Grapes are grown on every continent except Antarctica, which is a way of saying they’re highly, highly adaptive plants. Some have been bred or evolved to handle humidity; some freak out unless it’s arid. Some prefer an ocean breeze, some the hardcore day-to-night temperature changes of high mountains. Some are cool-climate lovers… and then there’s Malbec.
April 17 is apparently Malbec Day, so you’ve now got plenty of time to hunt some down. Malbec’s got French citizenship, but after a bout of frost killed off huge numbers of plantings in Bordeaux in the 1950s, winegrowers’ interest in it declined. Now, varietal 100% Malbec wines are rarities in France, but the grape has found a loving home in Chile and Argentina. There are plantings of Malbec scattered throughout diverse regions in the US, as well (and everywhere on the west coast from British Columbia to Mexico). For the budget-conscious, Malbec is a wine that can run the gamut from insanely cheap for the quality to pretty spendy depending on its origin. (As Mendoza, Argentina, has become synonymous with Malbec, its currency has risen; Chile, Washington and other less known-for-it regions can be better values.) But, as with most grapes, Malbec will act different in different climates, so if you don’t like Chilean ones, by all means, try one from Oregon.
Malbec wines are deep, dark, intense, rich characters, often with a prominent plum note. They’re on the high-tannin side, and the tannins are rougher in some regions and softer in others (Chile=feisty. Argentina=lush). Malbecs from Washington tend to be herbaceous; Malbecs from Mendoza more flowery, Malbecs from France blackberry-ish.
Malbec is a wine that loves meat (my personal carnivore pick would probably be a butterflied and well-herbed leg of lamb cooked over an open flame). That said, vegetarian-tending folks will find it agreeable in plenty of situations (roasted or grilled substantial veggies, smoky things in general, wild mushrooms)-what doesn’t work for Malbec is acid. Serving a Malbec with something extremely lemony, tomatoey or vinegar-y will make this wine taste weird. So, like, don’t.
Eight bottles to look out for
Amalaya Malbec (Argentina, $16)
I think this is the only wine on this list that isn’t 100% Malbec; it’s blended with a small amount of Tannat and Petite Verdot. It’s an elegant wine and a great value. This one benefits from a little air time, it’s tight on the approach straight out of the bottle. With a little time, a balsamic character emerges, along with licorice and baked plums. I get hints of sandalwood as well. This is a smooth, satiny wine with a nice lingering finish.
Alta Vista Terroir Selection (Argentina, $30)
Alta Vista winery’s Terroir Selection is a blend of fruit from different regions—specifically, Luján de Cuyo, which is behind this wine’s ripe, voluptuous fruitiness, and Valle de Uco, which gives youthfulness and roundedness. Very purple in the glass, spice notes on the nose along with plum and blackberry. On the palate, it’s fruity, fresh, laid-back, and softly tannic. The winery suggests lamb is the ideal buddy for this wine. As with every suggestion, try it or flout it completely and go your own way. It’s a silky character totally suitable for drinking all by itself, too.
Canoe Ridge “The Expedition” Malbec (Washington, $15)
Like Argentina, Washington seems to tend toward Malbecs with tannin structure that’s firm but gentle. Iron fist, velvet glove, that kinda thing. Complex and layered, The Expedition is a wonderfully aromatic spicefest with fruit notes that include blackcurrant, blueberry, black plum, and a lingering vanilla or vanillin type note on the finish, which is a long one (there was a kitchen-sink blend of oak varietals in the barrels for this one, so I expect that vanilla tone comes from oak). Supple and elegant mouthfeel and one of the most affordable wines on this list, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s not as good. It’s good.
Colomé Malbec (Argentina, $25)
“Bright” isn’t the first descriptor that comes to mind with a lot of Malbecs (it’s a dark, brooding kina guy in most cases) but this one qualifies as bright. The nose is not explosive, but it’s spicy and a tiny bit flowery (think of the flowery but spicy aroma of pink peppercorns). On the palate, there’s a mélange of red and black fruits, prominently blueberries, with a subtle earthiness (I also get a hint of cacao). It’s got a certain freshness, with ripe, pleasant acidity and non-overwhelming tannins. This is a very quaffable wine. Not a diva, but plenty of personality.
Columbia Crest Reserve Malbec (Washington, $32)
Decidedly inky and more structured than a prep school in Connecticut. But at the same time, a fruity character (kind of a diffuse, mixed-berry compote or fruits du bois jam kind of thing). Plum and cassis on the palate, a resinous herbaceous note, like thyme and rosemary. An affable, quaffable wine and easy to find. Like most Malbecs, it’s a meat wine, but it wouldn’t argue with grilled portobellos and polenta either. Or something based on potatoes.
Hess Mount Veeder Malbec (Napa, CA, $58)
Yeah, there are perfectly decent Malbecs you can get for 12 bucks, and this isn’t one of them, largely because Mount Veeder is Napa Valley’s Olympus and the wine gods dwell there, making real estate pricey. 1% of sales from this wine go toward sustainability organizations such as 1% For the Planet, so if that’s part of your wine-buying thing, take note. The summit of Mount Veeder is above the frost and fog lines and experiences warmer nights than the Napa Valley floor, and early-ripening, frost-averse varietals tend to do well up there. Hess’s Malbec is big and deep and dark, with chocolate, vanilla and licorice notes dominating, and quite a bit of blueberry unfolding on the finish. Tannins are strong but not rough, kind of velvety actually. Spicy hint of Szechuan pepper and some blackberry jam round this wine out. The Hess website suggests a pairing that includes duck and heirloom tomatoes. I am not on board with the tomatoes for this wine, but yes to duck if you eat it. A ragout of wild mushrooms and delicate, nonacidic spring veggies wouldn’t go amiss either.
Septima Obra (Argentina, $15)
This is probably a really great BBQ wine. High-altitude fruit yielding intense flavors, an inky purple hue in the glass, and tannins you can sink your teeth into. Aromatics are an intriguing mix of nutty, caramelized, incense-y, and herbaceous notes. On the palate there is a cranberry or pomegranate type note taking center stage, with a clay-like note hanging around on the finish. This is a wine that really has an intense relationship with oak. What it wants most is to hang out with some red meat that’s been treated to spices, a little sweetness, and some fire.
Trapiche Medalla (Argentina, $25)
Trapiche makes Malbecs that range in price from about $7 to… a lot more than that. They seem to have a Malbec for every occasion and every budget. The Medalla, the middle-tier wine I tasted, is a restrained one, almost on the bony side for a Malbec. It’s a wine that’s got a tight belt. Yet it is a Malbec, and good luck making one of those that isn’t on the intense side too. Fresh and fruity but not a party animal; this is a brooding, contemplative wine that might be a companion for some me-time in the outdoors. It has a toasted character, with some quite ripe fruit notes (think raisins) with black cherry, vanilla and a hint of something kind of coconutty. Persistent finish. Dense tannins. Like many a Malbec this is a wine with an affinity for red meat, but honesty, I’d quite like it with a piece of freshly baked rustic bread.