I'm writing this just before World Malbec Day, Thursday, April 17. You may be reading this oblivious to the fact that it has come and gone, but let's face it, we don't really need a "malbec day" to enjoy the juicy, grape variety that's been reborn in Argentina.
Historically malbec has grown in over 30 different departments of France where traditionally it was refer to as côt or auxerrois. In the famed region of Bordeaux, where it was a growing concern until the great frosts of 1956, it was known under the synonym pressac. Interestingly, malbec had fallen out of favour among the Bordelais growers. Finicky to grow and average in quality, it never really regained its status after that fateful frost. Many Bordelais growers opted not to replant malbec to fill out their famous blends but rather favoured planting more cabernet franc and merlot.
But thousands of kilometres away in the southern hemisphere, malbec has been very busy making a name for itself in Argentina where it is now widely recognized as the "national variety." It first arrived in the mid-19th century and has thrived, more or less, ever since finally establishing itself as an economic force by the late 20th century. Today, it's the most widely planted red grape variety in the country with some 25,000 hectares in the ground. That's roughly three times the size of the total plantings in the Okanagan Valley.
Much of malbec's success can be credited to its ability to adapt to Argentina's dry, high altitude sites. Today, Argentina has few if any competitors globally that are making better malbec-based wine. The style is generous to say the least, with supple tannins previewing soft, savoury ripe fruit. The country's best malbec is coming out of Mendoza's high altitude wine regions located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains sitting at between 800-metre and 1,500-metre elevation.
But with fame comes imitators and there is no shortage of cheap flabby imitations of malbec on store shelves worldwide. Whenever a wine, or grape, or a region becomes the flavour of the month or, in this case, the decade, there are many predators ready and willing to prey on a grape's fame.
Sometimes when I look at where malbec is a decade after it began to turn heads in the wine world, I wonder if the plan is to sell the cheapest, least meaningful bottles to Canadian monopolies. If you want to know how the story may turn out, check out the Australia section of local wine shops and have a look at the once regal shiraz selection, a mere shadow of itself.
The good news is there are people working to up the malbec ante in Argentina. The plan is hardly novel, but it's the only answer. The best wines are going to come from selected sub-regions throughout Mendoza. They will have altitude; they'll be on the best soils; and they'll be fresh, savoury and supple with complexity and length. They will have the structure to age and become even better in a decade. They will tell a story and they will be delicious.
This month I've put together a short list of the better malbecs in the market in the hope you might reach past the ordinary to experience the grape at a different level where it transcends its juicy, supple character and speaks to its origin and, perhaps most important, the differences that make it Argentine.
The Achával-Ferrer Malbec 2012 $29 is great place to start. The plan at Achával is to supress or, as they say, diffuse the varietal expression of malbec and let the personality shine through. In this case a juicy, stony palate with peppery, cedar, savoury, black cherry, licorice flavours entice. Full-flavoured and complex, it represents fine value for the money. A wine you can cellar for five years at a minimum or serve now with game or big meat dishes.
Intensity and personality describe Susanna Balbo, the talented winemaker and owner behind Ben Marco Malbec 2012 $24. In this case a touch of Bonarda adds some roundness and juicy textures to what is a delicious red. Black cherry, peppery, savoury, earthy, vanilla and poultry spice flavours. Fine texture and concentration bodes well for another year or two in bottle. The perfect steak wine.
If there is a single malbec in the market that speaks to what this grape can be in Argentina it has to be Terrazas de los Andes Malbec Reserva 2011 $21. Terrazas works hard at making sophisticated, elegant malbec and the latest is awash in stony, aromatic black fruit that is so silky each sip slides down your throat seamlessly. We love the peppery, smoky, spicy, cherry jam fruit flecked with orange and licorice flavours. Savoury, sophisticated — and you can drink it now. Anything grilled on the barbecue works here.
Altos Las Hormigas Malbec Reserva 2009 $35 is Luján de Cuyo-based, Mendoza's only official sub-appellation. The grapes come off high-density vine plantings in Vista Flores/Chacayes in the Valle de Uco. The colour is rich purple, the nose a riot of spice and red fruit mixed with licorice and stony black fruits. The signature Alberto Antonini (winemaker) balance marks the mid-palate and the finish. The finish is long and complex, not tiring, with fruit and fine-grained tannins throughout. This will age gracefully and be a stellar wine in a decade. This is the kind of malbec that can create a sea change in the way you think about malbec and Argentine red.
You might be surprised to see The Show Malbec 2012 $19 on the list. Americans Charles Bieler, Roger Scommegna and Joel Gott are the Three Thieves Wine Company and the folks behind The Show Malbec. The fruit is all high-altitude from Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley, and in 2012 it looks as if they've abandoned the sweet, oaky style for something much more interesting, hence the wine's inclusion this month. Let's hope they don't go back. Drier, more savoury red fruit with good acidity and texture. Far more food-friendly, and while it doesn't really matter, a sensational label. A wine that says a lot for its price.
None of these wines really need a "malbec day" to be enjoyed, but maybe they do to be discovered.
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who is makes his home in nearby West Vancouver. For more about these wines and many others check out www.gismondionwine.com.