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Wine Tip: Malbec Madness

Argentina's star red is running up the score

James Molesworth
Posted: April 12, 2010

With the explosion of Malbec bottlings available in the United States, it's becoming increasingly important for consumers not only to exercise caution when choosing among various wineries, but also to know their vintages. Of the vintages that currently dominate the market (and make up the bulk of wines in this report), 2006 is the best, followed by 2007. I've reviewed more than 100 Malbecs from 2008 so far. It's not enough for a final vintage rating, but the year looks promising, and it may eventually match 2006 in quality.

The wines of 2006 have fleshed out since I first began tasting them two years ago, with a number of the late-releases showing better fruit and purity than many earlier releases. This has led me to upgrade my overall assessment of the vintage, to outstanding.

In general, 2007 is a step behind 2008, as late-season rains in the warmer areas such as Luján de Cuyo hampered the harvest there, although cooler spots such as Altamira saw extended, drier harvest periods that led to fresh, pure, stylish wines.

The 2008 vintage featured a cold winter and a late start to spring, with cool temperatures running through the first half of the season, accentuated by a damaging spring frost in the Uco Valley. The second half of the vintage warmed up, however, and the Malbecs show potential. (The grape typically ripens late and benefits from longer growing seasons.)

Argentina has a winning horse called Malbec, and it's riding it hard. Thanks to the wine's approachable, juicy, fruit-driven profile, along with a multitude of bottlings for $15 or less, Malbec has captivated American consumers. This demand is triggering increases in both production and exports, providing the wine world with a rare bright spot of growth during a difficult economic period.

The Quality Pinnacle

Leading the way are the top bottlings from Achával-Ferrer and Bodega Catena Zapata. These two wineries have consistently dueled for the top spot among Argentine Malbecs in my last few annual reports, and they offer a great contrast in styles, with plush, lavish bottlings coming from Catena, and vibrant, piercing wines the hallmark of Achával-Ferrer.

One virtue of these top wines is their ability to showcase Mendoza's varied terroir. At first glance, Mendoza seems like a large expanse of land with little variation -- an image propagated by the fact that most wines are simply labeled as 'Mendoza,' despite often being sourced from more specific areas within the region. But these differing terroirs -- from warm spots in northern Mendoza, such as Agrelo and Luján de Cuyo, to the cooler reaches of the Uco Valley in the south, such as Tupungato and La Consulta -- can be exploited to enhance both the character and diversity of Argentine wines.

A trio of Malbecs from Achával-Ferrer demonstrates how differences in Mendoza's terroir can be expressed in distinctive styles. The Achával-Ferrer Finca Altamira Mendoza 2007 continues the bottling's track record as one of the country's best wines. The Finca Bella Vista Mendoza 2007 and the Finca Mirador Mendoza 2007 are also among the top wines in this report.

The Finca Altamira, sourced from low-yielding vines in a cooler, high-elevation area of southern Mendoza, is sleek and stylish, with vibrant fruit and minerality. In contrast, the Finca Bella Vista, which comes from the Perdriel area (and is back after a two-year hiatus due to hail damage in the vineyard), shows a richer, more muscular profile, with black and blue fruits, while the Finca Mirador, from Medrano, offers piercing floral and iron notes.

Matching the Achával-Ferrer wines step for step is the high-end portfolio from the industry's dominant player, Bodega Catena Zapata. The Malbec Mendoza Nicasia Vineyard 2006, also sourced from Altamira fruit (a different vineyard in the same area as Achával-Ferrer's), is just as sleek, but denser, with loads of plum and blackberry fruit. The Malbec Mendoza Argentino 2005 blends grapes from Gualtallary and Altamira to create a muscular, toast- and fruit-filled version.

Other top-scoring wines include the Bodega Mendel Malbec Mendoza Finca Remota 2007, another bottling that uses Altamira fruit; the Viña Cobos Malbec Mendoza Marchiori Vineyard 2006, made from a single vineyard in Perdriel; and the Bodega Noemía de Patagonia Río Negro Valley 2007, a racy, graphite-filled Malbec sourced from old vines in Argentina's southern region of Patagonia.

Lower-Priced Wines

These wines represent the quality pinnacle of Argentine Malbec today and carry commensurate price tags. But there are worthy alternatives at lower prices. The Altocedro Malbec La Consulta Reserva 2007, from owner and winemaker Karim Mussi, offers the grape's captivating fruit profile with a sleek, racy finish. Altos Las Hormigas, Bodega Colomé, Finca Decero, Piattelli, Finca & Bodega Carlos Pulenta, Bodega Renacer Pascual Toso and others also make outstanding Malbecs for less than $40 a bottle.

Those looking for maximum value will be happy to hear that there are a number of Malbecs in current release that cost $15 or less per bottle and rate 85 points or higher. The Bodegas y Viñedos O. Fournier Malbec Uco Valley Urban 2008 is among the top values, as are Malbecs from Ave, Bodega del Desierto, Henry Lagarde, Bodega Norton, La Posta del Viñatero, Proviva, TriVento and the Catena Zapata-owned Vista del Sur. Results in this price range are inconsistent, however, as a proliferation of bottlings has somewhat diluted quality.

For Argentina, all the foundations are in place: a vast expanse of land; a dominant and distinctive varietal in Malbec, backed by several supporting players; and an American consumer base that's thirsty and eager to explore. While a few wineries are exploiting this combination with great success, a groundswell of more consistent quality is still needed to take Argentina to the next level. In the meantime, choose wisely and enjoy the ride.

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