Malbec: The Bordeaux from Argentina
Malbec is the forgotten grape of Bordeaux. You may know Bordeaux wines to be overly expensive, foofy French bottles with difficult-to-read labels and equally unpronounceable names. (In fact, that's not entirely true -- there are a number of good values in Bordeaux, that are easy to say -- but that's for another column.) What you may not know about Bordeaux is that it is often a blend of several grapes (so much for the notion that the best wines are made from only one particular grape!). Generally speaking, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are the main grapes blended to make Bordeaux, along with anywhere from 5%-10% "other" grapes. Malbec is one of those "other" grapes.
Malbec is also found in the south of France, in an area called Cahors -- but there they call it "Cot” -- and the wine there is made from 100% Malbec. Confused? Don't worry about it. All this jabber is merely trivia, useful for pre-dinner conversation (particularly those awkward silent periods, when you've already talked about the weather for five minutes).
In Argentina, Malbec flourishes as perhaps its most successful grape. In many ways, Malbec is to Argentina as Zinfandel is to California. For much of the 20th century, Malbec grew like a weed throughout Argentina, and was the prominent grape in the red wines supplying one of the world's most consumptive countries. That's right; Argentina produced and drank more wine than any other country -- except Italy -- for several decades. In fact, it is only in the last 30 years that Argentina began exporting their wines, as they drank all they made!
Around the time the Argentines decided to begin exporting, they also came up with the idea of uprooting all the Malbec vines and replacing them with better-known varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Though these other "foreign" grapes do okay when bred in South America, they are not nearly as interesting as the local grapes Malbec, Carmenere and Torrontes. So, after everybody and his brother began making the same, boring, "standard four" (Cab, Chard, Sauv-blanc, Merlot), some Argentine producers harked back to the "good old days" and replanted Malbec.
What's so great about Malbec? It all depends on who you talk to. Like Zinfandel, it can be styled to fit nearly every palate: some are soft and supple, others medium-bodied, and there are high-end examples that are as big and bad and bold as an expensive California Cab. So whether a Malbec is easy-drinking or cellar-worthy is really up to the winemaker.
More significantly is the fact that the best Malbec comes from Argentina, where the vineyards enjoy a high altitude and about 340 days of sunshine per year. The country's relatively consistent weather conditions mean that there is almost never a bad vintage. So no need to memorize the "top" vintages of the last decade -- every year is a good year for wine! (Okay, it is possible you'll get one poor year in 20, but it's a lot easier to remember the one year to avoid than a half-dozen to find.)
Another great thing about Malbec is its price. You can get a top-of-the-line, age-worthy bottle for less than 50 bucks. Hey, isn't 50 bucks a lot of dough? Sure, but not when you're getting a bottle comparable to the quality you'd pay double or triple for from California or France. More realistically, you can find kick-ass Malbecs for less than 20 dollars, and -- in my opinion -- some of the very best red wine values under 10 bucks are Malbecs from Argentina.
One in particular is made by Santa Julia. Santa Julia Malbec Reserva exudes a typical Malbec nose: rich, deep aromas of black and red berry fruits, earth, smoke, hints of tobacco and smoked meat. In the mouth this wine shows balanced fruit from start to finish, with flavors of black cherry, black raspberry and mild earth, as well as hints of vanilla and spice. The texture is smooth, acidity is medium, and the tannins are somewhere between mild to medium, making it an easy drinker now. I really enjoy the nose of this wine, and the appropriate levels of acid, tannin and alcohol provide a good backbone to the ripe fruit flavors. Santa Julia Malbec Reserva is an enjoyable wine on its own, and even better with food. I recommend it as an "everyday" wine, as you can match it with any number of dishes. Try it with grilled meats, mild hard cheeses, veggie dishes, Indian cuisine and tomato-based sauces.
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