Puzzling over Malbec

Andrew Polmear writes for the love of wine . . .

I’m sure you are puzzling over Malbec. How is it that a grape of French origin, now hardly used in France, is such a hit in Argentina? Where it is still used in France it tends to make a rather austere, even harsh wine. In Argentina it makes wine that is consistently lush and fruity, packed with rich cherry and plum flavours. The reason for this difference was the question posed at a recent wine tasting at Seven Cellars, on Dyke Road, led by Laurie Webster from Las Bodegas, a specialist importer of Argentinean wine. We started with pure Malbec from the Languedoc. It was OK, reserved, even elegant, with a hint of cherry, but nothing to shout about. Then we moved to an entry-level Malbec from the Uco Valley, province of Mendoza in central Argentina. Immediately we were revelling in that lush fruitiness. What makes the difference?UcoValleyWine

Malbec is a thick-skinned grape, slow to ripen and prone to fungal disease if the humidity is high. Bordeaux, where it was at home in the 19th century, was absolutely the worst place to grow it. Bordeaux is damp, sunshine is variable, and the wine tended to be tannic, acidic; even sour. The high mountain plains of Argentina, on the other hand, are perfect. Sunshine is endless, the air is dry as a bone, water arrives by controlled irrigation thanks to the snow-melt from the Andes, and the grapes mature slowly because, although hot by day, the temperature plummets at night. That slow maturation allows the tannins to soften and the fruit to develop. Our Uco Valley wine was from grapes grown at 1500 metres. There’s nowhere in France that can make wine that high.

A second question was posed at that wine tasting: can Argentinean Malbec make great wine or will it just be a crowd-pleasing mouthful of rich fruit? From the Uco Valley we moved to the Rio Negro in Patagonia – lower level, but pretty far south – on a level with Malborough in New Zealand. The difference was interesting – more elegant, more complex. Then we tried one from the opposite extreme, north of Mendoza at Vallisto. It’s nearer the equator but it’s also much higher, at above 2000 metres. That’s outrageously high, but it works – the cold nights give wine that’s still rich with cherry and plum flavours but with layer after layer of subtlety.

So is it all about geography? No! We also tasted another Uco Valley wine, from the same maker as before, Mauricio Lorca, but much more ‘hand-made’, that is, hand-picked grapes, hand-sorted, fermented in smaller containers. It’s so labour intensive, Mauricio can only make a few hundred cases, but it was marvellous with a wonderful texture in the mouth and no end of complexity in the flavour.
So, that’s the future of Malbec. It has found its niche in the world and can only go on improving.

Seven Cellars puts on these tastings every month or two. The next ones planned are on English sparkling wine, cocktail making, and ‘natural wine’. Keep an eye on the board outside the shop for announcements.

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