I spend a lot of time in the shop hanging out in our Argentine/Spanish section. Not only do our customers gravitate to that area, but I found my first bottle of love from a non-US producer in that aisle: (Altos de las Hormigas) Malbec. I was hesitant to talk about Malbec in my mini series, Wines for Fall, because there are other grape varietals (e.g. Petite Verdot, Petite Sirah) that are lesser known and lesser consumed, but no less worthy of our attention this time of year. But I realized there was no real reason to keep my personal favorite off the list - and at least once a week I introduce a customer to a bottle of Malbec, so that proves there are still some grasshoppers out there who need to know of this magical varietal!
Malbec is THE Argentine (red) grape of mass export to the US. (I tried to find the exact figure to back this up, but was unable to do so! Please feel free to comment below if you know the answer...). When I was first introduced to Malbec some years ago it was considered an 'up and coming' project in Argentina. The vines were still young (not that they aren't still now, but every year helps!) and so lacked depth, concentration and, key word, ripe berry fruit. The wines tended toward the more vegetal, or "green" flavor profile as a result. As a new wine-exporting/producing nation, there also existed a natural lack of funding, interest (from winemakers and consumers across the globe) and modern technology. These facts could make finding truly phenomenal Malbec a bit more of a challenge. In just the last 10-15 years or so however, the funding is there, Mendoza is better known and appreciated for its happy climate to grow Malbec, and even curious winemakers from all over the world are happy to jump on a plane and get in the fray.
The result? Malbecs of many shapes and sizes are in the US market offering a range of tremendous flavor.
I find it thrilling to help others navigate this range of possibilities. The undercurrant to Malbec tends to be: dark fruits (like the plumbs or blackberries you often find in Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot); spice (sometimes simply black pepper, other times more exotic spices you may play with in the kitchen); earth (think outdoors, woodsy, wet soil or even a touch of saddle leather); gentle grip (not too dry, but evident tannin); and solid acidity (mouthwatering & food-friendly). What makes each (good, non-vegetal or bell-pepper tasting) Malbec fun to expore is which of these elements is/are more evidant and - most important - what role the winemaker has played in coaxing a truly lushy, soft, velvety (or not) mouthfeel.
I've come to know and love the softer, lusher Malbecs (Melipal makes a great example); the earthier style (I'm a fan of Nieto Rsv Malbec); or the berry-forward, unreserved, slightly more rustic basic level offerings like Altos las Hormigas (their Reserva is definitely bigger, bolder and more lush than their $10/bottle offering).
As for the Fall connection? Let's turn to food pairings, of course! But, wait, what's my rule of thumb on this again? Look to the culture from whence the wine came! So, let's also not forget Argentines consumes a LOT of beef. Throw that herb-encrusted steak on the grill and, well, I think your inner child will have no choice but to emerge. Then again... anything on the grill makes Malbec a great choice. Whenever I host a BBQ, I have a case on hand. Malbecs are approachable yet intriguing and ever-so worthy of grilled fare.
What's your favorite Argentine Malbec of choice? Or do you head to France, where this grape got its start, for a Cahors selection?