August 6, 2020 – Published in Design & Decor Summer 2014 issue
Words: Albert Cilia-Vincenti
Although a native of south-west France, Malbec has been put on the wine drinker’s map by Argentina – and relatively recently. Its birthplace is said to be Bordeaux and, in its traditional home base of Cahors, south of Bordeaux, it wasn’t really going anywhere.
Argentina has given Malbec serious status in the wine world. It’s a soft juicy grape giving lovely dark perfumed purple wine in a dry warm climate but, in Bordeaux, it became very susceptible to disease and was not replanted after the severe frost of 1956. Its ability to soften the Bordeaux blend was therefore replaced by Merlot which is less susceptible to rot and gives a more regular crop. In actual fact, Malbec was never grown in large quantities in Bordeaux, and very few estates had more than 10 to 15 per cent. It is a blending component in many south-west reds, but only leads the field in Cahors, where it must comprise at least 70 per cent of the blend.
It was first introduced to Argentina in 1852, the cuttings coming from Bordeaux, not from Cahors, and the Malbec in Argentina now seems different from that in Cahors, and there is said to be greater clonal diversity in Argentina than in France. The ideal spot for it in Mendoza is 1000m altitude and above. The newer higher altitude wines claim elegance, finer tannins and better acidity. At lower altitudes, acidity may be low and the fruit flabby and unfocused. Chile already has some Malbec, apparently doing very well in some cool spots, and there are some historic plantings in South Australia.
Argentina is as yet less established internationally than Chile and it is said that many wines still have a way to go to match the fruit quality achieved at lower levels in Chile. However, Argentina is the fifth largest wine producer in the world, and external expertise (such as Michel Rolland) and investment in new vineyard and wineries is rising.
At its best, Argentine Malbec has a dark purple colour, is said to have a thrilling violet aroma, a lush rich fruit flavour and a smooth ripe tannic structure. It can take oak ageing, but this can easily smother its natural delicious ripeness. In Cahors, the flavour is said to be more like raisins and tobacco. The flavour of Malbec is said to be not unlike those of Carmenère and Pinot Noir.
In our wine club, twenty five members recently blind-tasted, during dinner at Radisson Blu, four interesting Malbec wines. Catena Zapata’s Catena Alta Malbec 2010 (14%; €33) and Norton’s Perdriel 2004 (14.5%; €25) were overall preferred to the other two wines. The Catena Zapata family claim to be the Malbec pioneers of Argentina, having planted in 1902. Their Catena Alta Malbec 2010 is sourced from four vineyards – international critics score it an average of 91/100 – Williamson & Moore rate it 4/5 stars (“very high quality – among the very top in its category/region”).
Perdriel is the name of the single vineyard from which this Norton wine is made from a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. This wine scored an average of 90 points by international critics and its 2008 vintage was awarded a “Silver” by Decanter. The overall membership had slight preference for this Bordeaux blend Perdriel, and I did find its nose the best of the lot, although on overall balance my notes slightly preferred the Catena 100% Malbec. Both wines had modern style immediately approachable aromas and flavours.
Pulenta’s Gran Malbec 2010 (14.5%; €23) scored an average of 90 points by international critics but in our blind tasting, for most members, it didn’t come up to the standard set by the Catena and Norton wines.
The Amancaya 2010 (14.5%; €15) is a combined effort between Catena and Barons de Rothschild. It is a Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon blend which is scored an average of 89 points by international critics. A majority of members scored it their last preference – I thought its palate was on the simple side with little length, but it is significantly cheaper than the other wines.
The white wine aperitif served at this blind-tasting session was a Norton Torrontes 2013 (13.5%; €10). The Torrontes grape is native to Spain and is very successful in Argentina. I was impressed with the aromatics of this good value wine – members’ average score for this wine was also on the high side.