When Argentine malbec hits its stride, it will make the current Merlot Madness seem as humdrum as airline food.
Good Argentine malbec—and there are more examples every harvest—is about as delicious a red wine as there can be: wonderful ripe plum-like fruit, touched with tastes of raisin and licorice; plentiful but not harsh tannin; and an unctuous, nearly viscous feel on the tongue.
It blends well with the cabernet brothers (sauvignon and franc), adding color and complexity and softening their tannin.
It does not do this anywhere else in the world, except (infrequently) in Cahors—though there it too often comes off as a clumsy, even green, merlot. Malbec, though allowed in Bordeaux blends, is less and less harvested there.
Robert Pepi, chief winemaker for Bodegas y Viñedos Valentin Bianchi, and someone observant of the world market in red wines, says, 'I think that malbec can do for Argentina what shiraz did for Australia.'
I asked several prominent Argentine wine folk why this is so, and this is what they said:
'My first interest was cabernet sauvignon, but my father said that malbec is the most interesting and promising variety in Argentina. I told my father, 'I disagree with you, but because you are my father, I will plant malbec.' We have planted malbec in different microclimates and as different clones and I agree with my father: it is the most interesting variety in Argentina.' — Nicolas Catena Zapata, founder of Bodega Catena Zapata
'In Mendoza, we have an average of 150 days between bud break and picking time. That means a very long ripening period. Even though you can taste all the necessary sugars in the malbec 30 days before harvest, the rest of the grape is not mature, so those 30 days of 'hang time' ripen the polyphenols and tannins to their optimum.' — Jose Alberto Zuccardi, managing director of Familia Zuccardi and Viña Santa Julia
'Malbec loves the sun. It is the same sun in Bordeaux or Cahors, but in Mendoza, it is a pure sun. So, it has long days and lots of radiation.' — Pedro Marchevsky, vineyard manager at Bodega Catena Zapata
'Malbec does well in Mendoza because there are big differences in temperature between day and night. That allows for ripening but not over-ripening. Also, there are 70 days, on average, between veraision and picking—in Bordeaux, the average is 45 days.' — Roberto de la Mota, chief winemaker for Bodega Terrazas
'The malbec came here in the 1860s. That makes it pre-phylloxera. And it is still, to this day, planted on its own root stocks. This malbec gives smaller bunches, with smaller berries, than the malbec found in France, especially in Cahors.' — Carlos Tizio Mayer, technical director for Bodega Norton
Here are some brief tasting notes on recommended Argentine malbec, listed alphabetically and available in Chicago:
2000 Terrazas malbec, Vistalba ($10): wide open nose of dark red fruits; hints of cocoa and caramel from oak; concentrated, but moderately tannic and a terrific, silken feel in the mouth. A perfect bet for a grilled steak or any pan-seared red or near-red meat (lamb, richer pork, even—on a mission from God in salvation—some brined and herbed chicken thighs)
2000 Gascon malbec, Argentina ($11): very spicy aroma, hinting at leather; though smooth at first, finishes with a sweep of dusty tannins that make the mouth juicy for more.
Ah-ha, so Latin: seduced by the aromas and flavors—but what to eat with all the exotic of it? One winner nosh would be seared foie gras; another, rather rare lamb, simply prepared, no sauces, few herbs; a third killer dish would be the least expected, truly rank and unborn cheeses of the stinky class, cheeses that have so few friends at the bar, cheeses that are more ammoniated than Mr. Parsons; put a small nob of fetid Neal's Yard or, to be more gentle, a hairy bleu d'Auvergne and see how these rank, wretched send-ups of milk and time ... turn ethereal in the presence of this wine and in the tabernacle of your mouth ('orifice' sounding so antiseptic).
2000 Alamos malbec, Argentina ($10): amazingly forward aroma for the money (black cherry, blueberry, soft oak), with a soft, silken feel just prickly with tannin on the swallow; more length and stamina on the finish than most malbecs. Steak, girls, fibrous sides of cow or steer, sliced one-three-quarter-thick and dry-aged, salt & pepper, no balsamic bullshit, and certainly—at this stage—no What's-This-Hear's Sauce or A-! (anything sweet is a lady in waiting; she know when to move on up).
1999 Catena Zapata malbec, Lunlunta vineyard ($20): like the essence of ripe plums and a nearly black in color; thick, rich and unctuous on the tongue, with notes of tar and tobacco on the finish; a fantastic wine. This is the kind of wine that makes it hard to pair with food. It already IS a food, fairly complete in itself. The kinds of foods that intrigue me with a wine such as this are also sui generis, foods complete in themselves: take, for example, duck confit, a splendid amalgam of the art of preservation and, when it is served, hot sear's crispiness laid next to unctuous, rich, sweet duck meat. Actually, thinking about it, these are a perfect match.