Friday, August 15, 2014

Get to Know your Grapes Series - Malbec

When people find out how "into" wine I am (translation - I'm a wino!), the first question is often "what is your favorite wine?" The questions makes perfect sense to ask - but is very difficult for me to answer... so invariably I end up answering "it depends."  What is the weather - hot, cold, sunny rainy? What am I eating, if anything? What am I doing - relaxing, socializing, cooking, hanging outside by the pool? How am I feeling? What time of day? What day of the week? Is it my first, second (or third) wine of the day? There are so many great wines that I love, and (hopefully) more great wines I find with each passing week - it is difficult for me to say my favorite.  I have been lucky to try a few once in a lifetime wines that were monumentally good - but to declare them my favorite would be frustrating as a favorite to me is something you enjoy regularly.

When I do think about the wines from grape varieties I most enjoy, there is also no real overall favorite, but the red wine grapes that come to my mind immediately are:
  • Syrah/Shiraz - The depth of flavor and variety of aromas (including such epic aromas as raw bacon) lead me to try a lot of this grape.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon - With a well cooked steak, can't be beat.
  • Tempranillo - Spanish Rioja's are a go to to pair with food, or just to sip (or gulp!).
  • Grenache - Grenache based blends from the Rhone or California, and wines from Spain (called Garnacha there) are also very complex and interesting.
I could probably name several more here, but my overall point is that it would probably take a while before I would mention Malbec on this list, but quietly...slowly, secretly, Malbec has become one of the wines that I enjoy regularly.  In the history of wine, Malbec is one of the blending grapes used to make French Bordeaux (along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot to make up the big Bordeaux five).  I do enjoy Bordeaux and Cahors which is a Malbec based wine from another region in France. But this use or old world style of wine is not the Malbec I'm talking about so fondly. I am talking about the grape that rocketed to a primary spot when it was taken to South America, primarily in Argentina.


Most South American winemakers focus on making very fruity, very drinkable wine - that is not really meant to be aged.  If you look for Malbec on your wine shop shelves today, you will mostly find vintages only from two or three years ago - all young wines, but made to be enjoyed now.  We are talking some excellent wine that is also an excellent value. "Regular" Malbecs are often around $10 with Reserve wines at around $15, and Grand Reserves at around $20.  I typically go with the reserve level, and can definitely taste the quality difference between all three levels.  None are made to age, but the Reserve and Grand Reserve can be a big fuller bodied and have deeper and more complex aromas and flavors.   Malbecs are great just to sip, and would pair nicely with an array of foods from steaks (Argentinian Steakhouse anyone?) and are fruity enough to hang in their with spicier foods. I would not recommend Malbec with your next Ghost Chili eating contest, but I can tell you that we have Malbec regularly with Korean food, and it is fantastic.

So let's find out a little bit more about this potentially undervalued grape! Maybe you will make a spot for it in your wine drinking curriculum!


Typical Aromas of Malbec.   South American Malbec has predominantly dark fruit aromas like blackberry and plum.  In some Reserve and Grand Reserve levels wines you start to pick up a bit of chocolate, black pepper, and even leather, but the South American winemakers definitely make the fruit characteristic the star.  You can find some Malbec based French wine in the appellation of Cahors - where the fruit characteristics will typically take a back seat to the chocolate and leather aromas.

Typical Styles of Malbec Wine.  Malbec wine tends to have a medium level of both acidity and tannins, helping to make it such a versatile wine.   The wines are deeply colored - dark dark purple, and the examples from South America are very fruit forward, not very complex, but nicely balanced and just downright delicious.

Let's Eat! What Food Pairs with Merlot Wines?  Malbec is super food friendly, and can be served with more variety of foods that most red wines.

  • Meat. Whether out at a Churrasco (a.k.a. a "Meat Palace"), or roasting up just about any kind of meat - Malbec will help accentuate the flavor of the meat and will not overpower it. Don't forget the Chimichurri!
  • Spicy Foods. Need a red that can pair with hot and spicy (but not killer hot) foods?  Malbec is a great companion. Malbec can even be a nice pairing for chicken wings with some heat.
  • Dry Cheeses. Malbec does better with aged cheddar or parmesan - the dryer cheeses. Stay away from creamier and super acidic cheeses. (The cheese on your cheeseburger though - no problem!).
  • Substitute for Merlot. Typically serve a Merlot and looking to try something different to try? Malbec will be a great option as it shares characteristics with Merlot, just with a typically lower tannin level than Merlot.

Who Makes Malbec Wines? Here are the main players in making Malbec wine: 
  • South America.  Argentina is the place that has made Malbec their star - and they have done it in truly excellent fashion.  The main region you will find is Mendoza, but there are also wines from San Juan and Salta.  Argentina has over 75% of the acreage devoted to Malbec, so they are not just experimenting or going through a Malbec phase! You will occasionally find Malbec from other South American locales such as Chile, but there are soooo many great Malbecs in Argentina I suggest you start there to help set the standard, and later begin to experiment with other country's Malbec efforts.  If you really want to try wine from Chile - there are great examples of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, all at great values.
  • France.  Here Malbec is a minor blending partner in red Bordeaux wines, but wines from the appellation of Cahors are Malbec based.  After trying a few Argentinian Malbecs, you should give a Cahors a try to see a drastic different approach to winemaking with the grape.
  • All Other. Beyond South America and France, you have to search hard to find any Malbec wines. I know Charles Smith is making a Malbec in Washington State, and you may run across a California winery that puts out a Malbec - probably available only at the winery, and probably made from vines they had planted to make a Bordeaux style blend originally, but may be trying to take advantage of a potential Malbec craze (incited primarily by this blog posting).
Words of Advice. Some things to keep in mind to make sure you get the most out of your Malbec Purchase:
  • Experiment.  The majority of South American Malbecs are tremendous values. Try new ones, open two bottles at the same time to compare.
  • Splurge a Tiny Bit.  A Grand Reserve level wine for about $20 is not something you will see from many places, so for a few bucks more try the granddaddy wine from a winery you like.
  • Sip It. A great wine that will please red wine lovers, and potential red wine lovers as just a wine to sip (at the proper serving temperature of course!)
Looking for Some Good Brands to Try? Here are a few of my favorites:
  • Cruz Alta.  I regularly buy their Reserve, and also enjoy their Grand Reserve - none of them over $20. I recently tried their Chairman's blend - where they've blended in a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah... a bit more complex wine, and a steal at $25.
  • Finca Flichman.  Another great producer of excellent value Malbec. I also enjoy all their levels of Malbec, and they produce some very interesting blends featuring Malbec.
  • Too many other great Argentinian producers to name - they are very value priced so experiment and let us know in the comments or on Twitter what great finds you've made!
  • Darioush.  The Napa area winemaker has partnered with a winemaker in the Mendoza, Argentina region to create this wonderful wine.  The price of this bottle is closer to $50, but if you are willing to splurge a bit to try a really, really, (really) good Malbec - this is the one.  We purchased some at the winery, but I don't know how widely available it is. I guarantee it will be worth the search.

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