Christine Austin is cheered by a revolution in Argentinian Malbecs as producers swap sheer strength for a lighter touch

As warmer spring weather at last shakes off the chill of winter, the most pressing thought of the weekend is whether the barbecue can be extracted from the shed without having to rearrange all the rakes and mowers that have also hibernated there. At this point you might think that the big, winter-weight red wines can be consigned to the far end of the wine rack but my experience this week, when the most delicious, thick, juicy steak was put in front of me, accompanied by a selection of Argentinian Malbecs has made me re-think my strategy.

Malbec is perfect with barbecued meat

Argentinian Malbecs are changing. No longer the high-alcohol, blockbuster, tonsil-bruising wines, there are many Malbecs on the shelves that are taking a lighter look at life, developing more character and complexity rather than sheer brute strength.

Malbec has become 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.

As Argentina has refined its growing regions and, even within the time I have been visiting this vibrant, fascinating country, improved its roads outside of the region’s capital, they have been able to plant vines in new areas. One of the key factors in changing Malbec from big and bruising to deep and complex is altitude. Argentina’s wine growing region of Mendoza is hard up against the Andes mountains which tower over the region like a snow-topped backdrop. Move a little closer to the mountains and the land slopes up to greet you. Every 100 metres of altitude is rewarded by a drop of 1 degree Celsius in the average daytime temperature, and that effect carries through to night when temperatures drop dramatically, keeping the aromas and flavours of the grapes crisp and fresh.

The Uco Valley is close to the snow-topped Andes

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, 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.

José Manuel Ortega decided to establish his winery in the Uco Valley while he was investigating the winery business for other people during his time as an investment manager for Goldman Sachs in Madrid. Now he owns one of Argentina’s foremost wineries as well as wine properties in Chile and Spain. He has adopted Spanish growing techniques for his vines, and he has also planted Spain’s flagship grape variety, Tempranillo in Argentina to add character and style to his wines. His entry level range is called Urban and offers seriously good flavours at a good price. Try O. Fournier Urban Uco Malbec 2014 (Martinez Wines £12.79) for its juicy raspberry and cocoa-dusted fruit with supple tannins. Step up to its bigger brother O. Fournier B Crux 2010 (Martinez Wines £19.79) which blends Tempranillo with Malbec and gives darker blackberry and damson fruit, layered with spice. Alternatively, the top wine, Alfa Crux (Martinez Wines £34.99), named after the Southern Cross constellation, is packed with damson and black cherry fruit, with touches of smoky bacon and chocolate. Even so, it doesn’t fight with the food, settling around a rare steak like a good companion.

Deep-flavoured Malbec

Altos Las Hormigas is another estate which has refined its flavours in recent years. With winemaker and world-wide wine consultant Alberto Antonini at the helm, this is a wine that has shaken off its chunky past and developed freshness to go with its raspberry and plum fruit. The grapes for this wine come from a particular part of the Uco Valley where limestone comes to the surface. Considering this region is inland and halfway up a mountain, the discovery of limestone is an astonishing indication that even here the sea covered the area many millennia ago. Like many wine regions around the world, the presence of this limestone soil gives the wine a basis of freshness and finesse. Find Altos Las Hormigas Malbec Terroir 2014 at Waitrose Cellar £15.99.

Acting in his consultant role, Alberto Antonini has also added a layer of sophistication to one of the first big brands from Argentina. Argento first landed on our shelves several years ago, but it is now under new management, with a new winery and a serious attempt to move up-market. While grapes come from several areas, some are sourced from growers in the Uco Valley which adds a lighter note to the blend. Argento Malbec 2016 (Majestic £8.99, down to £7.99 on a mix six deal) is a good way to start exploring Malbec.

One producer that is really trying to get some definition of regionality into their wines is Achaval Ferrer. Based in the Uco Valley, at around 1000 metres altitude they own 40 hectares of old Malbec vines and buy in from surrounding regions to add diversity of flavours to their blends. The wines are sensational, each vineyard providing a distinct dimension to the wines. Only available in limited quantities, Harvey Nichols stocks the 2014 Malbec blend (£19).



About The Author

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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