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Malbec: The grape with altitude and attitude



If it's true that a region's wine can develop a certain synergy or simpatico with its food, then it makes sense to consider certain countries' wine and perhaps exclude others when you are looking for the classic barbecue red.

Think about it. Italy and barbecue, not really. France and charcoal grilled beef - no way. Spain, I believe, has more outdoor ovens than barbecues. German barbecues, who has ever been to one?

No, when it comes to barbecue I believe Australia, Argentina, South Africa and North America are the countries with the most backyard chefs.

Today we further refine our search by settling on one country - Argentina - and one varietal wine - malbec. The Argentines are the master of asado , explained in Wikipedia as "a technique for cooking cuts of meat, usually consisting of beef alongside various other meats, which are cooked on a grill ( parrilla ) or open fire." For some reason the smoke and char of the fire works perfectly with the un-marinated, salted-only, grilled meat and the savoury liquorice, black fruit flavours of malbec.

It seems that wherever I go, malbec is on everyone's lips and with over 20,000 hectares planted, 22 different clones and myriad growing zones at all altitudes the future for this ripe, soft, Argentine red is bright. The power-packed grape thrives in and about the region of Mendoza, where some vineyards reach as high as 1,200 metres above sea level. Its voluptuous, black fruit flavours that finish with a strong, earthy, savoury undercurrent are striking a special bond with consumers.

For now, if there are any question marks they are the rising levels of alcohol and the use of too much new oak. Both are natural results of modern winemaking, but they can and should be tamed. It takes vision and guts to go to the market with fresh wines offering fruit and complexity as opposed to chocolate and coffee and alcohol rates of 15 and 16 per cent, but it is possible.

Even better news are the numerous choices available in Canada especially at the affordable end of the price spectrum where malbec's price/quality ratio is as good as it gets in the wine business. Top all that off with the barbecue factor - malbec's ability to match most grilled meat dishes - and it's difficult to say "no" to this engaging varietal red.

This month we look at a series of malbec labels that speak to the new world of Argentine wines. Each is well worth investigating.

Finca Flichman Malbec Oak Aged 2008 $11 is the poster boy for inexpensive tasty red wine. Look for plenty of soft, smooth edged peppery fruit with bits of liquorice. Serve liberally around the barbecue or with pizza, chicken or spaghetti.

Another perennial star in this market with its showy black fruit, liquorice and savoury undercurrent is Finca Los Primos Malbec 2007 $10 . This red has ribs written all over it and at $10 that's a lot of writing.

Organic fans will enjoy the option of Jean Bousquet Malbec (Organic Grapes) 2007 $15 from Tupungato. The palate is full with black cherry, pepper, savoury fruit flavours flecked with liquorice, light vanilla, herbal, and mocha notes. Solid value and perfect with ribs.

The Kaiken Malbec 2007 $18 (at private wine shops) gets better every time out. The textures are glossy, the styling sleek and its sweet malbec fruit is etched with liquorice, chocolate and spice. Great value.

Similarly smooth and brimming with ripe plummy fruit is the Doña Paula Malbec 2007 $22 . It's the classic grilled steak wine that finishes smooth and dry with an aftertaste of mocha/coffee.

The Pascual Toso Malbec 2007 $14 comes with bags of sweet black fruit wrapped in liquorice with just a touch of acidity and pepper poking through the back end. Another big showy red for the money. Bring on the lamb chops.

Terrazas de los Andes Malbec Reserva 2006 $24 is a serious red with finesse yet designed for near term consumption. The palate is supple with light tannins and bright acidity and classic black cherry, plum, peppery, savoury, fruit flavours. Flank steak would be a good choice here.

The Famiglia Bianchi Malbec 2005 $20 hails from San Rafael in the southern part of Mendoza. Look for crazy smooth, rich, powerful aromas and flavours of coffee, black cherries, plums and spicy, savoury tobacco. The finish is long and warm but balanced with flecks of orange and black liquorice that keep calling you back to the glass. More of a New World style versus Euro but should have plenty of fans.

Perhaps a bit more classic is the Los Cardos Malbec 2007 $15 with its typically pepper nose and sweet mocha/chocolate, leather, and black fruit flavours. On the palate it comes up drier and firmer than you might expect with more smoky, roasted mushroom notes. Should be just fine served with most grilled meats and/or poultry.

LoTengo Malbec 2007 $14 , complete with the interactive label that has the dancing couple thrusting à la tango, consistently offers up slightly darker fruit aromas and flavours mixing smoke and bacon with plums, black cherry and light savoury liquorice elements. There is solid quality here for the price in what is a rustic but pleasant malbec. Beef empanadas are the match.

A second label of Nicolas Catena always worth looking at is Alamos Selección Malbec 2007 $17 . Soft and supple, peppery and floral - all the typical savoury, smoky, vanilla, chocolate, plum and cedar fruit. A bit warm (alcoholic) but ready to drink with attractive fruit.

American Paul Hobbs has an interesting group of projects in South America including Cobos in Mendoza. The Cobos Bramare Malbec 2005 $40 is a powerhouse red from the Luján de Cuyo district in the northern part of the Mendoza region. The entry is rich and ripe with round, grainy tannins. Look for plum and black cherry fruit dusted with vanilla pudding, cocoa and flecks of orange peel. As big as it gets.

Now all we need is for that pesky snow to let up and we can get the barbecue season under way.

Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto