Forget the tango — malbec is fast becoming the beloved icon of Argentina. I first wrote about this humble red grape in 2006, when it was creeping into the spotlight, but since then its popularity has spread like the "Macarena" at a redneck wedding. And no wonder — malbec is practically perfect.
This disrespected French grape originally hails from Bordeaux, where it slaves for the hallowed cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes. Winemakers use malbec to soften the often harsh tannins of its stout compatriots and create a balanced, heady blend. Bottled alone, it fathers ferocious, robust reds in the obscure area of Cahors, under the alias "côt" (pronounced "co").
In the mid-nineteenth century, Argentina imported this unloved foster grape to the dry Mendoza wine region and gave it a permanent, loving home. Today, in these sunny, hot, and winemaker-controlled growing conditions, malbec achieves a full, rich ripeness vastly different from its French brethren.
But, like a loser on Dancing with the Stars, it was almost killed off in the 1980s. Back then, Argentina hoarded 75 percent of its wines and domestic sales were declining. In a moronic move, the government mandated that wineries uproot their decades-old malbec vines in favor of other crops. Tragically, this happened on the cusp of South America's wine boom and much of the best fruit was yanked. So vineyard managers spit on the sandy, loamy soil, and began replanting.
Fast forward to the late 1990s. After enviously watching Chile's success in the U.S., Argentinean wineries realized the outside world might buy their stuff too. They began focusing on quality instead of bulk and malbec bloomed.
The wines are relatively inexpensive and, like New World merlot, achieve a soft, elegant user-friendliness that people love. But that doesn't mean malbec is wimpy. It has tannic backbone (consider its roots) and enough acidity to complement food — especially nice with a grilled flank steak accompanied by chimichurri, Argentina's herb-based, national condiment.
Malbec is grown around the world now, but Argentina pretty much owns the market. Not all are worth your money, however. Some that I tasted had flaws like flagrant alcohol, and lack of fruit or green pepper, a sign the grapes were harvested prematurely. But, judging from others I enjoyed, Argentina's malbecs have definitely reached a tasty potential.
Terrazas Reserva 2006 Malbec Mendoza Smells like luscious raspberry jam you'd spread on bread. This impressive medium-bodied wine has a lot going on — layers of blackberry, black licorice, bittersweet chocolate, black coffee, cranberry, velvety oakiness, and spicy black pepper. Excellent acidity with a rich, tongue-pleasing mouthfeel. $18.
Crios de Susana Balbo 2007 Malbec Mendoza Fabulously delicious. Medium-bodied and flirtatious. Fragrant blackberry that explodes in your mouth then kisses you with smoky oak, rich vanilla, ripe plum, and black cherry. Finish is forever. $15.
High Note 2007 Malbec Uco Valley Mendoza It seems to be on every wine list I see and now I know why. High Note is fruity, with raspberry, bright red cherry, sweet vanilla spice, and a swath of earthy coffee down the tongue. $12.
Altos Las Hormigas 2007 Malbec Mendoza The name, Las Hormigas, translates to "the ants," since the vineyards are covered with critters that eat everything except the vines themselves. The protected fruit results in a wine oozing with mouth-filling black cherry, plums, licorice, and soft leather. It's dry with medium tannins and a lush, earthy finish. $10.
Didn't make the cut:
Benmarco 2007 Malbec (too much alcohol);.Obviously 2007 Malbec (watery); Tierra de Luna 2008 Malbec (vegetal — olives); Norton 2006 Malbec Reserva (very little fruit); and Kaiken 2006 Ultra Malbec (too young).