The Don Juan of Wine: Seven Lusty Malbecs

by Liz Caskey on June 23, 2009

MendelYou know the type—charming, seductive,  a real smoothe-talker. He’s refined, muscular yet has a soft spot. Although it may sound like I am referring to some of Argentina’s very handsome men, in actuality, I am referring to Malbec. I have had it on the brain lately. Everywhere, everyone is gushing about Malbec, Malbec, Malbec. Have we all fell under the spell? It’s very likely. In fact, I haven’t (yet) met anyone who doesn’t seem to sing the praises.

Malbec first caught fire abroad for its beautiful fruit and great price-quality ratio. It’s hard to imagine a better bottle of $10 wine. Then boutique bodega Achaval Ferrer broke onto the scene tackling a nearly perfect score from Wine Spectator. Argentina was officially in the (big) game.

Although I love the easy-to-drink, simple Malbec at lunch, during the week, or with pizza and hamburgers, as I have tasted more and more in Mendoza, the nuances of this grape are mind-blowing. Today, I want to share with you some of my favorite Malbecs that are value-driven but NOT cheap wines. These wines would easily compete at double its price range with a California or French peer. More than anything, I want you guys to start understanding that Malbec has the depth of Cabernet to express the land, climate, and most importantly, the passion of the people who make it. As they say, meet the winemaker and you will know the wine. Salud!

Mendel, Unus US $50 (Mayor Drummond)

This wine is like a fist when you open the bottle so be sure to decant this baby AT LEAST 3-4 hours. In fact, the second day after we tasted this, it was a completely different, more expressive wine. Intense, concentrated, with a nose of berry fruits and spice, the mouth is chewy yet balanced with mineral notes. Powerful yet elegant this is winemaker Roberto de la Mota’s best showing to date. Love at first sip.

Domaine St. Diego, Pura Sangre US $12(Lunlunta)

Known as the grandfather of terruño in Mendoza, this is the pet project of winemaker Angel Mendoza. This tiny bodega only makes around 15,000 bottles per year. This Malbec/Cabernet blend, 80/20%, respectively, is perhaps the apple of his eye. It has the typical lush Malbec nose full of crushed raspberries. In the mouth, it’s juicy with nice acidity and smooth tannins. I love the people behind this project and when I drink this, it reminds me of them and that magical place overlooking the Lunlunta church and hills. However, one caveat, it can be very hard to find outside Argentina. If in Buenos Aires, certainly you’ll find it in some of the specialty wine shops.

Enrique Foster, Terruño Collection US $25 (Lunlunta & Vistalba)

This boutique property is one to keep an eye on. “Just Malbec” is their Motto and they are certainly doing a stellar job in showcasing the diversity and typicity of this grape. Malbec is not just Malbec at Foster. Perhaps best underscoring this point is their line called “Terruño”, meaning terroir in Spanish. Taking small production vineyards in Lunlunta and Vistalba, do a tasting of these side by side and you will see how the differences in soil, altitude, and temperature impact the expression. Lunlunta is “hotter”, earthy, with pepper notes and “cooked” fruit. Vistalba is like a basket of cinnamon-laced fresh bluberries, concentrated, vivid, and punchy with almost a minty note on the end.

Fabre Montmayou, Grand Vin 2004 US $45 (Vistalba)

I won’t lie, this is probably my one of favorite wineries in Mendoza from a stylistic standpoint. Hervé Fabre, owner and winemaker, studied in Bordeaux and landed in Mendoza before the export boom had started. He saw the potential to make great wines from the 80 year-old vines on the property he bought. Today, he microvinifies this blend and then slowly ages it. A blend of 80% Malbec, 15% Cabernet, and 5% Merlot, this wine is all about finesse. The nose hints of violets, the undeniable floral character of fresh, high altitude soils paired against cacao. In the mouth, it is alive with fruit yet long, with an understated vanilla accent. The tannins are smoothe and this wine is just an absolute delight to drink. Tip to BA-goers. You can order this off the wine list at bodega list price sans mark-up at Brasserie Petanque in San Telmo. The French owner is a  good buddy of Hevre and his wife Diane. Well worth the splurge and it pairs well with Petanque’s fare.

Altavista, Grande Reserve Terroir Selection US $20(Luján de Cuyo and Uco)

The Pioneer in developing single vineyard Malbec, starting in 2001, their Terroir Selection line has four vineyards: 2 in Luján de Cuyo south of Mendoza city, Alizarine and Serenade,  and two in Uco, an hour south, Albaneve and Temis. One of the most interesting tastings I have ever attended was a horizontal tasting of these wines with the blend at the end, Grande Reserve. The Grande Reserva harnesses the best qualities in each and integrates them into one well-rounded wine. The wine is full of fresh fruit, even a bit beefy and spicy on the nose.  In the mouth, the tannins are supple, the acidity inspiring, and it goes on and on and on. Beautiful.

Bodega Azul, Reserva US  $30(Tupungato)

This tiny little boutique winery, literally a cement square in the shadow of the mighty Andes, is another one to watch. Two words: quality and price. They kick total butt. Their reserve is a blend of Malbec with a little Cabernet to give it structure and some mineral notes. This wine is a joy to drink. The nose is berrilicious with notes of pepper and chocolate. In the mouth, it’s got a lot of structure (hey, it’s a big boy) but the tannins are NOT overwhelming. This wine is very young and in my opinion, still needs time in the bottle. Or, for those who cannot wait, just decant it for a few hours and then roll out an aged sirloin on the grill. You’ll be good to go.

Monteviejo, Lindaflor US $40(Vistaflores)

Part of flying winemaker Michel Rolland’s “wine condo”, Clos de los Siete, Monteviejo is the oldest winery on site belonging to Catherine Péré Vergé from France. The bodega is the last stop before climbing up into the steep, icy crevasses of the Andes and looks back on the Uco Valley stretching out below. Lindaflor is Monteviejo’s flagship wine. The 2005 version was given, hold on, 94 points from Parker. It’s one of those complex, seductive Malbecs that gets better as you sip it. On the nose it is a grab bag of aromas: pencil lead, berries, spice, even toast. In the mouth, the viscosity of this wine is so dense, it’s inky. It is a glutton. It invades every tastebud with sweet fruit, rounded tannins, and intensity. It’s like popping a Belgian chocolate bonbon into your mouth and sucking on it as it slowly melts. Pure carnal pleasure. Personally, I think it’s a crime to drink this so young. But if you must, decant it hours ahead and throw some lamb chops on the grill. Yum, yum, yum.

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