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High-Altitude Argentina: Mendoza Malbecs

Mendoza is the new home of Malbec. Well, we say new, Argentina have had plantings of Malbec in Mendoza since 1868. It was introduced by French ampelographer Michel Pouget, along with several other varieties, in a bid to improve viticulture in the South American country.

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Malbec is a native of France. Once, it was planted widely across the Sud-Ouest, particularly around Cahors where it was blended with Tannat to make the famous ‘Black Wines of Cahors’.  These were as sought after as Bordeaux is today, throughout the Middle Ages they were as highly regarded.  But what rising prices and taxation began, phylloxera finished; Malbec, once planted in 30 départements, fell to fewer than 6,100ha.  Even today, Cahors is dotted with crumbled Chateaux that speak to its former glory.

Malbec is to Argentina as Shiraz is to Australia.  Imported from France, and done exceptionally well – if in a very different style.  It is planted from dry, arid Salta in the north to the tip of Patagonia, over 3,000km to the south.  These extremes produce great Malbec, and offer some exciting terroir for winemakers.  Where Salta is a desert, Patagonia is dotted with orchards.

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In Mendoza, the altitude is everything.  Malbec is planted across 65,730 acres, with some at altitudes reaching almost 1,500m above sea level.  The Andes form a rain shadow, so Mendoza is very dry, and hot.  Altitude brings cooler temperatures – especially at night – and that helps retain acidity in the grapes as they ripen.  Melt-water from the snow-capped Andes provides much-needed irrigation for the vines.

At lower altitudes, the Malbec builds body, fleshiness and ripe fruit characters.  Higher up, acidity and tannin for structure and aromatic flavours.  This gives winemakers the option of blending from different altitudes to create the style of wine they want, or to express a particular vineyard.

Big styles of Malbec that have been aged in new oak can age comfortably for a decade or more.  Younger, fresher styles (such as the P15 Malbec below) are best enjoyed within 3 years of vintage.  A good rule of thumb – as with most red wines – is that anything £5-10 should be enjoyed within 3 years; £10-15 within 5-10 years; anything £15 and up will likely develop well 10 years plus.  If in doubt of when to drink (now is always good!) just ask one of our wine gurus in store.

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As a result of this, there are a plethora of Malbecs made in a variety of styles from easy-drinking, silky and smooth to finely structured wines with tannic grip and great longevity.  All have a delicious full and fruity character, though, and that’s the key to why Malbec is the go-to red grape right now.

Our top Argentine Malbecs to try:

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Hey Malbec! 2013, Mendoza, Argentina – Get it here

Taste: Big and bold black fruits, bramble, blackberry and blackcurrant with licorice spice, violet flowers, a touch of toasted oak and a lick of vanilla.

Enjoy It With: Meat or chargrilled vegetables. Or meat with chargrilled vegetables.

Dinner Party Nugget: Winemaker Matias Riccitelli makes Hey Malbec! with fruit sourced from Luján de Cuyo, known locally as the “Land of Malbec”.

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Catena Malbec 2013, Mendoza, Argentina – Get it here

Taste: Catena Malbec is consistently good. Ripe blackberry and plum, milk chocolate, a dusting of vanilla and toasty wood smoke.  Ripe, silky and full with good grip.

Enjoy It With: Any rich or full dish, alternatively on the sofa with some dark chocolate.

Dinner Party Nugget: The best time to visit Argentina is in March, during the ‘Fiesta de la Vendimia’ (or Harvest Festival).

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Beefsteak Club Malbec 2013, Mendoza, Argentina – Get it here

Taste: Intense ripe plums and damsons, dark cocoa powder and mocha, finished with a drizzle of caramel and sprinkled with cloves. Spicy and beefy!

Enjoy It With: The clue is in the name. Stew, steak, you name it.

Dinner Party Nugget: Amusingly, this drop is made by an Australian-born winemaker, which might go some way to explain the big and intense character of the wine!

Finally, a wild-card wine from another wine region – Patagonia.

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P15 Malbec 2014, Patagonia, Argentina – Get it here

Taste: Get fresh at the weekend, this wine is showing out. Ripe cherry and plum take stage here, with  violet aromatics and some smoky vanilla.

Enjoy It With: Some friends and a big bolognaise.

Dinner Party Nugget: This wine takes its name from Picada 15, the old highway that runs alongside the vineyards at San Patricio del Chañar in Neuquén.  It’s also Argentina’s most southern wine region!
Check out even more Malbec wines on our website!