Argentina’s Flagship: Malbec

Great value and increasingly stylistically diverse
by Steve Thurlow

Over the last ten years or so, since malbecs from Argentina started to arrive in quantity in Canada, we have come to appreciate their great value. Moreover, the number of wines and the range of styles continues to grow such that there must be a malbec to suit almost every taste in red wine for an affordable price. Canada clearly loves malbec, but why has it been so successful?

Price and quality have got us to where we are today, but it will be, I believe, stylistic diversity that will be so important if we are not to become bored over time with malbec. Wines come and go out of fashion for a number of reasons but given the diversity of style in Argentine malbec it is less likely to suffer from such a change. If one is able to select the right malbec for one’s taste or mood on a particular occasion or for a particular dish, then stylistic diversity will help ensure its place as a market favourite, provided the continuation of its good value for money.

If I remember correctly, the first Argentine malbecs that became popular here were big, bold and fruity with plenty of oak. They were designed to accompany BBQ meats and steaks, which are a fundamental part of cuisine in Argentina and with which we also have an affinity in our backyards.

However, as malbecs have grown in popularity, so has the range in style. This diversity is due to sourcing wines from many varied locations at different altitudes and from north to south in the central part of the country that lies just to the west of the Andes mountains. Also, I believe, winemakers are producing the wines they want to drink themselves.

Before I tell you more about Argentine malbecs available in Canada today, I think that some background in the history of Argentine wine production may be of value.

You see Argentina is not really a typical New World wine producer. Firstly they have been making quality wine in large quantities since the late 19th century. Most of it was consumed domestically. Argentines drink a lot of wine (there are 45M of them) such that there was very little production capacity available for export until quite recently. The wine industry is exporting more and more but it is still not export driven, which is not the case in all other southern hemisphere producing countries.

Which brings me to an important date in Argentina. On April 17th, 1853 president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento of Argentina officially made it his mission to transform Argentina’s wine industry. On that day he tasked Michel Aimé Pouget, a French wine expert, to bring over new vines from Europe to see which were best suited to Argentina. Among his selection was malbec.

Over the course of time it has become clear that malbec is well suited to the climate and the lime, clay, sandy, lean soils. All over the world vines seem to thrive in places with large temperature ranges between day and night. Malbec seems to especially appreciate this and so does well in the high altitude vineyards in Argentina. Principally for these reasons, it is now well established as Argentina’s flagship variety.

April 17th not only represents the start of transformation of Argentina’s wine industry, but it is also the starting point for the development of malbec as that country’s iconic variety. So each year on April 17th  Malbec World Day is celebrated, and this year it has motivated me to write this piece.

Argentina has over 80% of the malbec vines in the world; with France having around 10%. France, where malbec is also called cot, is the grape’s origin. It was widely planted in that country prior to the devastating phylloxera outbreak that essentially destroyed every vineyard in Europe at the end of the 19th century. The French, with the exception of the Cahors region, chose not to replant malbec when they re-established their vineyards. However, the vines have thrived in Argentina.

In late March, the WineAlign team tasted over 20 malbecs side by side at our world HQ in Toronto. All of these wines are currently available in Ontario at the LCBO unless noted otherwise.

This was a great opportunity for us to see the effects that vintage, location and winemaking style have on this single grape from the same country. It soon became clear that vintage is important. The best wines we tried were generally from 2013 and 2014. Maybe producers chose to release their better wines later which indicates that maybe we are sometimes drinking malbec too young?

In most places in the world, vines are planted close to bodies of water. The ocean, lakes and rivers provide, among other benefits, cooling in summer, especially at night, which gives the vine a chance to rest before the heat of the next day.

However, in Argentina vineyards are mostly planted a 1000 km from the ocean and nowhere near any water in a desert region. Water from the Andes provides irrigation and most vineyards lie at very high altitudes. In the northern province of Salta, vineyards can be found at around 1800m, with some at over 3000m. In Mendoza province vineyards are typically from 800m to 1200m above sea level. These are effectively desert regions with little cloud cover so as the sun sets the warm air falls to lower altitudes and the vines are cooled. This daily temperature change is quite dramatic especially the higher you are located. It can be as much as 15°C. This daily cooling helps to lock in flavours and acidity is better preserved.

Uco Valley, Mendoza

Most of the malbecs in Canada come from Mendoza province. Since over 70% of the vines in Argentina are planted there, this is not surprising. However, I encourage you to seek out malbecs from elsewhere, so you can to benefit from more diversity of style. Close to Mendoza city the Lujan de Cuyo region tends to give us more powerful wines often with eucalyptus notes on the nose. The Uco Valley, a two-hour drive to the south of Mendoza city, with generally higher vineyards, can deliver more elegance. If you can find a malbec from Cafayate in the northern Salta province you may find more herbal notes on the nose.

All of the malbecs we tasted are reviewed in full on WineAlign, and below we put some of our favourites into the limelight. Full and differing reviews (as always) can be found by clicking on the wine.

Susana Balbo Signature Malbec 2014, Uco Valley, Mendoza ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – A nicely textured malbec with velvety tannins and a lingering cocoa finish from one of Mendoza’s leading ladies, Susana Balbo. Supple and inviting, ripe but not hot. Quite seductive with maturity that has caused harmony instead of oxidation despite a natural cork closure. Still quite fresh and appealing with very good length.
Steve Thurlow – This is a lovely mature very classy malbec grown in a high altitude (1250m) in the Uco Valley. The nose is harmonious with a dry leafy/tobacco tone to the ripe blackberry and blueberry fruit with some dark chocolate and vanilla notes. the palate is very smooth with the fruit and oak nicely integrated. It is full bodied with lively acidity and firm tannin on the finish for grip. Very good length. Try with a steak.

Alamos Malbec 2016, Mendoza ($15.95)
Michael Godel – The great ubiquitous malbec of rich and ripe fruit descended from high altitude has never been more obvious than from this Catena family project. Still reeling from a spirited and attitude-driven youth, the spice and tannin are still in charge, even if they are not the end game or even the goal. You can drink this now with protein but you would do well to wait a year and then drink it with protein. Drink 2019-2021.
David LawrasonThis has very attractive nose of ripe, youthful blackberry/grapy fruit flecked with pepper, clove and vanillin. Not as jammy and confected as some. It is medium-full bodied, fairy cohesive and firm on the palate with slightly drying tannin, good acidity and warmth. Tannins are balanced as well. Peppery on the finish with a touch of clove. The length is very good. Approachable now but might be just a tad finer late 2018-2019.

La Linda Private Selection Old Vines Malbec 2015, Mendoza ($15.95)
David LawrasonThis is a nicely ripe, soft and fairly rich malbec that attains this character without artifice and confection. It has plummy/berry fruit nicely filled out with vanillin, gentle spice and savoury notes. It is medium-full bodied, fairly dense, a touch hot and tannic in the end but again, its natural and not sweet. Should be a crowd pleaser. Some heat on the finish.
Michael Godel – Old vines, a warm vintage and a reasonable level of alcohol all combine for a cool and collected malbec from less than household General List name La Linda. This from the Luigi Bosca house with gnarly vines providing an nice added touch, to give this some structure and a padded finish. It’s humidity is noted but so is a terrific texture that speaks to a network of liquid calcaire veins. Great value. Drink 2018-2022.

Domaine Bousquet Malbec 2017, Tupungato, Uco Valley ($14.95)
Sara d’Amato – This high altitude malbec from the historic Tupungato region of the Uco Valley is a well-defined but full bodied red with ripe and lightly grippy tannins. Dried wild herbs, lavender, blackberry and a touch of earth make up the rather complex palate. A sophisticated find that is anything but confected and pandering. Very good value.
David LawrasonThis is nicely energetic, fresh and balanced, organically grown malbec that shows very well given its youth. Not dramatic intensity or depth but it has classic red and black fruit with gentle thyme-like herbality. It is medium-full bodied, well balanced and fresh with a herbal/earthy finish. Good to very good length.

Susana Balbo Signature Malbec 2014Alamos Malbec 2016La Linda Private Selection Old Vines Malbec 2015Domaine Bousquet Malbec 2017

Catena Malbec High Mountain Vines 2015, Mendoza ($19.95)
Michael Godel – The altitude should never be taken for granted in Argentina, even when it seems like all wines can claim such a distinction. A thousand metres above sea level is still a 1000m and how it cools the vines is so restorative, especially with fruit so powerful, extracted and punchy as this. Vintage is part of the mix but so are the tenets of block quality and house acumen. It’s a lot of big flesh and bones on display but all in balance and equal opportunity. Terrific malbec. Drink 2018-2022.
David LawrasonThis pours fairly deep ruby-purple. The aromas are nicely vibrant and lifted with blackcurrant/raspberry amid subtle herbal, spicy and vanilla notes. There is a touch of steak tartare meatiness as well but not dominant. It is full bodied with firm, integrated acidity, a pinch of salinity, fine tannin and alcohol – big but well proportioned. And some oak clove and mocha sneaks onto the finish, which softens but also dulls the fruit. The length is very good to excellent. Fashioned to drink well now, but might relax a bit over the next year or two. Well done.

Alta Vista Terroir Selection Malbec 2014, Mendoza ($29.95)
David Lawrason – This big, dense malbec has a lovely, lifted creamy nose of blueberry pie, violets, fine cedar, vanillin and some oak resin. It is full bodied, soft and thick with all kinds of oak resin and alcohol. Fairly tannic as well, with very good to excellent length. I would age this another two or three years.
Steve Thurlow – This is a very typical malbec with a big body and big prune nectar nose. The nose is enticing with a lemon tone and nicely integrated oak spice. The palate is fullbodied and dry with fine acidity keeping it lighter and firm tannin for grip. Well made and drinking well. Very good length. Try with a steak.

Don David Malbec Reserva 2016, Cafayate, Salta ($15.95)
Sara d’Amato – A superb value malbec from the upper reaches of high elevation at 1800m in Calchaqui. Moderately oak aged and lightly cedary with impressive elegance. Notes of iron and mineral add sophistication to the palate. Just full-bodied and far from heavy.
David LawrasonThis is a quite delicious, elegant and juicy malbec from higher altitude Cafayate. It is not a structured, deep wine but it is fresh and tasty with good acidity and fine tannin. Lifted mulberry/blueberry fruit, mint, tea and light oak on the nose and palate. Very good length.

Trapiche Terroir Series Orellana De Escobar Single Vineyard Malbec 2013, La Consulta, Uco Valley ($39.95)
Sara d’Amato – This single vineyard malbec site in La Consulta was planted 62 years ago and delivers extraordinary complexity and intensity. Still very youthful and power-packed with tannins that are firm but ripe and palatable. The oak treatment is just shy of perfectly balanced. Unfortunately large bottle size will take up a magnum space in your cellar. Excellent length. Best 2019-2024.
David LawrasonTrapiche is a very large but underrated house. Served up in an overly heavy bottle, this is an equally big wine. From a single vineyard, it shows dense mulberry, raspberry fruit with classic cedar, spice and herbs thanks to long oak ageing. It is full bodied, dense, warm and rich. A lot of wine, and made in a somewhat traditional style, but it scores on depth and complexity.
Steve Thurlow – This is an elegant powerful malbec that is ageing gracefully. Expect aromas of stewed plum and blackberry fruit, with chocolate mild oak spice and fine mineral tones. It’s midweight, dense, smooth and rich, with soft tannin. It is finely balanced with excellent length. Pity about the excessively heavy bottle. Best 2018 to 2020.

Catena Malbec High Mountain Vines 2015Alta Vista Terroir Selection Malbec 2014Don David Malbec Reserva 2016Trapiche Terroir Series Orellana De Escobar Single Vineyard Malbec 2013

Fincas Las Moras Paz Malbec 2014, San Juan, Cuyo ($18.95)
Sara d’Amato – Pours a striking inky hue with a bright purple rim. Sourced from sites across San Juan, north of Mendoza, in a region gaining a reputation for its high quality potential. The palate offers great concentration of fruit with a vein of elegant acidity along with notes of violets and ripe cassis. A touch of eucalyptus and pink pepper adds intrigue. Impressive youth with velvety tannins and very good length
Steve Thurlow – This wine comes from San Juan about 3 hours drive across the desert to the north of Mendoza. It is midweight and vibrant with aromas of red berry fruit with a lemon tone. The lively palate is well balanced with very good length.

Mascota Vineyards Gran Mascota Malbec 2014, Mendoza ($19.95)
Michael Godel – Age and resolution on and for malbec is not just a good thing, it’s a necessary adjunct to reveal charm and pleasure. The 18 months in French barrels, extra time in bottle and a stellar vintage have all conspired to elevate the game of this Trapiche-led malbec by Mascota Vineyards. The acidity is fine and makes for the most promising lift to balance and a crescendo of wild berry fruit flavour that is just around the corner. Terrific bite of peppery spice, liquid in form, on the finish. Drink 2019-2024.
David LawrasonThis full bodied malbec has a very ripe if reserved nose of blackberry/blueberry fruit, with subtle lavender, some meatiness and gentle oak. It is quite full bodied, loosely knit, juicy and fresh, but has considerable heat and tannin. Loads of fruit here. Very good to excellent length.

Pascual Toso Malbec Limited Edition 2015, Mendoza ($16.95)
David LawrasonThis shows fragrant, sweet, ripe blakcberry fruit, gentle evergreen, floral and light oak toast. It is quite full bodied, sweetish, juicy and a touch green on the palate. A bit sappy and bitter on the finish. Very good length.
Steve Thurlow – The 2015 vintage is a finely balanced malbec with a solid structure, good focus and very fruity palate. Expect aromas of blackberry and blueberry fruit with mild spice and some red berry notes. Very good to excellent length. Try with a steak. Best 2017 to 2019.

Pascual Toso Malbec 2016, Mendoza ($13.95)
Michael Godel – If you are looking for a malbec on the spectrum that is brighter and lighter with properly and wisely integrated wood into that effulgent fruit, here is your $14 best bet. The Mendoza malbec tenets of smoky and spicy are quite subtle and fruit stands out, ushered along by a calming and supportive energy. Drink 2018-2019.
Steve Thurlow – This malbec is an deep purple red with a pure nose of blackberry. There is also charcoal, dark chocolate and hints of oak. It is full bodied with lots of flavour with the ripe fruit nicely toned down by some dry tannin and lively acidity and herbal tones to the fruit. Good to very good length. Try slightly chilled with hard mature cheddar or mildly spicy sausages.

Fincas Las Moras Paz Malbec 2014Mascota Vineyards Gran Mascota Malbec 2014Pascual Toso Malbec Limited Edition 2015Pascual Toso Malbec 2016


Agostino Finca Malbec 2014, Mendoza ($17.95) – available through consignement
Steve Thurlow – This is an elegant mature finely balanced malbec at a great price. It is deeply coloured with a delicate nose of black cherry and blueberry fruit with some floral and spice complexity. It is midweight to full bodied with a super smooth palate with the oak nicely integrated. Excellent length.
Sara d’Amato – A terrific value, this peppery, exhuberant malbec shows authentic high altitude, cooler climate characteristics. Floral and lively with a balanced degree of both alcohol and oak. Accessible with tannins that have softened over time without any fading of fruit. Very good length. Memorable.

Clos De Los Siete 2014, Mendoza ($23.95) – to be released in VINTAGES in September 2018
Michael Godel – The Valle de Uco blend of seven vineyards is always a large and confident gathering with malbec at the forefront. Managed by Michel Rolland, the Bordelais ideal is employed and rigged through an Andes foothills lens but it will never travel too far from big and bigger, markedly ripe, stunningly rich and wild with acidity. Flavour is never compromised and 2014 may be its best return to what it once was, a dozen or so years ago, with charm, terrific balance and the tannic ability to age for ten years easy. Really focused, precise and impressive wine.
David Lawrason – This is a six-grape blend with malbec in the lead at 54%. The other Bordeaux varieties follow and there is a dollop of syrah. It has a pretty, fine pointed nose of blackberry, fresh herbs, fine oak spice and chocolate. It is full bodied, generous and hot on the palate but still some sense of elegance. There is considerable tannin, so be prepared to age it a year or three or give it considerable aeration.

Agostino Finca Malbec 2014Clos De Los Siete 2014

My own general impression is that for between $12 and $25 there are many solid value wines that are stylistically diverse enough for there to be something to suit almost everyone’s taste in red wine.

Here are links to a couple of other great value malbecs that are currently available in Ontario:

Argento Reserva Malbec 2015
Huarpe Agrelo Terroir Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Before I close, I want to make it very clear that Argentina is not just malbec. They are making in addition some very fine wines, both red and white, from grapes other than malbec. However, given the excitement about malbec this is often forgotten, as a consequence there are very few Argentine cabernet sauvignon, syrah, pinot noir, chardonnay, torrontes, pinot grigio etc. available in Ontario.

Which is a pity since Argentina is one of the top 4 or 5 places in the world for cabernet sauvignon in my opinion. I have tasted, in Argentina, some fabulous cabernet sauvignon. We need to see more of them in Canada.

Anyway, I thought I would finish this piece with a few picks to illustrate the point. There was little to choose from in the market in my anything-but-malbec search but what little is here is mostly great.

Here are a few to worthy of consideration:

Weinert Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Mendoza ($25.95)
Michael Godel – Weinert has a proven track record to age their wines (at least with malbec) so it should come as no surprise that they have found some success with cabernet sauvignon. The volatility is gentle, certainly noticeable, but fine. The fruit has dried into strips of leather and the acidity is equally stretched, not so much elastic but more along the lines of pulled candy. Quite savoury, verdant and funky, of forest floor and its wet leaves. Some might think it tainted but it’s merely complex. Drink 2018-2020.
Sara d’Amato – A richly textured cabernet with resolved tannins and very good length. The earthy, gamey characteristic has evolved to a more cheesy, blue-veined cheese flavour impression on the palate. Intense black fruit and nicely integrated notes of cedar from wood add a sensual feel to the palate. Impressive resilience after 12 years of age. Drink now to 2020.
David LawrasonWeinert is the most traditional of Argentina’s major producers – prizing texture and mature complexity ahead of fruit brightness. This has matured to deep, glowing garnet. The nose swims in very complex licorice, cedar, truffle, earth, leather and dried fig/sundried tomato fruit. Very complex. It is full bodied, smooth, almost creamy with melted tannin, and warmth. Really delicious if lacking a bit of length. Ready to roll.

Argento Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2014, Mendoza ($13.95)
Michael Godel – Argento’s is a smoky, savoury and more than ample ripe cabernet sauvignon with notes of black cherry, orange coffee liqueur and baking plum galette. The palate is suave and supple, never taking advantage of its nurturing and speaking clearly in typical Mendoza meets varietal tones. Exemplary $14 cabernet from Argentina. Drink 2017-2019.
David LawrasonThis is a very generous, smooth, almost silky maturing cabernet with considerable oak easing the passage. It has a quiet, complex nose of very ripe cherry/currant fruit, gentle cedar, vanilla and dried herbs – all nicely inset. It is quite full bodied with fine tannin and very good length. Lacks a bit of cabernet tension and definition but drinks nicely. Now to 2019.
Steve Thurlow – An elegant approachable fruity ripe cabernet for a great price. The nose shows aromas of black cherry and blueberry fruit with well integrated oak spice with herbal smokey and leather tones. It full bodied and finely balanced with a long lingering finish, on which the fruit persists well. Excellent length. Try with roast game or a grilled steak. Best 2017 to 2019.

Dona Paula Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Lujan De Cuyo, Mendoza ($16.95)
Michael Godel – Doña Paula’s cabernet sauvignon comes from a thousand metres of Luján de Cuyo altitude at Finca El Alto in Ugarteche off of 1998 vines planted in soils of pebbles, gravel and clay. Picked in early April the ferment is aged in first, second and third fill French oak for 12 months. It’s hard to say what affects the fruity, soft, supple and gentle nature of this wine the greatest but regardless you will be hard pressed to find more fruit for less and less tannin from cabernet sauvignon. It’s quite a concentrated wine with some char, olive and chocolate that could benefit from a liberally salted steak, good olive oil and a rare level of doneness. Drink 2017-2018.
Sara d’Amato – A gentle, rounded, silky smooth cabernet sauvignon sourced from high altitude, low-yielding vines in Luján de Cuyo. There is a notable sweetish character to the palate along with flavours of raspberry and blackberry jam, cocoa and ripe red pepper. Good length. Supple, inviting and crowd-pleasing.
David Lawrason – This is very polished cabernet, those famous cab tannins have buffed down to virtually nil. The nose has fairly lifted redcurrant fruit with well integrated oak chocolate and some herbal character. It’s medium-full bodied, quite smooth with considerable alcohol heat and a sour edge to the finish. The length is very good.
Steve Thurlow – This is a flavourful fruity cabernet with a lovely structure of vibrant acidity and soft tannin. They make some wonderful cabernet in Mendoza and this is a good well priced example, all the noise about malbec means we often forget this. The nose shows black cherry fruit with smoke, dark chocolate and dried herbs. Very good length with a chalky tannin finish. Best 2017 to 2022.

Aniello 006 Riverside Estate Pinot Noir 2016, Río Negro Valley, Patagonia ($17.95)
Michael Godel – Patagonia’s Río Negro is the source for this lithe and deliciously aromatic pinot noir, a wine as light and refreshing as it is fruity and fine. At under 13 per cent alcohol it’s just what it needs to be, avoiding jammy thickness, weaving bright acidity in tapestry over just as bright fruit and even a moment or two of pinot noir tension. The future of great value, varietal Patagonia pinot noir is in good hands if this is the directive; unencumbered, unadulterated and simply stated. Drink 2018-2020
Sara d’Amato – A fresh, cool climate, new world pinot noir, lively and crunchy with delicate notes of forest floor and red plum dominating the nose. Very elegant with good definition due to acidity and featuring complexity that is above the mean for this price. Very good value.
David LawrasonThe Rio Negro in Patagonia is a bona fide pinot region. When I visited four years ago I found many of the pinots still rather jammy despite the “cooler” latitude at 39 degrees (Niagara is 43), but this example is quite firm and leaner, with nicely ripened cran-cherry fruit, herbs, spice and leather. It is well balanced, fresh and accurate, if not profound or deep. Nonetheless a great buy for pinot fans at this price.

Weinert Cabernet Sauvignon 2006Argento Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2014Dona Paula Cabernet Sauvignon 2015Aniello 006 Riverside Estate Pinot Noir 2016

Graffigna Centenario Reserve Pinot Grigio 2016, San Juan, Cuyo ($12.95)
Steve Thurlow – I am delighted that the style of this wine has reverted back to earlier vintages. The nose is very fragrant with peach and ripe melon fruit plus some ginger spice and floral orange. The palate is dry and quite rich with lots of flavour. Focus is well maintained onto the long lingering finish. Very good length. Chill a little and enjoy on its own or with mildly spicy Asian cuisine or rich seafood dishes.

Piattelli Reserve Torrontes 2016, Cafayate Valley, Salta ($14.95)
Sara d’Amato – White tea, blossom and lemongrass greet on the nose of this über high altitude torrontes. Very good intensity really great nerviness that cuts through the very well balanced viscosity of 14% abv. Peach and apple blossom linger on the finish of very good length. Great value.
John Szabo – One of the better torrontes that I’ve come across in some time, with ample perfume in the muscat spectrum (very floral), and richly extracted palate with notable salinity. It’s more seamless and a little more polished than the mean. Fans of aromatic whites should take note.

Argento Seleccion Chardonnay 2016, Mendoza ($10.95)
Steve Thurlow – A creamy chardonnay that delivers a lot for less than $11. Expect aromas of pineapple and pear fruit with lemon and mineral tones and just a touch of oak spice. There is a good depth of flavour with the ample fruit well balanced by lively acidity. It is full bodied with very good length and finishes dry. Try with fish and chips. Chill only lightly since it is quite rich.

Graffigna Centenario Reserve Pinot Grigio 2016Piattelli Reserve Torrontés 2016Argento Seleccion Chardonnay 2016

I have visited the wine regions in Argentina and must have been to Mendoza province six or seven times in the last ten years. I love travelling there and will be going again in March 2019 when I will lead a wine exportation tour for 14 days to Chile and Argentina. Let me, [email protected], know if you would like to join us.