As I was crystal ball gazing into the new year, I mentioned that Argentina’s malbec grape was well placed to take a starring role in 2009 and nothing I have tasted before or since has changed that view. The improvements in winemaking since the great 2002 vintage have helped to make succulent, vibrant reds thanks also to warm, dry summers and perfectly controlled ripening conditions. That’s just one reason why Argentinian malbecs and blends are poised to do well this year and here are a few more.
Two. Malbec, the grape of Cahors, is one of the lesser grape varieties in the Bordeaux mix, but after more than a century in Argentina, it has developed a unique quality. At Mendoza’s 1000 or so metres of altitude, malbec thrives on sunshine, the irrigation water of the Andes judiciously applied for perfect ripening and it benefits from the effects of solar radiation. How come? In a nutshell, sunshine at altitude burns off bitter tannins and replaces them with the red and darker berry fruit opulence that gives malbec its special appeal.
Three. Until as recently as the 1990s, Argentinians were the biggest wine consumers per capita in the New World but the industry was a producer of mainly plonk. Even so-called vino fino was made in the old ‘chianti tradition’ of overproduction and ageing in big wooden vats till nothing was left of the fruit but an empty husk. The quality revolution that began two decades ago has gathered pace with a real commitment in the last five years to find the best locations for growing malbec (and other varieties).
Four (ok, back to one really). A steep learning curve in the cellar has resulted in an impressive improvement in the quality, texture and personality of the wines. The best malbecs are those whose vineyard managers and winemakers have kept within the bounds of a natural tendency, thanks to all that sunshine, towards excessive power. The result, although to be fair offenders still exist, is better winemaking all round, more balanced wines and less use of excessive oak.
Five. Argentina suffers less from the big brand ethos that affects choice in the rest of the New World (New Zealand apart). With less reliance on cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and a small smattering of other grapes, Argentina is building on malbec, blends with malbec in them and its range of different wine styles. Added to that, new wineries coming on stream and existing ones are starting to discover the benefits of cooler areas such as Mendoza’s Uco Valley, Patagonia and the peaks of Cafayate in the north for aromatic character, vivid freshness and elegance.
Six. Taste the wines. The 2006 Dominio del Plata Ben Marco Malbec, £11.99, buy 2 = £9.99, buy 2, Majestic, shows the typical violet floral scents and ripe dark berry-fleshed fruit and a twist of savoury acidity. From Fabre Montmayou, one of Mendoza’s best producers, the 2007 Malbec Phebus Gran Reserva, £12.99, Waitrose Wine Direct, is vibrant, richly concentrated old vine malbec whose luscious blackberry fruit quality and light touch of spicy vanillan oak are nicely framed by a cleansing blade of acidity.
Seven. Don’t stop. The 2006 Mendel Malbec, £10.95, The Wine Society, £13.99, or £11.19 / case, Oddbins, vivid with a perfume of black fruits, is seductively silky and juicily textured with black cherry and blackberry fruit, all glossy textured and seductively approachable. And from Michel Rolland’s baby in the Uco Valley, the 2007 Clos de los Siete, £11.49 - £11.99, Waitrose, Oddbins, Majestic, a blend of mainly malbec with dollops of the other Bordeaux varieties in varying proportions, is a dark berry fruited blend, radiating central heating for robust dishes and snug winter evenings. Take my word, and it’s not the last word you’ll be hearing on malbec this year.
Something For the Weekend 24 January 2009
Under a Fiver
2008 Cono Sur Tesco Chilean Reserva Sauvignon Blanc.
This new vintage, cool climate sauvignon blanc from Chile’s Pacific-influenced Casablanca Valley is refreshing and aromatic, displaying the classic gooseberryish fruit of the grape with a lively citrus-zesty zing. £4.69, Tesco.
Under a Tenner.
2006 Zefyro, Alentejo
Dense in colour with bright brambly fruit on the nose, this Alentejo red shows typical southern Portuguese strength and richness with plenty of mulberry and damson jam fruitiness and supple, juicy tannins. One for roast pork and crackling. £8.99, Booths supermarkets
2004 Muga Reserva Seleccion Especial, £18.99, Waitrose (114 stores). From a great vintage for Rioja, this classy blend of mainly tempranillo, plus garnacha, mazuelo and graciano, is traditional in style, with smoky vanillan aromas and a rich, chocolate-tinged palate of dark cherry in a savoury framework of oak and balancing acidity.