As winemakers show a lighter touch with Argentina's national grape, Christine Austin chooses her favourite Malbecs

It was a very grand do at the Argentine Ambassador’s residence in the smart area of London as a dozen Malbecs, were introduced by Master of Wine Tim Atkin. A small group of us swirled and sipped our way through the wines, steered by references to clones, soils and altitudes, and it was clear that Malbec has changed dramatically over the years.

No longer the high-alcohol, blockbuster, tonsil-bruising wines of just a few years ago there are now many Malbecs taking a lighter look at life, developing more character and complexity rather than sheer brute strength.

Malbec is the signature grape of Argentina. It is full of dark, bramble and damson fruit, sometimes with a whiff of violets on the nose and with varying amounts of structure, from plush and soft, to structured and chewy, depending on its winemaking and oak aging. The vines arrived in South America in the mid 1800s when cuttings were imported from Bordeaux and it settled in rather well. In the far west of the country, tucked up against the magnificent Andes mountains, where the air is clean and clear and the natural warm sunshine contains more ultra violet light than our northern hemisphere, Malbec grapes ripen to a deep, purple colour. Within the skins, flavours become full and generous while tannins round out and soften. Compared with its style in Bordeaux and in Cahors where this grape is known as Cot, it is as if Malbec has had a personality transplant.

Deep-flavoured Malbec grapes

There is a suggestion that those original French vines have developed and adapted to the climate, shaking off the hardest of tannins and replacing them with fruit. There is even an idea of taking some of those vines back to Cahors, but so far that idea hasn’t gone down too well with the French.

Some of the best Argentinian Malbecs come from the Uco Valley, a long ridge of land lying close to the mountains. With the snow-topped peaks in view, and at an altitude of 1500 metres and more, the warm daytime temperatures promote lush, ripe fruit, but at night cold air flows down the slopes and settles around the vines. An early morning walk to breathe in the champagne-like air of the Uco Valley requires a jacket to keep out the cold until the sun gets high enough to warm the landscape. It is this daily warmth and nightly chill that retains those fabulous flavours in the grapes.

Despite being halfway up a mountain, it is astonishing that there are patches of limestone here, formed when the sea covered the region and long before the Andes pushed their way upwards. These patches of limestone have now been planted and the grapes grown on them add freshness and finesse to the final wines.

Of those dozen wines specially sourced from Argentina to demonstrate the progress of top Malbec, most are available in tiny quantities and none is available in our region, so if you would like to explore just how Malbec has improved over the years, here are my own top dozen.

Exquisite Collection Malbec Magnum 2017, Aldi £12.99

Sourced from the Uco Valley, this is a softer style of Malbec, juicy and packed with plum fruit and edged with spice. The big bottle, enough for 12 glasses of wine, is great for a party.

Tesco Finest Argentinian Malbec 2016, £7.50

Sourced from top Argentinian producer Catena, this is a lighter style of Malbec, with bags of fruit and easy, smooth tannins.

Viñalta Malbec 2016, Fabre, Marks and Spencer, £8.50

A chunky, fruit-filled, silky style of Malbec, that goes well with weekend suppers.

 

Chakana Malbec 2016, Roberts and Speight, Beverley £8.79

A lighter Malbec but still full of juicy raspberry and cherry fruit with the scent of violets on the nose. The price comes down to £7.99 when you buy 6 mixed bottles.

Viñalba Patagonian Malbec 2015, Morrisons £9.25

Instead of growing Malbec grapes up a mountains, to keep them cool, the grapes for this wine have come from the vast, cool area of Patagonia in the south of Argentina. The result is a wine with deep concentration, clear, dark damson fruit and enough structure to take on a steak.

Malbec 2015, Pascual Toso, Field and Fawcett £9.95

A bigger chunky style of Malbec filled with plums, blackberries and liquorice with freshness on the finish.

Kaiken Seleccion Especial Malbec 2016, Majestic £9.99

From Aurelio Montes who makes wine on both sides of the Andes, this comes from vineyards which are cultivated using the most environmentally friendly practices. There are no pesticides and no chemicals, but there are sheep wandering through the vines to keep the grass down. The wine is full of black cherry fruit, with notes of vanilla and chocolate. The price comes down to £7.99 on a mix-six deal.

Nieto Senetiner Malbec 2016, Harrogate Fine Wine £9.99

A smooth, silky Malbec, with lively red fruits and a streak of vanilla and spice.

Catena Malbec 2015, Waitrose £13.49

Catena make stunning wines at all price levels. One outstanding wine I tasted in London costs £70, however this is more modest and the flavours reflect that. Even so it is terrific value with cassis and blackberry fruit, smooth, silky tannins and a lift of freshness on the finish.

Zuccardi Q Malbec 2015, Valle de Uco, Halifax Wine Co £13.95

José Alberto Zuccardi loved his visit to York Food Festival a few years ago and everyone loved his wines. Packed with dark plum fruit, lifted by notes of raspberry, and layered with cedar and spice, this is an elegant Malbec.

Colomé Estate Malbec 2015, Salta, Booths £18

From the highest vineyards in the world, which range from 2600 to 3000 metres, this is made from thick-skinned, flavour-filled grapes. The wine is intense with deep, mulberry and dark plum fruit, chewy and concentrated. Serve with rich meaty dishes.

Alto Los Hormigas 2013, Valle de Uco, Buon Vino, Settle, £26

Grapes for this wine come from the streak of limestone in the Uco Valley and the raspberry and plum-filled wine is made by Alberto Antonini, a world-class consultant.

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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