Its intense fruit and ripe, food-friendly tannins mean Argentine Malbec, grown in the foothills of the Andes, matches up to what many people are looking for in a red wine. Mark de Wesselow
charts the grape’s rise
Argentina has long had much to be proud of: its football, its beef, its polo and, of course, the tango. Now it has another world-beater, Malbec, a grape that Argentina has made its own and
which is attracting plaudits from all around the world.
Malbec’s rise to global prominence has been a long time coming. Until recently, the grape would have occupied little more than a footnote in the annals of wine history. In the 19th century, the
wine barons of Bordeaux recognised the intrinsic qualities of the grape and made it one of only five permitted varieties to be grown within the appellation.
Unfortunately, however, Malbec grown in Bordeaux was an easy target for frost and disease and its frequent failure to ripen meant it rarely performed to the best of its ability, often producing a
green and bitter taste in the mouth. Consequently, Malbec largely disappeared from Bordeaux, although it remained a staple of Cahors in south-west France.
However, as Argentina’s pioneering winemakers discovered in the second half of the 19th century, in the foothills of the Andes in Mendoza this thick-skinned grape ripens perfectly, producing a
soft, fruity juice that the Bordelais would not have recognised.
But Argentina has only woken up to Malbec’s potential since the 1990s, before which the country’s wine was cheap and cheerful and not designed for the export market.
This all changed when Argentina adopted a more open economy and investment started to pour in from winemaking countries such as Chile, the USA, France and Spain. They were attracted by cheap land,
a more stable political climate and terrific growing conditions.
The consequent rebirth of established wineries, together with the foundation of new ventures, has forged a promising new chapter in Argentina’s wine history. The latest cellar technology, including
the use of new oak and better temperature control, has been matched by viticultural improvements such as yield reduction, judicious irrigation and better canopy management.
Pretty quickly, across a wide range of varieties, Argentina has established a firm foothold in the global market. As well as Malbec, the Argentine reds made from the likes of Syrah, Tempranillo and
Bonarda line the shelves of our supermarkets. And whites made from Chardonnay or the distinctive Torrontés – another obscure European grape Argentina has made its own – are also commonly seen.
What’s more, they’re turning heads because the wines in the £5-£10 category offer stunning value for money and display plenty of character and complexity. A significant number of bottles now score
more than 90 points (out of 100) in the influential Wine Spectator magazine.
There’s a common perception that Malbec is a full-bodied blockbuster, but this is not necessarily the case.
WHAT MAKES MALBEC SPECIAL
But it’s Malbec that is causing the biggest stir, so what’s all the fuss about?
Argentine Malbec is softer and more fruit-driven than the Malbec of Cahors, and its tannins are generally sweet and approachable rather than dry and chunky. At its best, it can be made into a wine
with a deliciously wild and earthy character. It works just as well in single varietal form as when it is blended with grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
There’s a common perception that Malbec is a full-bodied blockbuster, but this is not necessarily the case. While many examples have a characteristic fruit intensity, a surprising number also have
elegance and finesse, attractive weight and texture, and a seductive perfume.
The grape comes in a wide range of styles, according to where and how it is grown and its treatment in the winery. Winemakers sometimes fall into the trap of over-extracting during vinification,
which can lead to dry tannins, but in the right hands the wines have a healthy backbone of fine but supple tannins, making Malbec a terrific match with food.
The best examples often come from old vines and, while they are generally good to drink young, there are increasing numbers of ageworthy examples too. After ageing in the barrel, Malbec can have a
spiciness that combines beautifully with the ripe, black fruit.
Another factor that is adding to the rise of Malbec is an appreciation of how the grape responds at altitude. The Mendoza region, which accounts for 80 per cent of Argentine wine production, is hot
and high – many vineyards are located more than 1,000m above sea level – and the combination of warm sunshine and cool nights means not only an extended growing season (up to 50 per cent longer
than in Bordeaux) but also a wide variation in temperature.
High daytime temperatures help produce the luscious, juicy fruit with concentrated flavours, while cool evenings develop the wine’s structure, adding complexity while preserving the acidity that
makes the wine so good with food.
Several top-notch winemakers have been in the vanguard of Malbec’s renaissance. They were quick to realise that Argentina has something that, when treated with care and understanding, can compete
with the great wines of the world.
Argentine wine pioneer Dr Nicolás Catena, French wine consultant Michel Rolland and Californian winemaker Paul Hobbs were among the famous names to make progress with the grape. They saw that the
more marginal climates at higher altitudes, where cooler temperatures and changes in radiation and soil composition magnify character, would be a great step forward for Malbec.
Catena, in particular, was one of the first to methodically study the effects of altitude on the variety. As a frequent visitor to the Napa Valley, teaching economics at the University of
California, he was by instinct a Cabernet man and believed that Malbec was too soft and fruity to age well. But this changed in 1994, when he started experimenting with the variety. He grew
different Malbec clones in and around Mendoza, the highest of which was in Tupungato at an altitude of more than 1,400m.
The best results of these experiments by Catena and his fellow winemakers produce wines of tremendous quality and character. And, as the UK’s wine buyers wake up to modern Malbec, we’re likely to
see more of these high-quality wines in our shops and restaurants – wines that offer everything you could wish for in a modern-day red.
MALBEC AND FOOD
Few wine-producing countries dominate a grape variety in the way Argentina dominates Malbec. Nor does any country eat as much beef as the Argentines. It’s lucky, then, that the combination of
Malbec and grilled meats is one of the world’s great food and wine matches.
As Phil Crozier, wine buyer for the Gaucho restaurant chain, explains: ‘We work hard to encourage our guests to try this combination, paying particular attention to the relationship between tannin
and fat content within the different cuts of beef. The rule of thumb is that the higher the fat content, the more grip you need from the tannins to work with the fat. In other words, a big,
full-bodied Malbec, such as Mendel – a wine that sums up high-quality, small-scale production from Mendoza – would work well with our ancho cut [rib-eye].’
He adds: ‘Malbec also works beautifully with dark chocolate, since the smooth velvet of the tannins creates a delicious complement to the sensation of melting chocolate in the mouth.’
WINE PRODUCERS TO LOOK OUT FOR
Achaval Ferrer, Pulenta, Catena Zapata, Sophenia, Dominio del Plata, Terrazas de los Andes, Finca Flichman, Trapiche
Norton, Trivento, O Fournier, Val de Flores
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle - Summer 2007