Tuesday, May 09, 2006

What the heck is Malbec?

There are a lot of wine grapes in the world. Probably more than 10,000 different varieties. There is no way anyone could know them all, so we tend to concentrate on just a few.

Cabernet Sauvignon is on that short list, and so is Merlot. Most wine drinkers have heard of these two, and a few even know that Cab Sauv and Merlot are often blended. Far fewer know that Malbec is another grape variety that can also be blended with Cab and Merlot.

The red wines of Bordeaux are allowed to be a blend of 5 grapes. These 5, known as the carmenet grapes, are the familiar Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as the somewhat lesser known Cabernet Franc. The other two are Petit Verdot and Malbec, which in Bordeaux they call Cot.

Malbec is the chief grape of the wine produced south of Bordeaux in the region of Cahors. In times past this wine was inky dark, a testament to Malbec's traditional role as a blending grape used to add color. As time has passed, the wines of Cahor have become much lighter and more subtle, without losing any of their charm.

Malbec has another place in the world, one so important, that the few of you that have heard of Malbec tend to associate it with this region. The region is in the New World where rules are regularly broken, and tradition rarely gets in the way of innovation. This place is Argentina.

I wish I could relate my first hand experience of Argentina and its wine regions, but I have never had the good fortune to visit. You can be sure it is high on my list, and if the Consul of Argentina is reading this and wants to sponsor a trip, I am pretty sure there is a book or two in it.

Instead, I can only regurgitate what the books say. That Argentina is now the world's 5th or 6th leading wine producer in the world. That this huge producer was all but ignored until a decade ago. That the wines from Argentina merit recognition.

This is where I can share my own impressions. The Argentinean wines I have tried have been primarily bargain styles. They have been light, somewhat simple wines, with a touch of the tar paper taste that I associate with Malbec. Decent, but not worth going out of your way for, is how I would characterize them.

The better wines are rarely found outside of the country, and what is exported is probably not a great representation of what is available. That said, what I have tasted was not bad, and I find the thought that there are even better wines waiting to be discovered to be intriguing.

I regularly issue a rallying call to try new wines, and this week it is focused on the wines of Argentina. If you have any you want to share with us, post a comment. If you are an Argentinean producer or distributor and want me to taste your wines, send me an email. If you are ready to sponsor my research, let me know as soon as possible so I can visit before crush (I hate getting in the way).

Oh by the way, try a Cahors too if you can find one.

Malbec, check it out.


Blogger Rob said...

Hi Wineguy! I agree with you about Argentian wines 100%. Another great thing I've found about them is that they are very well priced. Someone with a higher wine budget than me can get any wine they want at any time, but when I'm just going to be sitting around sipping, I enjoy the very low priced Concha y Toro Frontera varieties. Concha y Toro also has some great higher priced wines, I believe in their Casillero del Diablo line.

I recently tried my first Malbec from Argentina, the brand was Pangoittia (sp?). Very very nice. It was smooth and full bodied.

8:53 AM  
Anonymous Zane said...

Pascual Toso makes a good line of wines including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and a methode champenoise sparkler. Toso's wines have benefited in the recent past from the guiding hand of Paul Hobbs. These wines retail for less than $15.

I can also vouch for the Cabernet Sauvignon from Finca Sophenia, which retails for about $20. It's a big, chewy and full of dark fruit.

There are several good Malbecs available in the U.S., including Altos, Norton and Terrazas. These, too, are priced in the $15 - $20 range (a little higher than that for the Altos Las Hormigas Reserva).

At the top of the heap -- and also available in the U.S. -- are the wines Achaval Ferrer, whose Finca Altamira single-vineyard Malbec is the highest-rated wine to ever come out of Argentina (the 2003 vintage garnered a Wine Spectator 96). Their Quimera, which is a Bordeaux-style blend, is also quite good.

And finally, don't overlook the wines from CARO, a fairly recent joint venture of Nicolas Catena and Domaines Barons de Rothschild-Lafite. Their flagship wine, CARO, is a Cabernet-Malbec blend that retails for about $34. Their second wine, Amancaya (also a Cab-Malbec), costs about half as much but is more approachable than its sibling.

5:23 AM  
Anonymous Adam said...

As far as Malbec is concerned, I actually prefer Donte Robino and Don Miguel Gascon. Both from Argentina.

9:35 PM  

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