Majestic Malbec

A small-time player in its home country of France, Malbec has adopted Argentina
as its true home, producing deliciously elegant wines

You could be forgiven for assuming that because the vineyards of Chile and Argentina lie on either side of the Andes, their wines are somehow similar. Were that wine was so predictable.

Clouds rumble in from the Pacific and either dump their rain on Chile or the high Andes. Hence the vineyards on the eastern, Argentinian side of the mountains are drier. Technically, Mendoza – Argentina’s best-known grape-growing region – is desert territory, entirely dependent on irrigation water supplied by rivers charging down the Andes.

The vineyards of Mendoza are also higher than those of Chile, rising from around 500m to 1,500m. Elevation makes a huge difference. It’s not just that nights are cool, helping the grapes to retain acidity and thus freshness; the luminosity of the sunlight at that level also seems to affect – positively – the intensity of flavour generated by the vines. If Mendoza is essentially a desert, it’s a lofty desert. And other regions of Argentina, such as Cafayate far to the north, are even higher.

Argentina’s varietal calling card is Malbec. The grape itself is a conundrum, given that it seems to produce delicious red wines in Argentina and mostly indifferent ones in its native southwest France, where it is the dominant variety in Cahors. Malbec cuttings were brought to Mendoza in the 1850s. Perhaps it was luck, but it certainly caught on, and by the late 1960s half of all Argentina’s vineyards were planted with Malbec vines. Much of it was grubbed up in the 1980s in a misplaced belief that the market needed more white wines. But an awful lot remains – 16,000ha (hectares), to be precise.

So what defines Malbec, Argentinian style? Carlos Tizio, one of Argentina’s leading viticulturalists, explains: ‘Malbec in Argentina has almost nothing to do with the Malbec of Cahors. It was brought here before phylloxera, so the plant material is very old indeed. After phylloxera, growers in Cahors wanted to improve the variety’s performance, especially its ability to withstand millerandage (a fruit-set problem in which many grapes do not grow to full size). The French may have cured that problem, but they ended up with vines that grew bigger clusters and bigger berries. Argentinian Malbec has small clusters and small berries, which translates into darker, richer, more concentrated wines. In France viticulturalists were interested in obtaining more sugar and less acidity. Here in Argentina we want the reverse.’

Tizio also observes that there is no single strain of Malbec in Argentina. Over the decades, selections were made in the vineyard from vines that gave the best results. Consequently, older Malbec vineyards are quite diverse in their genetic origin. Inevitably, clonal selections of Malbec were made for new, large-scale plantings. Nicolas Catena pioneered clonal research here, planting no fewer than 133 clones, which he whittled down to 17. Among his trial plantings was a French clone of Malbec, and that too emerged with the large berries and clusters that the Argentinians were keen to avoid.

A further defining feature is altitude. In 2003 the Catena winery micro-vinified batches of Malbec grown at different elevations. The batch from the Adrianna Vineyard, planted at 1,450m, was the most opaque in colour, with rich, plummy aromas, and intense fruit and acidity – even though the vines are young. Elevation matters, the Catena team insists, because at higher vineyards the UV radiation is higher, and to protect themselves against it the vines develop more polyphenols.

Yet elevation is not the only factor that helps to determine quality. Manuel Ferrer and Santiago Achaval, at the relatively new Achaval-Ferrer winery, are great believers in aged vines, and have sought out venerable Malbec vineyards, which they either buy or lease. Ferrer recognises that young vines can give impressive results, but he questions whether the wines will be as complex as those produced from old vines. And the theorising doesn’t stop there.

‘Elevation is not the only factor in the flavour profile,’ he maintains. ‘Latitude is important too, so the fruit from Cafayate in the north tends to be different from that grown in Mendoza.’

Even within Mendoza there are striking differences between lower and higher vineyards. In the southern Uco Valley, the grapes can struggle to ripen at over 1,200m. But when they do, the wine has a dark elegance that is quite different from the richer, more swaggering fruitiness of the lower vineyards closer to Mendoza itself. Many wineries blend wines from different regions, making precise distinctions between sub-regions a touch premature.

And the geographic nuances don’t end there. For some time Manuel Ferrer puzzled over the fact that many of the best old Malbec vineyards are planted close to rivers. ‘That seemed more important to the original growers than elevation alone, because the rivers flow through canyons in the Andes, and cold air slips through the gaps. So the old-timers realised that by planting close to rivers, the vines would benefit from cool, fresh nights.’

Against such a challenging backdrop, it’s reasonable to wonder why the early grape farmers, who looked to France for inspiration, settled on Malbec rather than Cabernet Sauvignon. But after extensive tasting in Argentina the reason becomes clear: Cabernet has a longer growing cycle than Malbec and doesn’t always ripen fully. Roberto Cipresso, the Tuscan winemaker for Achaval-Ferrer, believes that Cabernet works best in a blend, rarely excelling as a monovarietal wine.

PURE AND SIMPLE

A good deal of Malbec is vinified as though it were Cabernet. Sometimes this seems a mistake. Youthful Malbec that hasn’t been thrust into batteries of new oak barrels can be a delicious wine, smelling and tasting of damsons, plums and blueberries; tannic but not harsh, and often with invigorating acidity that keeps the wine fresh and makes you reach for a second glass. It’s fruity but there is no need for it to be jammy.

The Californian tendency to pick overripe fruit is generally frowned upon in Argentina. Nor is there any reason to wait for overripeness. In Bordeaux, 45 days usually pass between veraison (when the grapes change colour) and harvest, whereas in dry, warm Mendoza, the gap is about 70 days.

Roberto de la Mota, winemaker at Terrazzas, says: ‘This lengthy growing season is crucial, as the grapes gain a lot of concentration when they’re slowly ripening. But you only really see this effect at over 1,000m. At 800m the grapes ripen three weeks earlier, but the fruit quality is much less complex.’

It seems that Malbec is a variety that is often best left to speak for itself. That way, its succulent fruit is unobscured. But that is not to say that extraction or the use of new oak should be avoided. Concentrated old-vine Malbec can easily stand up to Cabernet-style treatment; it all depends on the intensity of the fruit. Nonetheless, simpler versions of Malbec can be very satisfying, inexpensive wines for quaffing.

One test of a variety’s standing in the hierarchy of quality is its capacity to age. Since Malbec in Argentina was used mainly as a blending grape until around 10 years ago, few people have much experience of aged varietal Malbec. My own tastings suggest that it’s so enjoyable when young that there is little to be gained by cellaring bottles for more than a year or two.

Roberto de la Mota, however, believes that Malbec can age well. ‘But it has to be picked at the right moment. There was a time when growers routinely played safe and picked too early, especially in Mendoza, where hail can be a problem. In the 1990s there was a trend to pick later and later, but that resulted in jamminess. Now we’ve got it about right. There’s a five-day window when Malbec should be picked, a period when the grapes are ripe and the tannins still firm.’

Most wines simply labelled as Malbec are unlikely to be oak aged in their entirety. At the reliable Pascual Toso winery, varietal reds are mostly aged in tank, and about one third is aged for 10 months in French oak. Reserve wines will, however, be entirely aged in barrels. This model is widely followed by many wineries, although the proportion of new oak will vary, and some winemakers may use some American as well as French oak. Basic Malbecs can be excellent everyday drinking, but it’s the reservas that generate the excitement.

Bodega Norton, an estate originally founded in 1895, has had the measure of Malbec for some years. It produces four different bottlings, of which the most interesting are the highly drinkable Barrel Select, and the more distinctive reserva, which comes from very old vines and is aged 18 months in barriques, resulting in a rich, plump wine with powerful tannins.

Terrazas is a more recent venture, founded by the LVMH luxury goods group as an appendage to the Chandon sparkling wine facility in Mendoza. The Malbecs here have a finesse and velvety texture I don’t find in the Norton wines. The Terrazas reserva is aged mostly in French oak, and the 15% American oak is scarcely noticeable. Far more significant is the fact that the grapes come from a 1,060m-high vineyard planted in 1929 in Vistalba. When I asked Carlos Tizio to choose the ideal spot in which to plant Malbec, he didn’t hesitate: Vistalba, just outside Mendoza. The top bottling is the Gran Malbec, aged entirely in new barriques, and though it’s a supple, spicy wine with gorgeous aromas of plums and liquorice, the cheaper reserva runs it close.

The Peñaflor group owns numerous wineries in Argentina, including the venerable property of Trapiche. A new team has been at work here since 2002 and quality is improving fast. Its best Malbec is bottled under the ‘Broquel’ brand, and comes from 80-year-old vines. The nose is intense, an amalgam of violets and oak, and on the palate the wine is supple in texture, but also vigorous and peppery, with good length.

THE PLAYERS

These are all large wineries, though some of the top wines, such as Terrazas’ Gran Malbec, are made in small quantities and only in outstanding vintages. There are also smaller boutique wineries such as Alto Las Hormigas, a project in which Italian oenologist Alberto Antonini and US wine importer Marc di Grazia are involved. Its regular Malbec is fine, but the 2001 reserva is sensational – sweet and elegant, and effortlessly absorbing a hefty dose of new oak.

Achaval-Ferrer is another star performer. The two owners, lawyer Manuel Ferrer and accountant Dr Santiago Achaval, are mad about wine, and have acquired parcels of very old vines, not only Malbec. They pick as late as possible. This means taking risks, which they’re prepared to do to achieve the highest quality. They don’t bother with protective netting against hail damage, and one year a sizeable proportion of the crop was devoured by bees.

It’s the viticulture that makes the difference at Achaval-Ferrer: very old vines cropped to ludicrously low yields, and obsessive sorting at the winery, before and after destemming. There’s a short but hot fermentation, and no excessive extraction. The proportion of new oak varies according to vintage. The top bottling here is Finca Altamira, from a 4ha parcel at La Consulta at 1,100m. It’s a tremendous wine, with a finesse and delicacy that work alongside its power and concentration. It displays raspberry aromas that are unusual for Malbec, and a length of flavour I find unmatched by any other Argentinian Malbec.

Another highly regarded old-vine Malbec is Yacochuya, from a vineyard that dates back to 1915; it’s planted at 2,000m on the slopes overlooking the Cafayate valley. Michel Rolland spotted the vineyard when working as a consultant for Etchart in the late 1980s. The wine was blended with the rest of the Etchart Malbec, until Rolland began bottling it separately in 1989. I find it hard to share the widespread enthusiasm for Yacochuya, which is burly, tannic and very assertive. The 2000 has a ferocious 16% alcohol, which makes it virtually undrinkable; the 1999 is better balanced at 14.5%, but it lacks finesse.

Speaking broadly, however, stylistic diversity is to be welcomed. And there is nothing one-dimensional about Malbec in Argentina. There is a wealth of styles and expressions to be sampled and enjoyed. It’s a variety that works at all levels, from simple glugging wine to rich, boldly flavoured reservas. Argentina is blessed to have such a rich viticultural heritage, as well as a band of winemakers eager to make the most of it.

Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter.