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No matter where Malbec goes, there Malbec is

Argentina is the world's fifth-largest producer of wine. Surprised? Me, too. That may be because the Argentineans have traditionally consumed the lion's share of their own wine - wine that one authority called "rough and ready, sweet and tannic, plentiful and cheap." We wouldn't have wanted it anyway.

All of that is changing. As a result of both improved winemaking techniques and the need for foreign currency, more Argentinean wine is appearing on American shelves. One signature grape worthy of our attention is Malbec. Although generally thought of as a "softening" grape for the cabernet blends of Bordeaux, "in Argentina, Malbec can broach magic," says critic Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible.

Most of the wines I tasted came from the country's premier wine-producing region, Mendoza, in the Andean foothills. It's therefore not surprising that there's a similarity in profiles, especially in the under-$15 price range. Blackberry looms large, along with its brambly component, and cassis and blueberry make cameo appearances. In general, the variations were subtle, with the exception being the 2002 Navarro Correas Gran Reserva Mendoza, which pulled out all the stops - from leather and licorice to black cherry and black pepper - suggesting that in order to experience magic, you have to spend a little more money. Say $22. So, what's new?

In no particular order, here's what happened:

The Navarro Correas Mendoza Malbec 2003 Limited Release is Gran Reserva's baby brother, with hints of coffee, ripe blackberry, and black cherry. The 2003 Famiglia Bianchi San Rafael Mendoza had a more intense coffee flavor and a longer finish than most. The Doña Paula Estate Malbec 2003 Mendoza was big on jammy blackberry and caramel. More blackberry characterized the Don Miguel Gascon 2003 Malbec Mendoza, which was restrained to begin with but ultimately showed more black fruit and a little cedar.

Tasting in Riedel glassware might have emphasized the ripe blackberry and cassis in the young and short-finished 2004 Alamos Malbec Mendoza. Riedel might also have pointed out the shortcomings in the 2003 Valentin-Bianchi Elsa San Rafael Mendoza; it was spicy and soft but not much more. And Norton's Malbec 2002 Mendoza Reserve was already beginning to fade, but showed smoke, cooked coffee, berry, and cola.

Moving north from Mendoza, the Graffigna 2003 San Juan was restrained from the start and finally revealed earthy blackberry notes; open this one well ahead of serving. The 2002 Don Rodolfo Viña Cornejo Costas from the Cayfayte Valley even farther to the north? Yup, briery and a little hot, but still showing big cassis and many layers of fruit.

Desperately wanting to try something different, I tasted a Chilean Malbec. Sadly, it was corked so no evaluation was possible. The Clay Station 2003 Malbec from Lodi in California had the potential to be really different, but it tasted of blackberry, blueberry, and maybe a little cocoa. Apparently, Malbec is stubborn enough to keep its character no matter where it's grown.

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