Malbec Maelstrom, Part I: Malbec World Day

15 04 2021

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes]

When somebody sends you 14 bottles of Argentinian wine and instructs you to celebrate Malbec World Day, you pop some corks and celebrate the damn day. This global vinous event, which falls on April 17th (this Saturday), was created by the Wines of Argentina to showcase the country’s signature grape and celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2021. For the first nine of those years, I wrongly thought it was called “World Malbec Day” and I’m still struggling to recalibrate. April 17th was the date the first agricultural school was founded in Argentina back in 1853, the year that Malbec first hit South American shores. Nearly 150 years later, steeped in local history and tradition, it became a sudden massive worldwide hit. Alongside Australian Shiraz, Argentina’s own ex-French showcase export rose from international obscurity to overwhelming commercial renown thanks to its combination of bold, accessible fruity flavours and equally accessible price tags. Argentina exported 128 million litres of Malbec last year, maintaining its status as a world phenomenon.

Note to self: Malbec World Day, NOT World Malbec Day.

Like I did with Shiraz before it, I wonder about Argentinian Malbec’s next act. Its rise has been meteoric, but nothing sustains momentum like this forever, and when the next affordable and approachable varietal trend hits and the spotlight dims slightly, Malbec will have a choice to make. It has captured popular acclaim and is yanked off the retail shelf more quickly than most of its competitors. What does it want to be next? Certain shining examples are testing the limits of quality and identity in Argentina; is that the play, exploring the intricacies of the thrillingly unique altitude-induced mountain climates of Mendoza, or is slaking the thirst of the world at an affordable price a sufficient goal? As a wine-growing region, Argentina has a series of thrilling advantages, from massive diurnal shifts to easy access to extraordinarily old vines; in a world that is constantly seeking out extreme viticulture, for climatic or more adventurous reasons, the country’s entire growing area screams it. What’s it going to do with it? Let’s raise seven glasses of Malbec as we wait to find out, and Ray will bring us home later in the week with another seven.

2018 Alamos Cabernet Sauvignon (~$16): Keen readers will note that this is not, in fact, a Malbec. But don’t worry – the next six are. Alamos is a value label from the pioneering Catena family, who are so central to the Argentina Malbec story that this very occasion might not exist were it not for their efforts. The Cabernet grapes were hand-harvested and cold-soaked before fermentation, and half of the resulting wine was aged in French and American oak for 6 to 9 months before bottling. Largely translucent in the glass, this features a plump and delectable Cab nose of malted chocolate, cassis, warm rocks, celery stalks and fresh mint. It leans out and wobbles a bit on a palate, layering a greener herbal streak of chilli pods and dandelion leaf over graphite and peppery spice, these thinner notes carving out room for dark plummy fruit but leading into a tight finish. Fine for the price point, but Cabernet Sauvignon is so tricky to pull off on a budget. 85+ points

Cork Rating: 6/10; Stelvin Rating: 5/10 (Solid if uninspiring.)

2019 Alamos Malbec (~$16): OK, this is better — immediately more confident, comfortable and collected than its Malbec-less sibling, and benefitting from the intriguing minor blending additions of Cab and Tempranillo (prior editions featured Syrah and Bonarda…it’s a red blending bonanza!). Darker and richer across the board, it emits telltale blueberry aromas surrounded by violets, grape Jolly Rancher and Fig Newton, but all in an effortlessly controlled way. This level of ease carries over to a seamless palate, delivering fruit and freshness without seeming overblown. Everything is dark, from the prevalent black fruits to the licorice, granite and asphalt accents, but the wine is lithe and medium-bodied and impressively balanced, perhaps a touch thin on the finish but otherwise very strong for $16. 87 points

2017 Alamos Selección Malbec (~$20): You’ll notice that the next five wines all feature some kind of reserve-style designation. Legally speaking, they mean nothing in Argentina — you have to travel to the Old World (Spain, Italy) for a “reserva” or similar term to have a specified legal meaning. For Alamos, the “Seleccion” represents the apex of their value-focused lineup, featuring the winery’s top fruit and gifted with extended aging (16-18 months, partially in oak barrels) prior to release, which is why we get to enjoy the top-notch 2017 vintage from Mendoza as opposed to the ’18 or ’19 above. The Seleccion is laughably deeper and denser than either prior Alamos, nearing full-on opaque purple, and launches a barrage of cinnamon hearts and black jellybean to join the peppery blackberry/blueberry jam Malbec chorus. Impressively grippy tannin asserts itself immediately, lending gravitas and presence as well as topsoil and sandpaper savouriness to the more overt creme de cassis, purple Flintstones vitamin and blue Sharpie notes. The focused density carries through and holds until the very threshold of the finish; the fruity intensity seems more effortless, the ripeness more genuine. Well-deserving of its self-created Seleccion status, and easily worth the extra $4. 88 points

2019 Graffigna Reserve Malbec (~$15): I can’t get over stats like this: the Graffigna vineyards in Mendoza and San Juan feature diurnal shifts of 20 degrees Celsius and see over 300 days of sunlight per year (one benefit to planting above the clouds, I suppose). The winery was founded in 1870 and celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, for anyone worried about the depths of Argentina’s Malbec history. There seem to be two overarching styles in this Malbec set, sweet and confectionary or dark and brooding, and this is emphatically the former. The nose is a stroll through a candy store, from Wine Gums to blue cotton candy to pink elephant popcorn (which I am barely old enough to remember) to black Jujubes, all washed down with grenadine. The silky body is fleshy and impressively textured, if a shade light on cleansing acid. The wine beams out bright sweet cassis and blackberry fruit and Malted Milk chocolate bars, but little else in terms of range, and the flavours don’t quite hold through the finish. A happily workable burger wine for $15. 86- points

Cork Ratings: 3/10 & 7/10 (Portrait over landscape text is where it’s at.)

2017 Salentein Reserve Malbec (~$21): Bring on the next Reserve. Like the Alamos Seleccion, this hails from the tremendous 2017 vintage and got some additional maturation time before release. It is very nearly a single-vineyard wine, with 90% of the Malbec grapes hailing from the high-altitude (aren’t they all) El Oasis Estate vineyard in the Uco Valley, located well over 1000 metres above sea level. Its vineyard blending partner is also estate fruit from the Uco Valley, one of Mendoza’s most exciting subregions, and it received a production treatment that in many other countries would be reserved (no pun intended) for much more expensive bottlings: hand-harvesting, gravity-fed fermentation tanks, French oak barrel aging. The Salentein showed its pedigree early. The nose might be the best of this seven-bottle set, a slowly swirling amalgam of pomegranate, pavement, graham cracker, matchsticks and don’t-forget-I’m-Malbec blueberry Pop Tart. Much more mouthfilling than the Graffigna, it calmly holds its anise-and-pepper-tinged ripeness throughout, its coarser sandy tannins saving it from languidity. From a non-critical assessment perspective, this is freaking delicious. It again may be begging for a touch more acid, but the flavours and overall expression are pretty dialled in. If you wanted to try this bottle for yourself with the owner of the winery, you could do so virtually this coming Sunday, April 18th through Willow Park Wines & Spirits – check it out! 87+ points

2018 Terrazas de los Andes Reserva Malbec (~$24): Now for the most expensive bottle of this tasting set, which is a full 38% more expensive than the Graffigna above. Hailing from 20-90 year-old estate vines in Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley, these grapes were also hand-harvested and spent 12 months maturing in tank and neutral French oak. This swings to the confectionary side of the scale at first, from grape Nerds and coke bottle candy to stroopwafels and creme de cassis, but then swings back once the wine hits the tongue, surrounding black cherry fruit with leaner and scratchier sawdust, pen ink, liniment, black pepper, topsoil and something akin to copier toner, or the flavour I would ascribe to the smell “hot photocopier”. Earthiness and sandy tannin carry over into a drying finish. It is almost like two wines in one that don’t fully speak to each other. 86+ points

Cork Ratings: 5/10 & 6/10 (Check out the extra length on the Diam 30! Ratings based on aesthetics not quality, obv.)

2017 Traphiche Medalla Malbec (~$22): I know the focal point of any review is the wine inside as opposed to its container, but I must pause here to note that this bottle of $22 Trapiche was sealed with a top-of-the-line cork-taint-preventing Diam 30 closure, a cork that itself probably costs about $1.50 per unit. The Diam website notes that the pricy 30 is “dedicated to Grand Crus”, and yet here it is, in this value-range offering. I would pay money to hear the story behind how and why this happened. I suspect it may not have been intentional. But I digress. This wine is a monster. Dark, dense and near-opaque, its aroma set would not be misplaced in a far more expensive offering, a polished yet honest mix of cola, tar, dark plum, blackberry and warm pavement. It comes close to being Cahors-like on the attack, smoky and almost dank, featuring heavy notes of char and briquettes and not a lot of leading fruit, showcasing the effects of its 18 months in new French oak. But it mellows and coalesces on day 2 into a compelling example of a grape that sometimes does better when it’s not trying to be overtly pretty. All hail our Malbec champion…maybe the Diam 30 was a good investment after all. 88+ points

WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING

So what have I learned from many days of Malbec leading up to Malbec World Day? Argentinian Malbec is popular because it is approachable and reliable, and because it can show different sides of itself while clearly retaining a singular identity. People know what to expect when they buy it, and it delivers more effectively than most $15-20 bottles currently on a retail shelf. Given the remarkable sites, elevations, history, people and passion of Mendoza and its winemakers, Malbec in Argentina likely also has a higher calling and a higher ceiling, and now has a much more significant platform that it can use to help get there. Happy Malbec World Day to all, and if you could like to join the festivities, there is a literal marathon of virtual tasting Zoom events happening here in Calgary that will let you check out some of these wines for yourselves.


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One response

15 04 2021
Diane

Peter, I suspect you were hungry when you wrote this one, or just had an extra sweet tooth. Love your reviews.

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