com
Tom Oetinger holds an advanced certification in wine & spirits from the WSET in London, England. He is available to answer your wine questions at firstname.lastname@example.org