Malbec World Day by David Lawrason

Promoting the malbec grape of Argentina

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

Every grape, it seems, has its day. Malbec World Day on April 17 is a recent phenomenon to promote the malbec grape of Argentina. This late ripening variety is actually from southwest France (Cahors) but the hot, even climate on the high steppes of Mendoza has given it a perfect home, and malbec is now a household name in North America and South.

Indeed it has achieved a formidable presence in the Canadian market; fulfilling predictions that it would be “the next big thing” – like Australian shiraz. But as shiraz has gone through a downturn in mass market affection, might malbec be experiencing the same thing? Or, put another way, has malbec already had its day?

I was in my local store in Toronto on the weekend checking out how much malbec is available. There is a ton. When you go to WineAlign and search Malbec-Argentina-All Prices you will find a whopping 64 brands in current inventory at the LCBO. Similarly there are 65 showing in British Columbia. But a look at the small print on the price tags showed that many of the brands in the LCBO’s Vintages stores are showing release dates of weeks or months ago, especially if they are more expensive.

And I noted something else – many of the labels were unfamiliar, even to one who follows such things more closely than the average punter. It’s as if, at one point, Vintages just threw out a net and imported any malbec that wanted to be exported – whether good or not. So without my WineAlign iPhone app allowing me to check out my own reviews I wouldn’t know what to buy either.

I do enjoy malbec when I want a big, swarthy red. Barbecue season is such a time, and it’s no co-incidence that most Argentines drink malbec with their ubiquitous slabs of grilled and heavily smoked beef. And I like it a lot when it shows off its lovely floral, blackberry fruit unencumbered by too much oak, alcohol, meatiness or stemminess.

But I do find lower priced malbec rather homogenous, and many are heavy, coarse and unbalanced. This is partially because many are released too soon. Australia seemed able to get away with releasing very young shiraz that was more or less in balance – the syrah grape is inherently softer – but young, inexpensive malbec is not quite as affable or quaffable.

On the other hand, more expensive malbecs, although showing better complexity and depth of flavour, often don’t seem all that different in flavour profile or balance. And high alcohol can continue to be a problem.

So how to spot the good ones? I am looking at two things.

First, I am finding more elegance and floral lift in malbecs from higher altitude Uco Valley at (900 to 1200 metres). The recently developed region is a sea of vines up against the Andes, with one flashy new winery after another that makes it feel like Napa, at least in terms of its energy. In particular I am looking at the labels for mentions of some of the best sub-regions like La Consulta, Altamira, Vista Flores and Tunuyan and especially the highest region called Gualtallary near Tupungato. These ‘appelations’ are no yet official but they are beginning to appear on labels.

Second, I am looking for certain producers that I have come to know and respect. With so many producers (Argentina has over 2000 wineries) this is a slow process; but having visited there late in 2011 and paying attention since then, my go to list is developing. And I share it with you for Malbec World Day, with links to some of my favourite wines still on the shelf.

Altocedro Reserva Malbec 2009Altamira De Los Andes Reserve Malbec 2009Altamira De Los Andes Reserve Malbec 2009

This is made entirely from grapes grown in La Consulta and Vista Flores, two sub-regions of higher altitude in the Uco Valley. And it catches the floral charm I have come to expect of these regions. Lavish blackberry, violet fruit is nicely couched in moderated oak, vanillin and black licorice. It’s thick. elegant, sweetish and young with some alcohol kick, but essentially well composed, and excellent quality. Tasted February 2013.

Altocedro Reserva Malbec 2009

From the southern and higher reaches of the Uco Valley in La Consulta, this dark malbec has a lovely nose of mulberry, violets, chocolate and a hint of meatiness. It’s full bodied, smooth and very rich, with fine-grained tannin and considerable alcohol heat. Quite luscious with smoked meat finish. Excellent length. Best now to 2016. Tasted July 2012.

Versado Malbec 2010Cicchitti Edición Limitada Malbec 2008Angulo Innocenti Malbec 2010Versado Malbec 2010

Versado is small, new Canadian-owned winery in Argentina, with Niagara’s Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble at the winemaking helm. They have wrought some complexity here that’s often missing in malbecs at this price – combining woodsy, leathery notes amid the ripe berry-dried fig fruit. It’s medium-full bodied, fairly dense and refined, with some drying tannin. The length is very good. Tasted March 2013.

Cicchitti Edición Limitada Malbec 2008

This is very deep ruby-purple-black. The nose is generous, sweet and very ripe with mulberry, vanilla, coffee/chocolate and pepper. It’s full bodied, sweet, creamy and thick, with a tarry, smoky finish. Excellent length. It has great curb appeal, but Euro fans will find it too sweet. Tasted November 2012.

Angulo Innocenti Malbec 2010

La Consulta is a higher altitude sub-region at the upper end of the Uco Valley, expressing a somewhat more floral aroma and more delicate feel in this example. It is still very deep black-purple colour. It has a lovely floral fragrance with blackberry and gentle wood spice. It’s quite thick but not heavy with some woodsy tannin and pepper on the finish. Very good to excellent length. Fine now or over the next three years while the fruit is in bloom. Tasted March 2013.

Benmarco Malbec 2009Bodega Séptima Séptimo Día Malbec 2011Bodega Séptima Séptimo Día Malbec 2011

Septimo is owned by Spain’s famed cava producer Codorníu. It’s 135 hectares of vineyards are located in the Agrelo and Uco Valley.Young winemaker Paula Borgo has the reins at a state of the art winery. The result here is a rather vivacious, intense and almost racy malbec, whereas many are heavy and plodding. But that is not to say it is light because there is good weight and density and excellent length. The flavours are intense with very ripe currant-cherry fruit, very generous tarry, smoky oak and some of malbec’s florality. The length is excellent, the finish warm and a touch youthfully gritty. Lots here for $16; but I would give it a year for tannin to soften and oak to integrate. Tasted April 2013

Benmarco Malbec 2009

This has a very good stuffing, colour and fruit density – easily worth the money. It’s only lacking a bit of tension to put it over 90 – slightly low acidity with a touch of over-ripeness. Otherwise, enjoy the generous plummy, violet and chocolate aromas and flavours. It’s medium-full bodied, supple and rich with fine tannin. Very good to excellent length. Best 2012 to 2015. Tasted November 2011.

For more information on Malbec World Day you can visit the official Website, follow the activities on #MalbecWorldDay on Twitter, or see if there are still tickets to the VINTAGES event tomorrow night in Toronto.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine