Malbec grape has magical allure

This Thursday is World Malbec Day, a day nominated by Argentina’s winemakers, but surely a day to celebrate the wine, wherever the grapes were grown. It’s worth reflecting on Argentinian malbec, which is one of the great winemaking phenomena of our time – along with Marlborough sauvignon blanc and Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. All three are wines which have turned the wine world on its head.

All have helped re-define a grape variety and re-draw its boundaries. Malbec, no doubt, is the least famous. But, unlike the other two examples, it’s more famous in its adopted home than its ancestral home in France. The vineyards themselves make a compelling and romantic visual story, spectacularly set against a background of snow-capped Andes mountains. The contrast between the desert-like landscape and the lush green vineyards is striking, all made possible by plentiful clean melt-water flowing off the Andes.

Argentina grows most of the world’s key grape varieties, and many of them have a longer history there than malbec, but none has distinguished itself like malbec. You could say it’s a convincing example of terroir: the combination of the right grape in the right soil and the right climate, managed by the right people, is an intersection of elements that leads to great wine.

Viticulture in Argentina dates from 1557, but malbec was not introduced until 1868.

Today it’s the most widely planted and highest quality grape in the country, with 26,800 hectares of vines. Clearly the most important region for quality and quantity is Mendoza, where the vines nestle into the Andean foothills on a long north-south strip where altitude moderates the air temperature.

Indeed, altitude (very high, between 800 and 2,000 metres), water (abundant and clean), and sunshine (very abundant and bright due to few rain days, low humidity and low pollution) are the things that define Argentine winegrowing. Because of the dry climate there is little fungal disease and little need for spraying, so producing organic wine is relatively easy – a boon in today’s market.

As a comparison, most of Australia’s quality vineyards are below 500 metres altitude and many are close to sea-level; Argentina’s best begin at 800 metres.

Malbec is native to the south-west of France, the Cahors region, but it’s also important in Madiran and several other southern French appellations. It produces its best French wine in Cahors, but fate prevented its wines enjoying anything like the fame of nearby Bordeaux. Malbec is not one of the world’s nor France’s major varieties: it is one of the five grapes commonly blended in Bordeaux reds, but always a minor ingredient. Indeed, it’s mostly used as a blender in most places where it’s grown, from Madiran (where it’s blended with tannat) to our own Clare Valley (where it’s blended with cabernet or shiraz).

It’s a grape noted for its deep colour, tannin and structure. When underripe it can be unappealingly herbaceous, but I’ve seen few such wines from Argentina. When fully ripe, it can be utterly delicious: dark-coloured, full-bodied, well-structured and powerful, and capable of ageing long-term and partnering the most hearty foods. Think of Argentine beef… serendipity?

Langhorne Creek is the Australian region best known for malbec. Bleasdale has for many years made the most consistently excellent pure varietal malbec. It has four labels at different prices, Double Take being its most expensive at $80 (tastings). The superb 2012 vintage of this won a double-gold against daunting Argentinian competition at the 2013 Six Nations Wine Challenge.

Mendoza contains about 80 per cent of Argentina’s malbec plantings. The northern region Salta, which has even higher altitudes than Mendoza, has 10 per cent and five other regions share the final 10 per cent. They include the coolest and most southern region, Patagonia, and the country’s second-largest region San Juan, north of Mendoza.

The finest wines I’ve tasted lately are many, and, like great wine everywhere, the top rank is becoming very expensive. Achaval Ferrer’s famous Finca Altamira 2009 is $239 (tastings) – but it is a magnificent wine. Only a little less statuesque are Rutini Apartado 2008 ($167 – tastings), Bodegas Trapiche Terroir Series Finca Jorge Miralles 2009 ($75 – tastings) and Bodega Mi Terruno Mayacaba 2008 ($79 – tastings).

These are wines of concentration and density, but also soft tannins, fleshy texture and complexity – which builds with age, as in all great wines. Contrary to the situation some years ago, they are less likely to be over-endowed with new-oak character.

One of Argentinian malbec’s distinctions is that very good wines can be bought inexpensively, and here are a few:

Some other favourites from the Six Nations Wine Challenge (may not be available in Australia):

  • Diamandes Valle del Uco 2011
  • Teho By 55 Altamira 2010
  • Trapiche Terroir Series 2010
  • Bodega Mendel 2011
  • Dona Paula Estate 2011

The Argentines have always been big wine drinkers: at the peak in the 1970s, they were drinking 90 litres per capita (still high today at 40). So it was hardly news when in 2010 the president declared wine to be the national drink. Cheers to that.

Retailers:

Restaurants:

  • Delicado Foods, McMahons Point
  • Bodega, Surry Hills
  • Porteno, Surry Hills
  • Estilo Buenos Aires, Haberfield

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 15 Apr 2014.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *