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Malbec, Dark Horse of Argentina

Written By Sheri Varasdi On November 17, 2010

Note from Scott: I’d like to introduce Michelle Widmer. [Flog, Michelle; Michelle, Flog.] Michelle will be writing about wine here. Michelle is currently employed as the Lobby Lounge supervisor at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes Resort, Orlando.  She graduated from Rollins College in December, 2009 with a B.A. in Humanities and Writing.  A self-professed “beer snob” and  10 year veteran of the beer and wine industry, Michelle’s real interest and education in wine did not begin until April of 2008, when she began working for Eola Wine Company.  Since then, Michelle has continued to increase her love of and passion for all things libation.  In April, 2010 she completed the Introductory Sommelier Course under the Court of Master Sommeliers, just one month before a near-fatal car accident claimed her right arm and put her on a long and arduous road to recovery.  While Michelle’s career goals may have been set back a few months, she is thrilled to still have the opportunity to explore the two things she loves the most, writing, and of course, wine.


Michelle Widmer

For many, fall is the quintessential season of sports.  After all, in America, no other sport and holiday intertwine quite like football and Thanksgiving. And if you’re a sports-lover on the lookout for a stellar vacation, Mendoza, Argentina may have landed on your map. While it may not be seasonally ideal to visit Mendoza during the American fall season, if hot weather is your thing, then you’re in luck.  It’s summer over there. The adrenaline junkie has his pick of poisons, ranging from parasailing, to white water rafting, mountain biking, hang-gliding, hiking, skiing, and even wilderness survival.

On the other hand, if the only survival you’re into is surviving a hangover, then in Mendoza, your goblet will hath runeth over. Anyone who has recently perused the wine aisle at the local grocery store or wine warehouse will tell you that Argentinean wine seems to be gaining more face time on the supermarket shelves. More specifically, wines from the region of Mendoza are becoming increasingly hip, and even more specifically, malbecs from Mendoza are making their mark.

As one of the five varietals used in blending the great red wines of the Bordeaux region, malbec’s role in wine history used to be that of supporting actor.  Rich in body, color, and tannins, malbec is often added to merlot or cabernet sauvignon-based wines to add depth and complexity.  In fact, when grown in the southwest region known as Cahors, malbec’s thick skin and deep, dark color earned it the nickname “the black wine of Cahors.”  While vinifying malbec on its own is not unheard of in this region, malbec’s star shines brightest when grown on its own roots in the “desert oasis” of Mendoza.  It is here where the terroir nurtures the malbec grape and helps it achieve its fullest potential. Melted snow run-off provides irrigation, the dusty soil keeps phylloxera at bay, dry winds prevent mildew from forming, and three hundred days of sunlight give malbec the time it needs to ripen.  

So why malbec and why now?  Until very recently, the wines coming out of not just Argentina, but its South American neighbors, Chile and Uruguay, (no kidding,) were affordable but not quite fleshed out in quality and identity.  But South American wine makers have been doing anything but resting on their lees.  While the 90% in-country consumption rate satiated the locals’ thirst, Argentinean vintners needed to up their game if they wanted to succeed in the competitive wine market.  So they did just that. Winemakers not only recognized they had a good thing, they kept their focus on perfecting their product and embraced malbec as Argentina’s star. In the past decade, Mendoza has all but become synonymous with malbec, solidifying it as the varietal dark horse of Argentina, despite the varietal’s French roots—pun entirely intended. 

It’s precisely the novice hand of the South American vintner that has kept theses wines so affordable until now.  But what is known for sure is that it is not the ingredients that weren’t working, it was the chemistry vintners needed to master in order to turn out the perfect product.  And they’re getting close. They’re getting really close. malbec’s star is rising and so is its price point. It isn’t unusual these days to find at your favorite posh eatery a Mendoza malbec or Chilean carmenere on the menu, rubbing labels with the ubiquitous California cabs, French Bordeaux, and Willamette pinot noirs of past and present fame. And why not?  While malbec indeed boasts big, ripe fruit, the medium body style, velvety tannins, and balanced complexity of Mendoza’s malbecs make it a fine accompaniment to food, such as roasted meats, spicy food, and anything high in acid like Italian and tomato-based dishes.

The “El Felino” Vina Cobos 2009, for example, expresses characteristics quintessential to its breed.  But watch out, the 14.9% A.B.V. demands that you pour, and then let it rest.  The color is a lovely plum shade, and once the nose blows off, ripe black fruits lead with black cherry as their captain, followed by smoked meat, warm vanilla custard, (French and American oak age went into this bottle,) and finally, black pepper. Finish is moderate-to-long, but smooth and velvety, just as expected. You can give it a whirl at Eola Wine Company for $12 a glass or $48 a bottle.  Pair it with the duck flatbread ($14) if you’re in the mood for complimentary rich and sweet, or let the wine’s warm vanilla spice and juicy fruits contrast the savory earthiness of the steak flatbread instead ($14).

Considering the success of malbec’s sales in the U.S. alone, it should come as no surprise that Argentina is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world.  And of course it’s not only malbec and Argentina that are responsible for South America’s oenological uprising. Several stellar varietals are making their way to the foreground from this continent as well, making not only the wine, but also the rivers and mountains, the history, culture, people, and extreme sports cause for a visit no matter what your desire.  After all, nothing makes the wilderness more survivable than a good, quality bottle of wine.


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