Malbec, the flagship red grape of Argentina, may make the world’s most user-friendly wine. With its saturated violet hue, aromas and flavors of black cherries and milk chocolate, ripe, velvety tannins and full body, it epitomizes the New World style in red wines.
It’s exactly what hedonistic American wine fans want.
Oh, and it’s cheap – often $12 to $15 – giving the bang-for-buck we parsimonious pleasure-seekers demand.
Some compare malbec to pizza or sex, in that even when it’s bad, it’s pretty good. A critic for The London Telegraph, cutely but aptly, called malbec “a warm bear-hug of a wine.”
Malbec is no tannic steak wine. Its voluptuous richness makes it a comfort wine for comfort foods – beef stews, coq au vin, macaroni and cheese, lasagna, burritos, hamburgers or chili – be it red-bean, beef or chicken.
With a bit of nerve, you could serve it at dessert with chocolate brownies or sliced strawberries with balsamic vinegar on ice cream.
Malbec’s history is complex. It’s not native to Argentina; it’s somewhat accidental that it’s there at all.
From at least the Middle Ages, malbec was a minor blending grape in France – locally called cot noir – used to add color, spice and fruit to Bordeaux’s fabled red blends. It was used as a single grape in wine only in Cahors, south of Bordeaux, where it produced a rustic, somewhat gamey wine drunk mostly by locals.
Then in the mid-1800s, Argentine President Domingo Faustino Sermiento decided to upgrade his country’s vineyards, and hired French agronomist Michel Pouget. For reasons unknown, Pouget chose malbec to bring to Argentina for that purpose.
But he was right. Malbec quickly proved everything the French have always said about the importance of terroir, or climate, in growing grapes. Planted 3,000 feet up or more in the Andes foothills around the city of Mendoza, it grew extra ripe in the intense, high-altitude, thin-atmosphere sun so bright that some growers cast nets over the vines to prevent sunburn. Malbec’s skins also grew thicker from that sun, and skins are where the flavor lies.
Cahors today is recognizing what Argentina has done with its modest grape, and is scrambling to catch up.
California winemakers, recognizing a good thing, are investing in Argentina to make malbec to sell back home.
California’s Gnarly Head winery, for example, sees the parallels of Argentina’s malbec with the rustic, old-vines zinfandel it makes back home, and is using some of Mendoza’s oldest malbec vines in the wine they make there to export to the United States.
Argentine wineries, while recognizing the value of low-priced malbecs, also are working to create finer, more complex malbecs to sell at premium prices.
Bodega Achaval Ferrer, near Mendoza, for example, has created Quimera – a blend of 31 percent malbec, 27 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent merlot, 18 percent cabernet franc and 4 percent petit verdot styled after France’s famous Bordeaux reds, at $56.
Still, malbec’s primary appeal – at least to the financially challenged – is that, if you have only a few bucks to spend on a red wine, malbec may be your best choice.
• 2012 Gnarly Head Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina: Hint of oak, heady and rich and concentrated, with aromas and flavors of black plums and mocha and a long, smooth finish; $12.
• 2010 Quimera, by Bodega Achaval Ferrer, Lujan de Cayo, Mendoza: A Bordeaux-style blend with aromas of oak and flowers and full, concentrated flavors of black cherries, cinnamon and minerals and a long, smooth finish; $56.
• 2011 Don Miguel Gascon Malbec Reserva, Mendoza: Hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black cherries and cloves, rich, full-bodied and hearty, smooth finish; $25.
• 2012 Don Miguel Gascon Malbec, Mendoza: Aromas and flavors of black raspberries, bitter chocolate and cloves, big, ripe tannins, smooth; $15.
• 2012 Layer Cake Malbec, Mendoza: Deep, dark color, hint of oak, big flavors of black cherries, milk chocolate and brown sugar, ripe tannins; $16.