Malbec: Star of Argentina 

A little-known wine is making waves in South American vineyards

No one's really heard of it, or cares for that matter. It's been hiding in blends for hundreds of years in France and growing happily yet silently in the rich soil of Argentina for more than a hundred years. Malbec is a grape that plays second or third chair, but it's clamoring for more recognition.

Malbec serves as one of the six red grape varieties allowed in French Bordeaux blends, but grows less favored year after year. In southwestern France, in places like Cahors, where Malbec tastes spicy and massively tannic, it even sports different names, from the odd "Côt" to the romantic sounding "Auxerrois." In its heyday, the grape was planted throughout the country and still has more than 50 nicknames, but its sensitivity to frost forced it lower on growers' popularity lists.

Malbec is also grown in small amounts in California, Chile and Australia, but it found a home in Argentina. Introduced by a Frenchman named Michel Pouget in the mid-19th century, the grape thrives in the Mendoza region, which benefits from more than 300 days of sunlight per year (during our cold winter, mind you). Today, 75 percent of Argentina's wine comes from Mendoza, where Malbec is the most popular varietal.

Argentinean Malbec's taste falls in between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with bold, in-your-face fruit yet with a softer, less tannic experience. To create a wine like this, a baby sitter is needed during harvest. To avoid "green," unripe tastes, growers have to constantly monitor the fruit so that its sugars and flavors reach the required levels to make a palatable wine.

You might notice the offensive green pepper flavor in some cheaper Malbecs. Some winemakers produce a lighter style, capable of quaffing, while others make wines with hairy balls. The only way to know the difference is by tasting or knowing the producer. But that, of course, is the fun part.

And remember that Malbec is one of those wines that benefits from sitting in the glass awhile to air out the tannins. Give it a few good swirls to mix oxygen into the juice and you can experience the full essence of a good Malbec.

Great recent vintages for Argentinean Malbec have been 2002 and 2003, so look for those to avoid disappointment. In the $10-and-under range, Bodega Norton and Trapiche are pretty reliable and easy to find; $10-$20, try Etchart, Tika and Weinert; $20 and above, go for Catena.

Recommended Wines

Sweetness (SW) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

Catena 2003 Malbec Mendoza. SW = 3. $20. Smells like sugar cookies with a blueberry and blackberry compote. Tastes smooth, elegant and raspberry jammy. Delicious wine that's worth much more than you're paying. 4.5 stars

Valdevieso 2003 Malbec Single Vineyard Reserve Chile. SW = 1. $19. An aroma of pancake syrup, but the bold, tannic flavor erases all inkling of sweetness in the mouth. Dark, inky fruit with cherry jam flavor and wine-soaked leather. 4 stars

Nieto 2003 Malbec Riserva Mendoza. SW = 1. $11. A smoky, forceful wine that cannot be ignored in the mouth. Full-bodied and loaded with dark cherries, blackberries, tobacco, plums and an after-sip experience of licorice. 3.5 stars

Conquista 2004 Malbec Mendoza. SW = 1. $10. Lighter in body, with bright raspberry and blackberry, white pepper and plums. Not a lot going on, but it has some refreshing acids as well, making it a good food wine. 2.5 stars


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