Argentinan malbecs: Great wine, great value
I have many friends in the wine business, and many more who just love wine. And I've noticed that, while the wine-biz folks get all wrapped...
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Pick of the WeekAltas Cumbres 2006 Malbec; $10. Sweet and spicy New World berry fruit flavors meet gravel and coffee-flavored tannins; it's a sleek, elegant style that really captures the subtle pleasures of malbec, and uses the new oak very tastefully. There's plenty of acid for you acid lovers, and just a little hint of tobacco in the coffee-laden finish. (Distributed by Cascade Trade)
I have many friends in the wine business, and many more who just love wine. And I've noticed that, while the wine-biz folks get all wrapped up in trying to outmaneuver each other — hunting for the most rare and obscure, the highest-rated and the least-known wines — the consumers just focus on price.
People who like a bottle of wine with dinner don't want to spend a fortune to get it. And in the hunt for value, they inevitably make some spectacular discoveries. Malbec (an obscure Bordeaux grape) from Mendoza (an obscure corner of Argentina) is the latest. Several alert readers have written me to recommend these wines, mentioning specific producers.
Their enthusiasm inspired me to taste through several dozen currently available in Seattle.
Wow! Honestly, I have never seen so many quality offerings at everyday prices. Right now, I don't think that there are better red-wine values in the world than some of the malbecs coming out of Argentina.
The country's wine industry, which some sources date back to the 1500s, has been revitalized in the past couple of decades. Most of the vineyards are located in the Mendoza region, a high desert at the base of the Andes. Argentina lays claim to the world's highest vineyards — some over 7,000 feet. But even at lower altitudes, the vines profit from a seemingly unique combination of intense sun, extreme elevation and nighttime cooling.
International "flying winemakers" such as Michel Rolland and Alberto Antonini jet in to make wines in Argentina, but the so-called "international style" has not obliterated the distinctive flavors that make the country's malbecs so memorable.
Malbec is one of the lesser Bordeaux grapes, but here it is the star. Think of a truly elegant style of cabernet sauvignon, coupled with the softer tannins of merlot and the spicy coffee and tobacco notes of cabernet franc, and you have a fair handle on malbec.
Alcohol levels rarely reach 14 percent, and except in a few instances, where the producers overreach, the grapes are neither raisiny nor slathered in new oak. Wines from the higher-altitude elevations incorporate a gravelly minerality. They have sharper acids and more delicate fruit, yet bring a lovely precision and focus to the wine.
To summarize: Don't expect to find jammy, California-style fruit. These wines are more austere, constrained. The cheaper ones may sometimes be earthy, tannic and slightly green; the best are graceful, tart, spicy and laden with rock. They are quite versatile but will taste best with grilled meats; Mexican, Italian and Cajun dishes; and creamy cheeses.
Here is a mixed case of my favorites, arranged in order of preference, with the name of the local distributor in parentheses.
Tomero 2005 Malbec; $13. The fruit is intense, with a spicy flavor of clove cigarettes. The new oak is evident but not intrusive. (Unique)
Finca Sophenia 2006 Malbec; $14. Cherry liqueur over rock; this is a powerful, beautifully made wine. Michel Rolland consults. (Pacific Rim)
Tahuan 2005 Malbec; $20. This is a satiny, sophisticated wine with a complex mix of ripe berry fruits, gravelly stone, cut tobacco, baking spices and slightly earthy tannins. (Unique)
Altas Cumbres 2006 Malbec; $10. (Pick of the Week.)
AltoSur 2006 Malbec, $10. Racy and loaded with minerality; the fruit, though light, tastes like sweet cherry candy, delicious, delicate and lasting. A lovely bottle. (Pacific Rim)
Nandu 2006 Malbec; $15. Classy stuff, packing lots of sweet spice and cinnamon toast around the tart, cranberry fruit. (Noble)
Melipal 2005 Malbec; $20. Dark and juicy, with lots of tart, tangy berry, cassis, whiffs of smoke and finishing flavors of astringent rock, sweet toast and tobacco. (Cordon)
Mayu 2005 Malbec (San Juan); $13. Loaded with black cherry, blackberry and blueberry flavors, stiffened with bright acids and astringent tannins. (Cascade Trade)
Andeluna 2005 Winemaker's Selection Malbec; $13. This is a fleshy, sophisticated, fruit-powered wine. Consultant Michel Rolland pushes the fruit forward and pulls the acids back and, of course, shows plenty of toasty new oak. (Unique)
Punto Final 2006 Malbec; $13. Chewy, tannic and substantial with dark fruits, bitter chocolate, coffee bean and suggestions of clove. (Noble)
Tapiz 2005 Malbec; $16. This has pretty fruit flavors; the berries and cherries are mixed with tropical fruits. (Cordon)
Altos Las Hormibas 2006 Malbec; $10. Lightly spicy, tasting of cranberry and raspberry, clean and refreshing; like a lighter style zinfandel, with a high-toned, lifted finish. (Elliott Bay)
Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines and Wineries The Essential Guide." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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