Friday, June 22, 2007

South America's Rising Star

Argentina's Malbec Makes a Big Splash;Living With Success
June 22, 2007

Here's the wine world's equivalent of a man-bites-dog story: In the first four months of this year, the U.S. imported almost 50% more wine from Argentina than from its neighbor Chile. This represents a big change: As recently as 2000, Chile exported almost five times as much wine to the U.S. as Argentina did. Even just last year, Chile's imports were about one-third higher than Argentina's. But now, imports from Argentina are so strong that they've outstripped almost all other countries, and aren't far below the figure for France. We're sure there are many reasons for this related to trade policies and such, but to us it all comes down to one word: Malbec.

Malbec is Argentina's signature grape. Long ago, it was known as one of the classic blending grapes of Bordeaux, but now it's best known as a stand-alone varietal in Argentina. At its best, Malbec produces a wine of dark color, spicy blackberry-herbal intensity and crisp acidity in a medium-weight package. When we first wrote about Malbec in 1999, we had trouble getting enough for a blind tasting. How things have changed. Argentina in general, and Malbec specifically, are getting a tremendous amount of attention from the wine world these days. The people who make the famous Château Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux, for instance, now make a Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec blend in Argentina along with a local winery, Terrazas de los Andes. Big, inky and age-worthy, it sells for around $70. In fact, even though Malbec is often inexpensive and a great deal, more high-end offerings are hitting the market, which indicates that Argentina's winemakers think Americans are familiar enough with the grape at this point to risk big bucks on something more intense and memorable.

A Crowded Shelf

For a few years, several reliable names -- Alamos, Altos Las Hormigas, Catena, Finca Flichman, Navarro Correas -- kept Malbec in the game in U.S. wine stores. But now they have lots of company. With so many Malbecs on shelves, we decided the time was right for a new tasting. We found so many so quickly that we scooped up 60 before we knew it; we could have easily added another 40. As always, we were not looking for "the best" Malbec from Argentina, but were trying to get an overall sense of what's out there. Has success spoiled Malbec?

Having finished the tasting, let's get right to the point: If you don't pick up a Malbec to pair with one of your cookouts soon, you're making a mistake. This is a special grape and this is a good time to be trying it.
They were not all winners, to be sure. The interesting herbal qualities of Malbec can't support any sweetness -- whether it's sugar or too much oak that gives the impression of sweetness -- and some of these proved that point too well. Others weren't ripe enough or they lacked acidity, leaving them fairly flat and a bit dull, with a jumble of indistinguishable tastes. But the overwhelming number of wines we tasted were winners. Whether they were among our very favorites or not, wine after wine looked and tasted black, with pepper, spices, earth and, on occasion, all sorts of other interesting tastes -- sometimes plums, sometimes chocolate, and sometimes chocolate-covered plums. Because they were easy to drink and often quite smooth, some reminded us why people first fell in love with Merlot. But these generally offered far more character than today's Merlot, with juicy fruit, an earthy underpinning and a clean finish.
Earthy and Rich
The very best of these were excellent wines, offering the kind of structure -- layers of flavors and focused tastes -- we associate with Bordeaux. Our best of tasting, from Felipe Rutini, was outstanding, with the kind of character that announced itself with every sip. It had good herbal qualities and hints of cedar, combined in an earthy, rich package. The importer, Pasternak Wine Imports of Harrison, N.Y., says 15,000 cases were made, and 5,000 were imported and distributed nationwide.
These wines are meant for food -- especially meat, but flavorful vegetable dishes like ratatouille as well. Even though they're dark and have intense tastes, they have lively acidity and real vitality, so they're not at all too heavy for summer. While it's impossible to know which one you might see at your store, chances are there will be at least a few, so pick one up. Or maybe two, to get a sense of what different winemakers are doing with this grape. Chances are they will have many similar characteristics, but taste different -- and good.
The Dow Jones Malbec Index
In a broad blind tasting of Malbec from Argentina, these were our favorites. As it turned out, all of our favorites are from the Mendoza region, which is a hot spot for Malbec. These are great with roasted meats and savory vegetable dishes. The better ones will age well for at least a couple of years.


Felipe Rutini2004
Very Good/Delicious
Best of tasting. Classy, with the structure of a fine Bordeaux. Cedar, herbs and earth add up to a wine of stature, with a notably long, dry finish. Interesting, with real character. Easy to drink, but not at all simple. Everything is well-integrated.

Nieto Senetiner 'Reserva' 2004
Good/Very Good
Best value. Blueberries and blackberries in an interesting, edgy package. Plenty of fruit and excellent balance, with a cleansing, lemony finish. Bring on the steak!

Bodegas Caro (Domaines Barons de Rothschild-Lafite and Nicolas Catena)2002
Very Good
Classy, with structure, and light on its feet, with fresh fruit, great acidity and fine balance. Earthy, with a touch of chocolate.

El Felino (Vina Cobos)2004
*Very Good
Very smooth, with plump, ripe blackberries, good spices and nice earth. Softer than many. Mild and easy.

Bodega Terrazas de los Andes 2006
Good/Very Good
Earthy, with zingy acidity, especially at the end. Very lively, very real.

Alamos (Catena) 2006
Good/Very Good
Rich, herbal and interesting, with plenty of character and an interesting hint of tar. Perennial favorite.
La Posta del Viñatero 'Angel Paulucci Vineyard' 2005
Good/Very Good
Mellow and confident, with good fruit, a pinch of herbs and earth. Highly drinkable, with nicely balanced oak.

Susana Balbo (Dominio del Plata) 2005
Good/Very Good
Very dark, dense, black-cherry color prepares the way for a darkly intense, young wine. Rich, like concentrated blackberries. Reliable name.

NOTE: Wines are rated on a scale that ranges: Yech, OK, Good, Very Good, Delicious, and Delicious!

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