Argentine Value Challenge: Punto Final

4 10 2014

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

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Look closely: Spanish tasting notes!

There’s a lingering question out there that will go a long way in determining the ultimate path of the nascent Argentinian wine industry:  what to go along with Malbec?  That particular Bordeaux transplant has become a global phenomenon up in the foothills of the Andes and the undisputed star of Argentina’s vinous revolution, but there are a number of grapes currently vying for the role of its trusty national sidekick.  For a while it seemed like there was a strong marketing push to obtain Malbec-like acceptance of Argentina’s most unique white, Torrontes; I recently read a Decanter tasting panel that argued forcefully that the country’s recent forays into Cabernet Franc were an absolute revelation and that this underappreciated varietal should assume the silver medal position among Argentinian producers, although the less exciting Bonarda currently occupies that slot in terms of vineyard acres planted.  And of course, there’s always Cabernet Sauvignon, the international behemoth, promising instant recognition and easy sales for anywhere warm enough for it to grow.  In my experience, if an Argentine wine is on the shelves here and it isn’t Malbec, it’s usually Cab.  And while the wine geek in me would love to see Franc seize the day, the realist in me knows that Sauvignon will be pretty tough to displace.

So it’s only fitting that I recently had the opportunity to stack a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Malbec from Bodega Renacer’s value line extraordinaire Punto Final side by side and see how king Cab complemented, supplemented and challenged emperor Malbec in Argentina’s red hierarchy.  Renacer is an Argentinian wine project founded by a Chilean, Patricio Reich, in collaboration with an Italian, renowned globetrotting winemaker Alberto Antonini, the latter of whom is also involved in other South American projects like Altos Las Hormigas (Argentina) and Concha y Toro (Chile) and who previously made wine at Tuscan stalwarts Antinori and Frescobaldi.  The Punto Final name translates into English as “period” (the grammatical symbol), which is mildly ironic, since if you look closely enough at the Punto Final labels, you will see that what initially looks like a random string of letters criss-crossing the entirety of the label is actually a punctuation-free run-on sentence of Spanish tasting notes relating to the wine in the bottle.  A punto final or two there could come in handy.

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Label aesthetics aside, how did the wines fare?  Let’s break it down.

Tale of the Tape

Cab:  2012 Punto Final Cabernet Sauvignon — 90% Cabernet Sauvignon 10% Cabernet Franc, single estate vineyard, 8 months aging in French oak, 14.8% alcohol, $13-$15

Malbec:  2011 Punto Final Reserva Malbec — “Reserva” has no legal meaning in Argentina but here designates a bottle one step up from Renacer’s entry-level Malbec, 10 months aging in French oak, 14.5% alcohol, $21-$23

Colour

Cab:  Deep ruby colour, darkening noticeably at the core but showing clear rust/brick tinges at the rim.

Malbec:  About as purple a wine as I’ve seen all year.  A deep dark violet party.  Very Malbec.

Cab left, Malbec right.  See?  Purple!!

Cab left, Malbec right. See? Purple!!

Nose

Cab:  A pleasantly understated nose, with the expected black fruits and mocha oak tinged with something tangy, savoury and herbal:  green pepper, rhubarb, iodine, sage.  Not a fruit bomb by any stretch, and not what you would expect to smell when presented with “$13, 14.8% abv Argentine Cab”.  Intriguing.

Malbec:  Understated?  Not so much.  This is a rock concert pyrotechnic nose, careening out of the glass with pent-up New World enthusiasm.  Ultra-ripe fruit, almost candied blueberry and blackberry, highlighted by similarly dessert-friendly vanilla, cream soda and cinnamon aromas, and toned down only slightly by a hot-rocks/sauna kind of smokiness.

Palate

Cab:  Pillowy fruit and soft plush tannin, but enough acid to keep things lively. Along with the blackcurrant and the eucalyptus, there’s still that slight (and not unwelcome) bite of green bitterness or herbaceousness, not due to anything being underripe, though maybe due to the Cab Franc minority in the blend.  Whatever the origin, the standard Cabernet Sauvignon flavour profile is accented with dill, poultry herbs, tomato leaf and a Sharpie-esque chemical note.

Malbec:  What you see and smell is what you get with this bottle:  a hedonistic, big, immediately pleasurable modern red.  It’s hard to believe this is actually lower in alcohol than the Cab, and equally hard to believe they were made by the same producer under the same label.  There’s not a non-delicious flavour descriptor in sight:  black licorice, blueberry cobbler, creme brûlée, smoked vanilla.  The lone clear similarity between the two bottles is that they both carry bold and brash fruit on a subtle frame, and yet neither finishes heavy.  The acid on the Malbec is a true saviour and provides the discipline that a wine like this absolutely requires.

Cork Rating:  4/10 (Font/slogan cool, overall OSB feel very uncool.)

Cork Rating: 4/10 (Font/slogan cool, overall OSB feel very uncool. Why is one longer?)

Verdict

Cab:  This is a highly drinkable, impressively complicated wine for $15 or less.  It certainly kept me diving back into the glass trying to figure out what was making it tick.  The primary issue I had with it was that it wasn’t overly “Cab”, if that makes sense.  It could be the 10% Cab Franc that was throwing me off, but I can’t shake the fact that this bottle is a little bit blurry in terms of grape identity.  When dealing with wines lower on the price spectrum, the main thing I look for besides overall balance is whether the wine clearly and accurately reflects the underlying grape(s), and there’s no way I would have pegged this as a Cab on first guess.  I’m still quite happy with the bottle overall for $13ish, but when it’s lined up against a wine that almost couldn’t be anything other than it is, that’s a tough hurdle to overcome.

87- points

Malbec:  This bottle is basically the value Malbec epitomized.  It wears itself on its sleeve, and what it lacks in subtlety it makes up in clarity and exuberance.  To dive into the questionable world of animal metaphors, the Punto Final Malbec is that big friendly golden retriever that runs to the door and jumps up to lick your face when you get home.  The Cabernet is the housecat that will eventually jump onto your bed at night but will hide in the closet for hours before that.  The Malbec delivers exactly what you expect from a $20 Argentinian Malbec, which gives it the slight edge in this bottle battle and reinforces the national industry’s faith in the purity and consistency it can get out of this varietal.

88 points

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