don’t cry for me!

Monday, November 23, 2009

In my Seattle Times column for April 9, 2008 I wrote: “I don’t think that there are better red wine values in the world than some of the malbecs coming out of Argentina.” The column went on to review a number of recommended value wines, selected from dozens that were tasted.

Since then, things have only gotten better. Malbec now accounts for a third of all Argentine wine exports, and an astonishing 53 percent of Argentine exports to the U.S. But most consumers are stuck on the low end – the value bottles, that rarely cost more than $12. Although some very fine wines can be found in the bargain bin, the real sweet spot for the wines – which number among them some of the greatest red wines made in the New World, is at higher price points.

The super-expensive versions can fall victim to Parkerization – over-ripe, over-oaked, over-saturated. But the wines profiled here are not over the top; but they do over-deliver. Often they are pure malbec, though sometimes a blend is made. Argentina has old vine vineyards, meaning 60 or 80 years old; sometimes even older. The country also can claim the world’s highest vineyards – some over 7000 feet. Wines from these higher altitude elevations incorporate a gravelly minerality. They have sharper acids and more delicate fruit, and bring a lovely precision and focus to the flavors.

Though malbec is one of the lesser Bordeaux grapes, in Argentina it is the star. Imagine a truly elegant version of cabernet sauvignon, coupled with the softer tannins of merlot and the spicy coffee and tobacco notes of cabernet franc, and you have a fair handle on malbec.

In a private seminar last week, I presented some exceptional versions of Argentine malbec, along with an all-star lineup from Washington state. Here the vines are quite young. Ron Bunnell recalls that some early planting was done in the Horse Heaven Hills around 1996, and Casey McClellan planted some of the first malbec in the Walla Walla Valley, at the Windrow vineyard, a year or two later.

I wholeheartedly believe that malbec will become another shining star in Washington, based on the excellence of the young vine bottlings already appearing. They are almost always made in very small quantities, and offered through mailing lists, wine clubs and tasting rooms. The best expressions of varietal Washington malbec capture the dark notes and peppery herbal qualities of the grape. They may not have the depth of the old vine offerings from Argentina, but they are priced well below many of them – though caught in a bit of a no man’s land at the moment ($30+).

But just because these are challenging economic times doesn’t mean that an occasional splurge is out of the question. Here are some malbecs from both hemispheres that will rock your world.

From Argentina:

Achaval-Ferrer 2007 Quimera Red Blend ($40)
A blend of 38% old vine malbec, 24% merlot, 24% old vine cabernet sauvignon and 14% cabernet franc. Unfined and unfiltered; barrel aged for one year in 40% new French oak. Sappy, knit tight, with wild berries, rock, black tea, whiffs of smoke. PG 92.

Andeluna 2004 Grand Reserve Pasionado Red Blend ($50)
A blend of 49% malbec, 26% merlot, 17% cabernet sauvignon and 8% cabernet franc. Lots of new oak, some animal, chocolate, and heat. Good, not great. PG 89.

Altocedro 2007 Reserva Malbec ($38)
From La Consulta, Valle de Uco, Mendoza – the premier spot for malbec. The vines range up to 100 years of age. Gorgeous color; a racy, deep wine tasting of rocks dusted with spice. Raspberry extract, hint of leather. Best of show – PG 94+.

Doña Paula 2006 Selección de Bodega Malbec ($45)
From 40-year-old vines in Upper Lujan de Cuyo; at 3300 feet elevation, these are the highest vineyards in the area. Nice mix of strawberry, cherry and raspberry, with rounded, moderately light flavors. PG 90.

Melipal 2006 Reserve Malbec ($45)
100% Malbec from 85-year-old vines. Dark, rich, plummy with lush fruit, espresso, bitter chocolate, and a touch of cinnamon. Parker 93. PG 91.

Nieto Senetiner 2004 Cadus Malbec ($50)
Cadus comes from the ancient Latin word for barrel. Chocolate, cocoa, mocha, nougat – it’s all about a barrel, but man is it delicious. The fruit is ripe and lovely – berries rolled in chocolate. PG 93.

Renacer 2006 Malbec ($60)
A limited-edition, old vine malbec aged for 24 months in French oak barrels. Loaded with ripe fruit, nicely balanced and full-bodied, this young wine mixes cherries, tobacco and earth-driven flavors in equal proportion. Excellent length. PG 92.

Tomorrow: some of Washington’s best, and recommended value wines from Argentina.


Sean P. Sullivan said...

Paul, a very timely post. I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep last night and was thinking about what a shame it was that Washington Malbec didn't receive a bit more recognition (I know, sad but true. While many count sheep I was counting Washington Malbec). I was attributing this to the low production/availability mixed with difficulty competing against Argentinian wines on price point. Good to read that the latter might be a bit less of a concern than I thought. I believe this grape could make a strong showing in the state if wineries stick with it.

Paul Zitarelli said...

Paul - Sounds like a great seminar, and I look forward to seeing how Washington's Malbecs compare. I'm wondering if, in your explorations of Argentina, you ran into any especially compelling Torrontes that you would be willing to share.

Denise Slattery said...

Paul - great overview on this grape. And thanks for the encouragement to go a reach a little higher if it will truly be worth it. We tend to drink cheaply on this import (because it's possible) - but the Malbec we have had from Seven Hills and Flying Trout are wonderful. I'd like to try making this too! Cheers.

J. Alfonso said...

Konnowac Vineyard in the western end of the Yakima Valley has Malbec that was planted in the late 80's. Truly amazing and eye opening if you get a chance to try it. We have some in barrel from the last couple of vintages. BTW they also have Petite Verdot planted around the same time.


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