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Argentina: Malbec becoming ‘it’ grape

Source: Golfweek Contributor
By: John Steinbreder
05.05.2008

Pity the poor Malbec grape in France, where it has long played only a minor role in the blending of some Bordeaux wines. It does not grow particularly well in that humid, low-lying region, and its primary use there is to empower wines that needed a bit of fortitude. Rarely, if ever, is the grape allowed to stand on its own.

It is, however, quite a different story in Argentina, where Malbec is king in a country that is the world's fifth-largest wine producer, with almost 3,000 vineyards. The grape thrives in the arid, higher-altitude vineyards around Mendoza on the eastern slopes of the Andes, where the sun shines more than 300 days per year and the stark differences between day and night temperatures produce a thicker skin - resulting in bolder color and expression in the finished product.

The Argentine Malbec - deeply purple in color and often characterized by hints of plums, licorice and pepper - nicely complements the steaks that are central to the local diet. In fact, Malbec has become one of the 21st century's "it" wines, so popular that it makes up about half of all wine made in Argentina.

Ironically, Argentine growers almost stopped producing Malbec a couple of decades ago, taking it out of production in favor of high-yield but lower-quality grapes, such as Bonarda and Criolla Grande. They were used to make wines that appealed to a domestic population that consumed an astonishing amount of wine on a per-capita basis each year - and didn't seem to care how it tasted.

Matters were made worse by a sudden drop in demand during the 1980s that caused a financial crunch, leading to near-disastrous interventions in the industry by civilian and military governments. A number of vineyards went out of business.

The wine business began a comeback in the 1990s, thanks mostly to deregulation that induced keener management and a populace that demanded better wines (even though it now drinks less). The result has been a much-appreciated re-emphasis on the Malbec grape.

That appreciation was apparent at a recent tasting at the elegant Vinoteca restaurant in the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt in Buenos Aires, where sommelier Marcelo Rebole was pouring selections from a cellar that houses Malbecs produced by more than 100 labels.

"Try this Rutini 2005," said the 29-year-old Rebole, whose family grows grapes in the Mendoza region. "It is a very traditional Malbec, a wine for drinking, not thinking."

Rebole subsequently poured two more Malbecs, and while the differences in each were discernible, the overriding characteristics were consistent: deep, rich colors and jammy tastes enhanced by hints of various spices and flowers.

"These are very straightforward wines," Rebole said, "but wines of great depth and character."

And unlike their relations in faraway France, wines that do well all by themselves.

Tastes of Argentina

Marcelo Rebole, sommelier at the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt in Buenos Aires, recommends these Malbecs, which are distributed internationally:

• Catena Alta Malbec 2003 (approximately $50)

• Achaval-Ferrer Finca Altamira Malbec 2004 ($85)

• Mendel Malbec 2005 ($25)

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