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Malbec: Old Grape, New Continent
by Jonathon Alsop
October 2000


Unknown, unloved, unappreciated, underused, ignored... this pretty much sums up the attitude of winemakers toward a red grape from western France called malbec. Over the last 25 years or so, this hardy grape has lived something of the ultimate immigrant success story, flourishing in South America while simultaneously declining in importance and respect at home in Europe. Today, malbec has found a new home in Argentina (and Chile, to a lesser degree) where it is slowly but surely getting the love it deserves while kicking some serious bung in the marketplace.

One of the factors contributing to the decline of malbec in the old world is its nomenclature: malbec is called by so many different names in France that its names have come to mean almost nothing there. The Oxford Companion to Wine cites a list of nearly 400 synonyms for the grape (cot being the most popular) which points to how widespread malbec must once have been.

Growing side by side with the rightly famous cabernet sauvignon and merlot, however, malbec doesn't stand a chance. These days, used as a minor blending grape in some red Bordeaux wines, it is grown principally in the Cahors region south of Bordeaux. Malbec is still there, but it is a memory, while the future is 10,000 miles away in Argentina.

Ironically enough, Argentina gave up on malbec in the 1980s and actually initiated a "vine pull" program till only 10,000 acres of the grape were left. Just as they finished the job, the potential of malbec became obvious with the growth of wine exports from South America in the 1990s. Winemakers were left pining for every acre of malbec they'd yanked up and planted with still-immature grapes of the moment.

In South America, malbec achieves a ripeness and richness completely unlike its old self. It generally comes out deep and dark in color, almost inky sometimes, which is not a surprise. But the tannins are plenty but velvety, and flavors of ripe plum and berry is typical.

More than 25,000 acres are in production now, mostly new plantings just coming of age. Malbec's new world persona is reminiscent of California merlot: strong on fruit and structure, amenable to barrel fermenting and oak aging, enough tannin to let you know you've tasted something real, but smooth and user-friendly at the same time. The skeleton of South American malbec is red Bordeaux in style, but the dominating flavors are chocolate and raspberry instead of earth and autumn leaves.

In short, malbec is the next merlot, a serious red wine that's round, smooth on the tongue, and easy to love. South American wines are under-valued anyway (good for us!), and malbec represents a tremendous bargain in the US right now.

Mainstream producers like Trapiche, Catena, Trumpeter, and others consistently produce solid, chunky wines for much less than $10, but it won't last. Next thing we'll see is "old vines" and "single vineyard" malbec approaching $30, so buy now before the marketing begins in earnest.

Bodegas Lurton Malbec (about $7, at Fifth Avenue Wines in Framingham and many others) The Lurton family makes well-crafted wine all around the world, and this offering is no exception. Concentration of fruit flavors is very tasty, and a nice splash of oak gives good richness. A great bargain.

Valentin Bianchi "Elsa" Malbec (about $9, available at Post Road Liquors in Wayland, Marty's in Newton, and many others) For years, Valentin Bianchi made the only malbec available in Boston, and I distinctly remember buying it out of a 2/$6 bin a decade ago when South America was unknown as a wine region. This bottling comes from the "Elsa" vineyards, and it's classic Argentinian malbec, good and strong with fresh fruit and oak flavors.

Don Miguel Gascon Malbec (about $9, at Marty's and many others) Here's a wine that causes people to make involuntary yummy sounds when they drink it. The fruit is ripe and dark with layers of bing cherry, chocolate, and cream. Absolutely delicious, and my own personal favorite. They make a viognier that is also very good.

Altos Malbec (about $10, at the Wine Vault in Framingham, Brookline Liquor Mart, and others) This wine is a true star, and it's really hard to believe it's only $10. The structure and backbone are like a classic Bordeaux, and the flavors of raspberry and blackberry are everywhere. Probably the buy of the bunch if it ever goes on sale.

Montes "Reserve" Malbec (about $10, at Water Street Wines in Framingham, Brookline Liquor Mart in Brookline, and others) Chile grows very little malbec compared with Argentina, but this is a fine specimen that's strong on chocolate flavors and aromas of cedar and menthol. Would work very well as a dessert wine with a dense chocolate nut torte.

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