By Henry Little,
Trainee Manager of Majestic Wine Belgravia
Sometimes it can seem impossible to believe that people won’t always be drinking the wine they are drinking now, hard to understand why they ever drank anything else, and why that wine still isn’t Riesling (ok, that last bit might just be me). It’s easy to lose perspective on just how fast things move…
Take Argentine Malbec. To many, it means one thing: a plush and fruity New World wine that’s great with steak. However, there’s far more to it than that. Malbec is actually a French grape, appearing under hundreds of aliases in Bordeaux and its surrounding regions. And, most surprisingly, Argentina only got into the export game in the mid-1990s. Crucial and exciting diversity within the category is just beginning to come through, the wines starting to taste very different from each other, getting closer to that Holy Grail, the realisation of a unique expression of place.
At one end of the spectrum, pleasing, fruity examples such as the Esperanza Malbec 2009 are available. Great value, this shows off how Malbec’s ripe dark fruit and smooth tannins can make it a good party wine, proving that an accompanying steak is not obligatory.
So far so good. But going back to the idea of diversification, in the case of Argentina it can be hard to understand why an example from one place tastes much different from any other, given that they are all produced in arid, semi-desert conditions. But terroir is about much more than just soil, and Argentine Malbecs are often better distinguished in terms of another simple factor: altitude. With vineyards planted at heights that would be unthinkable in Europe, some over 3,000m, under the intense ultraviolet radiation, in the hot days and the cool nights, the grapes become flushed with a pure, intense fruit character, and there seems to be a link (an instinctively attractive one) between altitude and quality – there is even a degree of competitiveness amongst Argentine producers as to whose wine comes from the highest vineyard.
The Finca Flichman, Gestos Malbec 2009 explores the relationship between height and flavour with their multi-altitude blend, made up half from grapes grown in Barrancas at 700m, providing structure, and half with grapes from Tupungato at 1,100m, which give more in the way of aromatic quality.
As with Marlborough in New Zealand and Sauvignon Blanc, so Argentina has its iconic region, and that is Mendoza. With a rich nose of dark fruit, ripe tannins and a touch of vanilla and spice, the Gougenheim Malbec 2009 is a pretty classic example, and interesting enough to be a good food wine (open a bottle next time you have a BBQ if you want to venture away from the old steak combination).
Although Mendoza Malbec has this recognisable profile, three more examples show the possibilities for the future. Malbec is certainly a grape that blends well, and in terms of giving breadth to the Argentinian wine industry, blending represents a great source of opportunity. The Benegas Don Tiburcio combines all the black varieties used across Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot, in addition to Malbec), exploiting the virtues of low-yielding gravel soils to deliver a more intense, complex wine, with less emphasis on simple dark fruit but still with the familiar vanilla and chocolate notes.
The second, from well-liked producer Viñalba, sets itself apart using the traditional Spanish term Gran Reserva. Adding the words Reserva or Gran Reserva to a label, although it is good way for producers to indicate higher quality or age to the consumer, can be misleading, as the use of these terms is not regulated by law, and could potentially be used indiscriminately. Quality producers are conscientious, however, and Viñalba’s Gran Reserva 2008, matured in French oak, and much more complex, with notes of raisin and clove in addition to the dark fruit, certainly warrants the extra distinction, and still represents great value. It will be interesting to see whether, once more of the necessary experimentation has been done, tighter regulations will be established around labelling and production.
Finally, at the top of the category, lies a step on the path towards fine wine, the 2008 Mendel Malbec. Again, a more serious wine, and with more complexity partly derived from French oak, this is certainly worth a try for those interested in the quality side of thing, with an intense and slightly perfumed nose and great structure. The gap between this wine and the first Malbec mentioned here, not in terms of quality but rather in terms of style and character, shows just what a range is now available. In another ten or fifteen years there is no doubt the category will be even more mature and even more interesting. What we will all be drinking, and whether we will remember just how far things have come, is anyone’s guess.
Esperanza Malbec 2009/10, Mendoza
£5.99 or £4.99* when you buy 2 bottles
Gestos Malbec, Finca Flichman 2009, Mendoza
£7.99 or £6.49* when you buy 2 bottles
Gouguenheim Malbec 2009, Mendoza
£8.99 or £7.49* when you buy 2 bottles
Don Tiburcio Malbec Blend 2007/08, Benegas
£11.99 or £9.99* when you buy 2 bottles
Viñalba Gran Reserva Malbec 2008
Mendel Malbec 2008, Mendoza
£17.99 or £14.99* when you buy 2 bottles
*Prices are valid from 1 February 2011 to 2 May 2011