Side By Side: 2012 Tinto Negro Malbec x2

7 10 2015

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

Malbec vs. Malbec.  Mendoza Civil War.

Malbec vs. Malbec. Mendoza Civil War.

Forgive me if you’ve heard me say this before, but:  comparative tastings are the best.  You can learn a lot about wine by taking your time over a single bottle, properly assessing what’s inside and picking out colour and smell and flavour notes common to a country, region or grape.  You can learn way more about wine by doing this to two similar bottles at the same time, with almost the same characteristics, but for a single isolated variable:  same wine, different vintage; same producer, different grape; same grape, different country.  You pick up a whole bunch of what makes them the same, but you can also focus on the impact that primary thing that makes them different and see firsthand the tremendous effect that every single input going into a wine has on the finished product.  You learn from both the commonalities and the distinctions.  Plus you end up with two open bottles of wine, which generally always leads to a good night.

In this case, the similarities are massive and the differences apparently slight, but the impact remains noteworthy.  These two bottles are from the same producer (Tinto Negro, founded by the ex-vineyard manager and wine education director of renowned Argentinian winery Bodega Catena Zapata), the same country (Argentina), the same grape (Malbec), the same vintage (2012) and even the same region (Mendoza, Malbec’s New World spiritual home nestled in the foothills of the Andes).  However, the first bottle, the 2012 Tinto Negro Mendoza Malbec, is an entry-level regional bottling, and the second bottle, the 2012 Tinto Negro Uco Valley Malbec, is from the next quality tier up, a sub-regional bottling from the Uco Valley sub-zone in southwestern Mendoza.  Apart from their divergent price points, you might have a hard time differentiating them in the store, but does this little sourcing difference make a difference?  When you taste them side by side, oh yes.

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First, the production details.  The 2012 Mendoza Malbec is a 15,000 case offering from vineyards at 3,100 feet in elevation, heights that would seem ludicrous almost anywhere but Argentina.  The bottle label says that it received “light” oak aging, which I initially guessed to mean 3-6 months in used oak barrels, and so it was:  6 months in a combination of French and American oak, 10% new.  I don’t have exact retail pricing, but would expect it to clock in somewhere in the extreme-value range, $10 to $15.

Mendoza Stelvin Rating:  6/10 (No adornment, but nice colour.)

Mendoza Stelvin Rating: 6/10 (No adornment, but nice colour.)

In contrast, the 2012 Uco Valley Malbec is a more limited 4,000 case production, from vineyards somehow even higher up in the atmosphere, at 4,000 feet.  A sub-regional designation usually indicates a higher quality wine than a general regional designation, since sub-zones are usually created to recognize special or more desirable areas within a larger region while general regional wines can source from inside or outside of these preferable spots.  The Uco Valley got 9 months in oak instead of 6, and in all French oak barrels (which tend to impart more restrained, subtle and integrated oak flavours than American oak), still only 10% new.  The extra oak time and better grapes result in a higher price tag, but still only in the $15 to $20 range.

“Tinto Negro” literally translates (from Spanish) to “black wine”, intended as a nod to Mendoza Malbec’s deep dark colour.  Both wines try hard to earn their negro reputation:  the base Mendoza Malbec is a near-opaque dense ruby-purple colour, but it is dwarfed by the deeper, less glossy, more soul-sucking black-purple of the Uco Valley Malbec, a dominating hue with almost no visible thinning even at the rim.  However, both wines deviate a bit from the black theme on the nose, with the Mendoza taking a brighter and prettier tack, billowing typical crowd-pleasing Malbec aromas of blueberry and vanilla, and anise, black jujubes and graham crackers, rounded out by a slight citrus twang.  The Uco’s cooler climate and more targeted growing area results in more complexity and character in the wine, which manifests in additional savoury, smoky, even dank aromas of diesel oil, char, cedar, blood and spent matchstick on top of the grapey blue fruit and confection of its sister bottle — not as sweetly pleasant a nose, but way more interesting.

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Now that you’ve heard “sweetly pleasant” and “dense ruby-purple” and “crowd-pleasing” about the base Mendoza Malbec, you’re probably thinking that it’s a massive fruit bomb on the palate with little restraint or nuance.  Surprisingly, however, it was just medium-bodied and felt almost light-footed on the tongue, lush and juicy without being hefty.  The expected black fruit and cocoa powder was there, but was joined by daintier pomegranate, herbaceous tomato leaf and mineral rock dust, which pull back on the overall flavour explosiveness but in exchange make it possible to drink more than a glass at a time without tiring out the senses.  The Mendoza finishes a touch jagged, but overall punches well above a sub-$15 price point.

Uco Stelvin Rating:  1/10  (Plain black.  Come on.)

Uco Stelvin Rating: 1/10 (Plain black. Come on.)

The Uco Valley really separates itself on the palate, with a much fuller, silkier body and much more prominent structure, largely from stealthily grippy tannins that rear up right as you swallow.  It’s much darker in flavour too, a true Tinto Negro, with a veritable blackout of tasting notes:  blackberry, blackcurrant, pavement, peppercorns, pot roast and violets.  The sweet still exceeds the savoury — it is still Argentinian Malbec, after all — but the contrast and combination elevates this bottle beyond value heights.  Would I have noticed this as much if I didn’t have the entry-level bottle open right beside?  I doubt it.  Next time you want to dive deeper into a wine, open two.

2012 Tinto Negro Mendoza Malbec

87- points

$10 to $15 CDN

2012 Tinto Negro Uco Valley Malbec

89+ points

$15 to $20 CDN

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