Malbec Maelstrom, Part II: Malbec World Day

17 04 2021

By Raymond Lamontagne

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

Happy Malbec World Day! Hopefully you read Peter’s review of the first seven bottles of this 14-bottle bacchanal, so that you are up to speed on this day’s origins. I’m certainly ready to do my part. I unabashedly enjoy Argentinian Malbec, even if in some examples I can struggle with its ubiquity, its oft-simplistic bent toward pure hedonism, and (said another way) its purple Popsicle crowd-pleasing “Golden Retriever of wine” stylings. Crack a frown once in a while, will ya? Still, Argentina is rife with high altitude wine regions where true greatness is possible. I would propose that much potential remains to be realized, particularly as some middle path between confectionary and brooding smoke is hewn. Today, though, we can and should celebrate what a decidedly unique wine culture has already delivered. I don’t think the vintners in Argentina who decided to take a chance on these extremely inclement sites ever dreamed that international superstardom was possible. Or that Malbec would be the vehicle to get them there.

Malbec likely originated in Cahors, where it goes by the name “Cot”. Apparently the “black wines” from this region, an obvious reference to Malbec’s intense colour, were sometimes used to add pigmentation and body to the wines of Bordeaux, at least until Cot itself made the jump to that famous region in the late 1800s. The handle “Malbeck” apparently refers to a vintner who wound up cultivating the grape throughout the Medoc region of Bordeaux. A half-sibling of Merlot, Malbec (which at some juncture lost the “k”) is a vigorous vine that can easily yields large crops of relatively watery berries, particularly when clones are selected for such productively, a feature that according to Stephen Brook led to Malbec’s drastic decline as a Bordeaux variety. Fear not, however. Malbec was introduced to Argentina by French agricultural engineer Michel Pouget in 1868, where is yielded smaller, tighter clusters of berries than in Bordeaux. Pouget seemed to have chosen better clones, or at the very least Argentina’s extreme viticultural climate was just what was needed to resurrect Malbec into the dark-fruited, violet-scented, slightly gamey wines we can enjoy today. As I write this, it is 8:00 am here in Calgary. What can I say? I’m thirsty, and it’s Malbec World Day.

2019 Los Cardos Dona Paula Sauvignon Blanc (~$14): We begin not with a Malbec but with another international superstar that found its fame elsewhere in the southern hemisphere. Doña Paula is one of the largest producers of Sauvignon Blanc in Argentina, where the prime directive is to protect the grapes from excessive heat. Altitude always helps here, but Doña Paula also blends grapes from Mendoza sub-regions such as Tupungato and Ugarteche in the southern part of Luján de Cuyo, where the soils are deeper and cooler and there are wide diurnal variations in temperature. All these factors preserve fresh acidity in the finished wine. The grapes are harvested early in the morning to help them remain cool and avoid oxidation. Fermentation occurs with selected yeasts, and the finished product is bottled unoaked, with no malolactic to soften any acidic edges. This pours a crystal clear pale lemon. The reductive nose recalls candied lemon rind and kumquats, pineapple weed and apple blossom, passionfruit and coriander seed. A freshly juiced wheat grass vibe drifts around somewhere underneath further prickly lime and grapefruit citrus, gooseberry, and yellow peach. This has a compressed sort of freshness, not as overly tropical or structurally aggressive as many New Zealand examples but still featuring that trademark ripping, jagged Sauvignon Blanc acidity and a kiss of saline white minerals. The barest whiff of green chilli? Workmanlike or a touch better than this, varietally correct and plenty pleasurable. Great value for the price. 87+ points.

Stelvin rating: 4.5/10 (slick logo.)

2019 Los Cardos Dona Paula Malbec (~$14): OK, Malbec time. Doña Paula carries its laudable focus on sustainable viticulture forward to the estate El Alto Vineyard in Ugarteche, at 1,050 meters (3,445 feet) above sea level. The soils range from sandy to clay loam with some stone, providing impoverished conditions that should make the vines work to produce stellar grapes. A cold maceration is used before fermentation starts, ostensibly to preserve fresh fruity aromas, and the wine also undergoes a 10-15 day post-fermentation maceration. I expect much extract here. The tech sheet mentions no oak treatment. This turns out hard to believe given how this wine hits the palate. Medium purple in the glass, this is ultra smoky right out of the gate. Not uncharacteristic of a grape that can be smoky (even without oak), but this certainly brings the smog in spades. Hickory BBQ sauce, old cigars, vanilla extract, and toasty cacao bean wake me up, these dark elements not quite obscuring the ripe blueberry, sugarplum, and black raspberry fruits. This does have some of the distinctive herbal/spicy notes you’d expect (lavender, black pepper, dandelion greens), but these are again rather blurry amidst the smoke. Rather thin-bodied. I’m left feeling that this needs more meat on its bones if all those big smoky notes are to be somehow balanced out. Its like an errant toddler grabbed a black marker and scribbled all over your lovely botanical print that you left out on the table. The darkness carries the day. This would nevertheless be a welcome picnic companion if some BBQ were involved. 86+ points.

2019 El Esteco Don David Reserve Malbec (~$18): The Don David range represents the flagship wines of the Bodega El Esteco estate, named in honour of winery founder David Michel. The Calchaquí Valley is the top-producing wine region in northern Argentina despite representing only around 2% of the country’s vineyards. With a landscape that some compare to the moon, this region couples infertile soils with extremely low rainfall and the expected high altitude diurnal variation to produce naturally low yield of concentrated grapes. Perhaps as a result, these wines seem to claim a disproportionate share of Argentina’s wine awards. Each selection in the Don David range is sourced from high elevation estate owned vineyards throughout the Cafayate Valley sub-region. I adore mountain wines and here my anticipation runs high. This Malbec underwent a 5-hour thin initial maceration to extract additional concentration (this technique appears to be a popular one in Argentina), followed by another week or so of cold maceration in steel tank, and lastly 12 months in cellar enrobed in a combination of French and American oak. This is a prettier and perhaps more clear-cut purple hue than the Los Cardos. The proceedings start rather closed but eventually blossom to reveal tasteful blackcurrant wine gum, black cherry, red plum (!), rubbed sage, sweet tobacco, and vague allusions to black raisins, molasses kiss Halloweens candies, lilacs, and Sharpie marker. The oak is tasteful here, any barrel bombast dialed down in favour of mellow wood char and a vanilla caress rather than a slap. This is a reserve bottle than retains enough “basic” Malbec red-fruited characteristics to add complexity and perhaps delicacy, the end result being a rather subdued yet elegant sip. A suave elemental squire rather than a boisterous smoky djinn. 88- points.

Cork rating: 8/10 (these graphics are freaking great. Perhaps I’m biased because I’m a map nerd.)

2019 El Esteco Don David Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (~$17): Note that we are showcasing not just Malbec but also winemakers here, so please allow a welcome detour into another Argentinian workhorse that has garnered some renown in the Calchaquí Valley: Cabernet Sauvignon. Expect King Cab to show some of its redder, more elegant sides in this extreme environment, although fortunately there is ample sun to ensure good ripeness. This wine seems a similar viticultural regime to the Don David Reserve Malbec, and fortunately wine-making techniques do not obscure varietal differences in the slightest. Trust me, you’d be able to discriminate these two in a blind tasting, testament to a producer’s light touch with great fruit that needs little engineering in order to reveal itself. A deep ruby hue, this is immediately redolent with chocolate-covered Turkish delight, creme de cassis, maraschino cherry, and vanilla wafer, a confected hedonistic bonanza that… morphs. These elements never go away, to be sure, but soon a loamy potting soil wafts in, followed by a burst of Tabasco sauce or chilli paste pyrazines. Here come the high altitude vibes. There is even a little parma violet floral note hovering up top. As was the case for the Malbec, the oaky jacket fits loosely and comfortably, a little coffee bean and chai spice largely hiding in the background but clearly there if one goes looking. The tannins are mouth-coating yet velvety soft. Perhaps where this goes a tad awry is during the finish, which recalls more desiccated jalapeño and old shards of black tea-stained clay pot than the pleasing cassis and black cherry from mid-palate (which itself rings a touch hollow, a known issue with Cabaret varietals). Still, I find myself wholeheartedly along for this particular ride, a more than serviceable companion on a Friday night. 88+ points.

2018 Luigi Bosca Malbec (~$24): We return to the Mendoza desert, and specifically to the Luján de Cuyo, for our final featured producer, Bodega Luigi Bosca. This producer, founded in 1901 by Don Leoncio Arizu, is Argentina’s oldest family owned winery. The Arizu family did something rather cool: they actually created the Luján de Cuyo DO in 1988, affording more stringent regulation of quality than one typically sees in the new world (including a minimal vine age of 50 years old). Rather than just resting on these laurels, the Arizus then obtained biodynamic certification. The stage seems set for a grand finale on this fine Malbec day. This is the entry level bottling, which does not feature the “DOC” designation because some of the grapes hail from the Valle de Uco for additional freshness and colour to compliment the Luján de Cuyo’s ripe tannins, with an average vine age of 35 years. After a cold soak maceration, the grapes are fermented in stainless steel followed by 12 months aging in French oak only. I get this oak on the nose first, cloves, cinnamon stick, and a subtle charcoal briquette note, but a sip reveals that these woody vibes are largely olfactory. The palate is a glut of ripe plums (red and black), blackcurrant, and blueberry preserves, ever so slightly tempered by peppermint patties and orris root. The round ripe tannins meld seamlessly with the fresh acidity. Now this is now you do an entry-level Malbec. It lacks the gratuitous smoke of the Los Cardos but is more assertive fruit-wise than the Don David. 89 points.

2018 Luigi Bosca Terroir Malbec DOC (~$24): Now here is where things get more fine-grained. All the grapes here hail from a single vineyard, the 70 year old estate Finca La Linda site at an altitude of 960 meters. Wine-making techniques do not diverge wildly from those used with the entry-level bottling, perhaps a flourish of additional care here and there along with up to 2 extra months in wood and a further 6 months rest before release to market. The result should be a rather pure expression of a single site courtesy of Argentina’s top grape. As you may have surmised by now, its a pretty deep purple. Just one sniff reveals that the aromas have layers… there’s a black plum and blueberry sweetness front to back, but a graphite and clay pot earthiness near the back, and delightful nutmeg, vanilla bean, and pickling spices right up front. The mouthfeel is silky smooth, round yet long-grained tannins that serve to scaffold Welch’s grape jelly, black raspberry, flat Coca Cola, yerba mate, lilacs (my preferred descriptor for what others experience as violets), and a low grade prune meets carob vibe that helps create a sense of depth typically missing in lesser Malbecs. Is that honest to gosh churros? The label says “red berries”. You know, nope. This is blue and black, at least to this palate, but provides such an elegant translation thereof that perhaps this is rather like red raspberry jam after all, particularly in the long finish. This is equal parts juicy stone fruit bliss and tastefully stark oak, a true Malbec yin-yang in nigh-perfect balance. 90+ points.

Cork Rating: 5/10 (Diams! One 5 and a 10. Yeah.)

2018 Luigi Bosca De Sangre (~$31): We finally conclude with one more non-Malbec. I mean, this torrent of the purple stuff is a lot even on World Malbec… errr.. Malbec World Day. Meet De Sangre, a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Syrah 8%, and 7% Merlot. This is a potentially fun construct, and in theory Syrah (the present Syrah grapes hail from Maipu rather than the Luján de Cuyo) should be capable of some great things in these mountains, no? Syrah is not a huge blending component here, but 8% ought to be enough to make its presence known. The winemaking regime closely resembles that of the Malbec DOC, with all grapes treated the same, except that 30% of the oak is American in provenance. Although I do not think I saved the best for last here, I might have saved the most red-fruited for last. Much redcurrant and dare I say strawberry greets the drinker, the aforementioned raspberry jam, and sure, some darker dewberry and blackberry notes. The oak is a low key chocolate cream pie hum, and the Cab green pepper is largely lost in the maelstrom of fruit leather and Dr. Pepper. It is only later, perhaps after some gustatory habituation, that the black pepper emerges. I keep trying to find something ultra-serious in this wine, and although such elements are present, I keep looping back to things more frivolous. Maybe that’s just what I need in my life at the moment. It is going to be a pleasant afternoon, methinks. Drink some Malbec today. 89+ points.


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