Malbec, a backup or a star?

As I headed to Mendoza, I was haunted by a couple of sentences Eric Asimov recently wrote from a Wines of the Times tasting panel on Malbec:

“…words came readily enough to sum up the tasting — two-dimensional, narrow-gauge, simple. Nothing wrong with those words, but not very many thrills among them.”

Chilling stuff for the traveler to Malbec Country! I didn’t really understand what “two-dimensional” meant but it certainly sounded like damning with faint praise. When I was on the ground, I put the question to Manuel Louzada, winemaker at Domaine Chandon. His reply came with a sketch on his tasting mat, which I attempted to recreate here:

Essentially he said he could understand such a criticism because Malbec has a good attack and very good midpalate while it trails off at the finish. (If you think an attack is a military or a soccer term you’d be right; in wine tasting it also means how the wine tastes when it first enters your mouth—besides wet).

The other various arcs show the profile of other grapes. Tempranillo (blue, above) has a good attack, weaker midpalate, and a strong finish. Cabernet (red) has a similar arc he suggested but not quite as much on the attack. Syrah (yellow) has a broad midpalate but is kind of weak on the attack and the finish. Pinot Noir (green) has a finish that goes on and on—when done right.

This explains why some of the most expensive wines from the region are blends. The $70 Cheval des Andes 2003 (find this wine), perhaps my favorite of the big boy “grand cru” wines I tasted in Mendoza, is a blend of Malbec and Cab to give it a full style. Paul Hobbs added 5 percent Cab to his $100 Magadalena Toso (find this wine). And the $85 Nicolas Catena Zapata 2002 (find this wine) is a 72-28 blend of Cab and Malbec. This makes sense since Malbec has traditionally been a blender in Bordeaux and the Loire. Looking at the graphic above, a blend of the red and the black lines hits all the highs.

“The force of the Cabernet is softened by the Malbec,” José Galante winemaker at Catena said. “We make the best wine that we can in the Nicolás Catena Zapata.”

The various vineyard sites also have different tasting arcs for the same variety Galante said (see my notes on tasting Menodoza’s terroir). He works to blend those and give the single varietal wines more heft and character.

But what about Malbec on its own? “Malbec is sexy, it seduces,” said Manuel Louzada of Chandon. Indeed, this traditional backup singer is ready for a starring role. The prolonged growing season for the grapes in this high desert, which can have 50 percent more growing days than cool Bordeaux, makes the tannins in the Malbecs from Mendoza sweet and approachable. For white wine fans who object to the dryness or mouth-chomping tannins in Cabernet, reach for a Malbec from Argentina and you will not only have a wine that is easy on the palate but also easy on the wallet. If Malbec wines are two-dimensional, then the world is flat.

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25 Responses to “Malbec, a backup or a star?”

  1. Reminds me of a dinner four years ago when someone didn’t like Malbec….Glad to see you are on board with it and a fantastic white grape from Argentina!

  2. One of my favorite malbecs is Alamos from Catena. For only 7-8 bucks you get some quality wine that is excellent for pizza or grilled meats. I also like Norton and Terrazas de los Andes… Great QPR wines.

  3. I agree…Malbecs from Argentina are so different from those produced in Cahors – so much more approachable and enjoyable. I have had good experiences with Finca Flichman…see
    Great blog, cheers!

  4. Malbec is for people that have no taste for good wine. Is a wine mostly for woman, who enjoy a smoother taste in my opinion.

  5. HF…that was funny, though a bit overreaching. It was my sister that introduced me to Malbec. I enjoy tasting a single grape wine against one blended with that same grape.

  6. Sorry Diablito, Alamos is one of the worst Malbecs out there. Having tasted many in Mendoza I have a vairety of the good ones shipped directly to me. I like the Cab blended with it too.

  7. It seems like Mr. Henry Farritor has not tasted the right Malbecs, or perhaps he is not open to wines from the new & upcoming regions that are eating away at the market share of traditional producer countries… or both??

  8. We have just returned from Mendoza, primarily tasting Malbec. We love its spicy taste, and dark purple color. Some of our favorites were the Rutini, (also good with a 50/50 blend with Cabernet Sauvignon), Salentein, Altus and Catena…much better the first and second grades(usually aged longer in French oak). I agree that Los Alamos is a poor representative of Malbec.

  9. Malbec is, in my opinion, a serious variety by itself. In Australia it can produce a velvety wine with some awesome plummy and spicy fruit characters. I dont think that all reds should have aggressive tannins. Sometimes one just likes a soft approachable wine that needs neither prolonged cellaring or food

  10. You know, i just bought a bunch of $25 2005 red bordeaux, and a bunch of recent $15 malbecs from argentina; and bottom line, the malbecs win in a straigth-up comparison.

  11. Yeah, I think “HG” hit the mark, I love wine anytime and heavy tannins are to me a turn off. I think Malbecs are a great alternative, especially to people like me who enjoy wine for it’s substance…alone…If I hear another person telling me to look at the glycerin, I’ll puke! Lol

  12. Then again, I’m listening to Tom Petty and having a Pabst Blue Ribbon.

  13. The Malbec grape is one of the classic Bordeaux varietals that fell out of favor in France and found a home in Argentina. In the western province of Mendoza with arid, sunny growing conditions, few natural pests and abundant irrigation water, Malbec has blossomed into a dense red wine loaded with fruit flavors that has tremendous appeal to American tastes. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that Argentina got serious about producing higher-quality wines that could compete in the world market.

  14. you should try Luigi Bosca’s Malbec, great agentine wine!

  15. Let me suggest 2 greats malbecs from wineries located in the Mendoza area: Tempus Alba and Alta Vista.

  16. Clos Triguedina Cahors– was there in July and tasted wines from 1998 until present. Different levels from Intro, Clos Triguedina, New Black Wine, Prince Probus. Baldes is an incredible winemaker and the wines show this. Some are for early drinking and others for the long term. I’m enjoying these more than many bordeaux. Very interesting and complex wines. Not as fruity as the S. American, but IMO much moe interesting. Anyone who is not trying malbec is missing something indeed.

  17. hi, first to be said, i’m from mendoza, living somewhere else, far from the sunny, dry, hot weather. That one, with the huge thermical difference between day and night, that gives you a break during the summer. The amazing andes behind and the just-melted-ice water… i’m not a tiny grape, but i think, that’s a beautiful place to became wine

    I don’t know much about wine, i just enjoy it.
    And I cannot think about something, like an utopian, “multi-porpoise” wine. I think, that each moment, has its own.
    I cannot figure myself sitting on a nice sofa, with soft light, some jazz background, a cigar, and a malbec in my right hand.
    But I do can see me, sitting in a nice table, full of beloved people and “carne asada”, with many opened malbec bottles around.
    I see malbec and asado (and many other meals), as the perfect couple. The former, cleans the tongue in the most beautiful non-possessive way, letting the meat to taste always, like the first bite… and that’s enjoyable

    long life to “mendocinian” malbec and “los asados” themselves!

  18. At some point you should try one of Argentina´s truly cult wines: Viña Alicia
    Brote Negro : 120year-old vines Malbec
    Nebbiolo: One of the few in Lat Am
    “Cuarzo” – Petit Verdot7Grenache/Carignan blend
    “Morena” – 5 clones of Cab, 2 of Cab Franc
    TIARA – Albariño/Riesling/Savagnin blend

  19. I am a wine lover, I am from Paris and I think that Malbec is a type of red that is most defenetely for people that does not know wine. Is very smooth, easy to say good wine if you cant taste anything complex.

  20. I’m surprised there are so many haters here of Malbec. As if we’ve never had an overly simplistic Cab before, or a Chard for that matter. Just because there is hype doesn’t mean it should be looked down upon, necessarily.

  21. Put it in context. Go to one of the many open-air steakhouses at the outskirts of Buenos Aires. All you can eat steaks from the free-range cattle of the pampas, washed down with all you can drink Mendoza Malbec, and happy portenos all around. Worth the price of the ticket!

  22. As an american , I understand why french people hate Malbec… it is their worst competition!!!!!

  23. I’ ve never been to Argentina and I am planning a trip only to try Malbec!

  24. I am a huge fan of Malbec wines. I love the deep, rich flavors. Give me some nice dark chocolate and a glass of Malbec and I am a happy guy.

  25. […]  Other tips include Treat Yourself and Have Fun.  I love lists that include that kind of stuff. Dr. Vino:  This is an old post on Malbec from 06 but the graphic reproduction (presumably done on Microsoft […]


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