Let’s take a new look at malbec.
Argentina’s most popular red grape and wine has trod a rocky road to achieve its current fame. More than a century ago, oddly, it was a lean and tannic grape in France, where it was called “cot” and added to Bordeaux’s famous red blends for color and backbone.
Malbec’s lucky break came in the late 1800s, when it was imported into Argentina by officials seeking to diversify that country’s grape industry.
Unexpectedly, in that country’s warmer, sunnier climate, malbec became friendly, fruity and warm — and high in alcohol. Sometimes poorly made at first, it was consumed mostly by locals until around the year 2000. It came to the U.S. via South Florida, seen as language-friendly by Argentina’s budding sales reps.
It was an instant hit. Wine fans loved the soft, rich wine, comparing it to the flavors of chocolate-covered cherry candies.
Then, encouraged by its popularity, some Argentine winemakers pushed the softer style too far, and a few of the malbecs became jammy, heavy and dull.
Recently, Argentina’s winemakers, buoyed by success and criticism, are kicking malbec up a notch. They’re aiming at more subtle, more powerful, complex wines, still friendly enough for drinking by themselves, as well as with big, red-meat dishes. They seek wines that express the soil and climate — the terroir — of their vineyards. They’re using less oak and alcohol for structure and seeking it instead from the soil.
In those attempts, many things matter.
Age matters. Argentina’s Bodega Trivento has released a super-premium reserve “old vines” vintage of malbec made from grapes planted in 1912. Many growers believe older vines make better wines due to lower yields, smaller berries and deeper root systems.
Soil matters. Winemakers are now seeking a subtler, mineral quality in the wine from limestone soils brought down from the Andes Mountains by ever-flowing rivers. Bodega Trivento’s Eolo malbec vines grow in almost five feet of rocky soil including limestone to impart that minerality.
Grape selection matters. In Argentina’s Lujan de Cuyo region near Mendoza, Bodega Vistalba growers pick grapes separately from dozens of vineyard blocks, then winemakers ferment them in separate barrels. When blending time comes, they choose the best barrels for their top wines.
Altitude matters. In California’s Napa Valley, now also getting interested in malbec, winemaker Chris Carpenter at Mt. Brave winery, who did his college thesis on malbec, chose high-altitude malbec grapes from the slopes of Mount Veeder to make his 2012 malbec. The slopes’ warm, sunny days ripen the grapes, and its chilly nights preserve their refreshing acids.
Debate continues over whether the malbec grape is “noble” enough to make world-class wines. But at least now a backyard chef can buy one that will handle a big, grilled steak.
▪ 2012 Bodega Trivento “Eolo” Malbec, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina (100 percent malbec): inky purple hue, aromas and flavors of black plums, mocha and anise, full-bodied and rich, mellow tannins, long finish; $97.
▪ 2014 Vistalba “Corte B” Malbec, Lujan de Cuyo (80 percent malbec, 14 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent bonarda): deep violet hue, aromas of plums and spices, flavors of bittersweet chocolate, soft tannins; $30.
▪ 2014 Famiglia Bianchi Malbec, San Rafael, Mendoza (100 percent malbec): deep red hue, aromas and flavors of ripe black cherries, mocha and spice, ripe tannins; $20.
▪ 2012 Mt. Brave Malbec, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, Calif. (98 percent malbec, 2 percent cabernet sauvignon): deep, dark hue, rich, full-bodied, flavors of black plums and cloves, firm tannins; $75.
▪ 2014 Graffigna “Centenario” Malbec, Estate Reserve, San Juan, Argentina: hint of oak, aromas and flavors of spicy red plums, cherries and bittersweet chocolate, smooth and full-bodied, long finish; $13.
▪ 2013 Concha y Toro Malbec, Gran Reserva, “Series Riberas,” Colchagua Valley (100 percent malbec): deep purple hue, aromas and flavors of black cherries and bittersweet chocolate, soft tannins, fruity finish; $17.
▪ 2014 Tomero Malbec, Uco Valley, Mendoza (100 percent malbec): hint of oak, flavors of black plums and cloves, big, ripe tannins; $17.
▪ 2012 Eighty Four Wines Malbec, Napa Valley (100 percent malbec): dark hue, hint of oak, flavors of black cherries, red plums and espresso, rich, soft tannins; $48.
▪ 2014 Argento Malbec, Mendoza (100 percent malbec): deep purple hue, aromas and flavors of red and black plums, soft tannins, soft finish; $14.