This article was originally published in the April 2015 print edition of Ottawa Magazine
April 17 is World Malbec Day. Just what every grape needs — its own day! Given that there are 10,000 varieties of grapes in the world, I suggest we call a halt to this idea.
Malbec, meanwhile, gets its day in the sun. Indeed, it is the marvellously sunny growing season in the high deserts of eastern Argentina that has brought this grape to prominence. It has become the face of red wine — the brand. It creates an expectation that one will be opening a bottle of full-bodied, fairly soft, rich, and plummy red wine that pairs nicely with beef in all its incarnations.
There is nothing wrong with this easy formula, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of Argentina. As the world’s fifth largest wine-producing nation, with vineyards spread out over thousands of kilometres, there is considerable wine variation, both in terms of the grape varieties grown and even within the malbec universe itself. Two recent trips there, and tasting about 500 wines from throughout the country, demonstrated this diversity and that the wine industry is heading down some very interesting paths.
In fact, I came away with a sense that Argentina has become one giant laboratory for the evolution of New World wine styles. And it is being driven by a large, very experienced, and wealthy band of winemakers, from Europe in particular, who see the even-tempered, sprawling, and nearly vacant high plains at the foot of the Andes as a giant incubator for new ideas. And the most impressive incumbent Argentine family wineries, such as Catena Zapata and Zuccardi, are very much a part of the movement as well.
The focus of their efforts is to make red wines that are balanced, textured, and complex. Or to put it another way, to move away from wines that are too high in alcohol and overly oaky. Many producers are reducing oak barrel reliance by aging for a shorter duration and/or using older barrels. A few are boldly moving back to fermentation in concrete vats (sometimes in amphora- and egg-shaped vessels) to imbue more texture than one gets from clinical stainless steel. Everywhere producers are blending other grapes with malbec to come up with wines of more nuance and complexity, with cabernet franc and an Italian variety called bonarda leading the way. Finally, and most importantly, they are looking into the complex soil structures and vineyard altitude to find the right sites for the right grapes.
Perched far away here in Canada, where the LCBO controls the flow and seems mostly interested in selling bang-for-buck, bargain-priced Argentine wines, it is hard to taste the results of what is currently happening in Mendoza and elsewhere. But gradually we will see many of these ideas translating to the rank and file. Here are some current selections that either begin to tell the story or are simply too delicious to pass up.
Luca 2012 Malbec
$32.95 | Uco Valley, Mendoza | 91 Points
From the sprawling portfolio of the pioneering Catena family, Luca is a premium brand in search of elegance by going to higher altitude in the Uco Valley. It’s easy to make big wines in Argentina, less easy to find finesse. This is very nicely poised and polished, with well-defined mulberry/cherry malbec fruit definition fitted with vanilla cream, tobacco, and spice. Best now to 2019. Vintages 167312.
Pascual Toso 2012 Malbec Limited Edition
$15.95 | Mendoza | 90 Points
This is a delicious bang-for-the-buck malbec that goes right to the heart of this grape’s popularity. It is full, smooth, and dense and cloaked in new oak spice and dark chocolate, but there is plenty of malbec mulberry fruit. It’s supple and classy, achieving finesse despite its size. LCBO 162610.
Terrazas De Los Andes 2011 Reserva Malbec
$18.95 | Mendoza | 90 Points
Some Argentina reds have a distinctly dry, lean, and tannic Euro feel, and, yes, they are often made by Europeans. This has a ripe, rich, compact nose of crushed blackberry/mulberry, vanillin, chocolate, and dried herbs. It’s full-bodied, fairly firm, dense, and rich. No holes or corners. Should age well for five years. Vintages 29280.
Versado 2013 Malbec
$21.25 | Luján De Cuyo, Mendoza | 89 Points
Versado is made in Argentina by Ontario winemakers Ann Sperling (Southbrook Vineyards) and Peter Gamble. This is a full-bodied, fresh, and juicy young malbec with lifted rhubarb and red plum fruit, but herbal notes are there as well. I tasted three vintages of Versado recently, and the herbal note is a theme from this single vineyard site. Vintages 317008.
Chakana 2012 Maipe Reserve Bonarda
$15.95 | Mendoza | 88 Points
Bonarda is a thinner-skinned variety, making full-bodied, less tannic, and easy-drinking wines. Styles vary as winemakers try, in my mind, to over-oak it. This is a lovely and charming bonarda with lifted blackberry fruit and slightly meaty and savoury notes. And, yes, some oak. Vintages 361212.
Fabre Montmayou 2012 Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon
$17.95 | Mendoza | 88 Points
The quality and value of cabernet sauvignon (and the growing popularity of cousin franc) were one of the great surprises on my most recent trip to Argentina. This full-bodied, fairly dense, hottish cabernet has generous, classic aromas of roasted red pepper, herbs, chocolaty oak, and herbal notes. Considerable cab tannin and earthiness on the finish, so typical of Argentina. Vintages 261891.
Finca Flichman 2012 Misterio Cabernet Sauvignon
$8.95 | Mendoza | 86 Points
It’s really tough to get cabernet authenticity under $10, but this does a nice job, earning a couple of extra points for correctness and structure. It combines floral black-currant fruit with some cabernet tobacco, green olive, and earthiness. No great depth or finesse, but it’s robust and energetic. Give it a year
or three. LCBO 163949.
Trivento 2012 Amado Sur Syrah Bonarda Malbec
$16.95 | Mendoza | 88 Points
This is a nicely composed and balanced blend. Merlot is not common in Argentina, but here it brings some tension and juiciness to an otherwise typically ripe, plummy, berryish Argentine red. Easy to drink, thanks to bonarda, but not too soft. Vintages 37036.
Zuccardi 2012 Brazos De Los Andes Red
$12.90 | Mendoza | 87 Points
Blends are hot and getting hotter as Argentina searches beyond the malbec monolith. This new blend from the Zuccardi family (that brought you Fuzion) combines malbec, cabernet, syrah, and bonarda. It shows a pretty, quite lifted floral, fragrant blackberry/blueberry fruit with hints of licorice. Notably absent is heavy oak, and mercifully there is no residual sugar — a scourge of some new, less expensive blends.
SCORES – David Lawrason assigns scores on a 100-point scale. They reflect a wine’s overall quality. A rating of 95 to 100 is outstanding; 90 to 94 excellent; 86 to 89 very good; 80 to 85 good.