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Malbec: Flavor Chameleon PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Citara, BT Contributor   
October 2016

Red, white, and you: Agreeable wine for $12 or less

MPix_Vino_10-16albec is to Argentina what Bordeaux is to France, Chianti is to Italy, Rioja is to Spain, Cabernet Sauvignon is to the Napa Valley.

But while Malbec is Argentina’s iconic grape -- that country is home to 75 percent of the world’s Malbec vineyards and is by far the largest producer of the varietal -- the grape’s roots are actually in France, where it’s also known as Côt or Pressac.

Malbec’s presence in French vineyards dates back centuries, though the phylloxera epidemic in the mid-1800s that killed off most Malbec vineyards (indeed, vineyards planted with every other grape) started a long, slow decline in its production and popularity.

It also didn’t help that the cold- and rain-averse grape didn’t take well to the wet, chilly climates in many of France’s wine-producing regions, though to this day it remains one of the five “noble grapes” of classic Bordeaux (the others being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Merlot).

Still, Malbec hung on, particularly in the Cahors region in southwest France, where it makes a wine characterized by tart berry flavors, relatively high tannins and acidity, and corresponding low alcohol. In Argentina, however, where the grape was introduced by a French agronomist in the 1850s, its flavor profile is entirely different. “Juicy” is perhaps the best description, a fruit-forward style that emphasizes rich, ripe, dark fruit with smoky-earthy undertones and hints of olives, tobacco, and leather. Higher alcohol levels, too.

An excellent example of the Argentine style of Malbec is the 2014 Altos del Plata. It signals its hefty 14.5 percent alcohol with a deep purple, almost black color, and a nose that combines succulent black cherry-berry fruit with the grape’s characteristic olive, leather, and tobacco nuances. It tastes like that too, but is so well-balanced, the alcohol never gets in the way. At $11.99, it’s at the top end of our price range, but it drinks like a wine costing several dollars more.

The 2015 Don Miguel Gascón drinks like a wine as young as it is, with a faint “green” bitterness on the palate beneath fresh red cherry-strawberry fruit and earthy, spicy overtones. It’s simple, but pleasant and lighter-bodied than its almost 14 percent alcohol might indicate.

Lighter still -- in fact, more in the French style -- is the 2015 Agua de Piedra. It takes a little time in the glass to open up, but when it does, it releases all those Malbec flavors and aromas we’ve come to love (or at least expect): cherries, earth, and spice, though with more pronounced acidity.

Several wines from better-known producers didn’t fare so well. The 2014 Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec did have the virtue of being relatively cheap (under $10) but delivered a pretty generic Malbec experience, without the nuances of aroma and flavor that often separate industrial wines from those with more character.

Neither the 2015 Ruta 22 nor the 2015 Finca Flichman Misterio Malbecs offered anything to encourage me to buy them again. The Ruta 22 was at once astringent and candied, and while it did improve a bit with prolonged aeration, at the bottom of the bottle was a shrugged “meh.”

The Flichman didn’t even reach those not-exactly-lofty “heights,” with grapey, Kool-Aid aromas and flavors, and an odd whiff of tea that carried over to the bitter finish. Not a wine to inflict on your taste buds.

If you’re looking for Malbecs that are lighter on the palate, better balanced, lower in alcohol, and more versatile partners with a variety of foods, check out what vintners are doing in France. The 2014 Pigmentum from Georges Vigouroux shows off its French nature from the beginning, with less of the Argentine funk and earthiness, and with fruit that’s more fresh and bright than ripe and florid. Beneath the tangy red apple, cherry-berry fruit is a touch of cloves and citrus acidity with a soft texture that’s easy on the palate.

Like the Pigmentum, the 2014 D’Autrefois clocks in at a relatively benign 13 percent alcohol. Aromas are cherries and strawberries, toasty oak, and black olives, all of which carry over in the mouth. The wine’s light to medium body and tangy, citrus-tinged acidity make it both easy sipping and easy food pairing.

And easy, you know, is always a good thing.

 

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