Malbec is like a gawky, unreliable teenager who turns into a graceful, responsible adult after leaving home. The tart, tannic grape was always relegated to minor blending status in the great French vineyards of Bordeaux, but it has found a happy new home in Argentina, where it yields exceptional red wine. Argentines love their Malbec so much, they've devoted more than 70 per cent of the country's vineyard acreage to the cultivation of this single variety. Its taste has been compared to the perfect blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot because it has the body and structure of the former, and the softness and grace of the latter. That makes Malbec an ideal grape variety to pair with the summer god of Canadian cuisine: barbecued beef.
A beefy pas de deux
If there's one thing Argentine gourmands enjoy more than a glass of Malbec, it's a glass of Malbec next to a slab of well-charred beef. On the palate, the flavours swirl with passion and ferocity, like lovers in a frenzied tango. Until a few years ago, these wines were usually strong and rustic. Today, most are refined and ready to rival the world’s best reds, but at a better price. It's clear the region has something special going on: in recent years, foreign investment has grown.
- An old, established winery, Finca Flichman is owned by Sogrape of Portugal, makers of Mateus. Their most popular Malbec, Misterio ($10), is soft, fruity and supremely quaffable—perfect for casual dining or large-scale entertaining.
- Italian innovator Masi has introduced the Old World technique of ripasso, wherein air-dried grapes are added to finished wine that is then refermented. Masi Tupungato, 2006 Passo Doble ($15) has a rich, raisin-fruit twang with greater concentration, complexity and, potentially, longer keepability.
- Not to be missed is the supple Clos de los Siete ($25), produced by international "flying winemaker" Michel Rolland, the subject of Mondovino, filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter's 2004 documentary. This is a "reverse Bordeaux," with Malbec dominating the blend while classic Bordeaux varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot—play supporting roles. The results are stunning.
- Look for the terrific wines of Bodega J&F Lurton with deep roots in Bordeaux. In Mendoza, the largest of Argentina’s wine regions, they produce wines for several markets, including screw-capped Bodega Lurton Malbec ($11) for everyday drinking, cork-sealed Malbec Reserva ($16) for a premium experience, and the splendid Gran Lurton Gran Reserva topping the list at only $21. The most innovative of the homegrown producers has surely been Bodega Catena Zapata; its proprietor, Nicolás Catena, has been called the Robert Mondavi of Argentina. Catena 2005 Malbec ($20) delivers such a seductive combination of flavour and texture, you may find your bottle empty all too soon. Bodega Catena Zapata also produces great value wines under the Alamos label ($14), in addition to owning Bodegas Esmeralda, whose Argento Malbec ($10) is a perennial favourite in Ontario.
- Familia Schroeder is breaking ground in Argentina’s southern state of Patagonia with wines like Saurus Patagonia Select Malbec ($15), a remarkable value with the muscle and structure to tame rich red meat and the softness and maturity to enhance roast chicken breast.
- Bodega Enrique Foster is a new "Malbec specialist." Intense flavours and textures have won accolades for the company's wines both at home and abroad. Their outstanding Ique ($18) is a modern quaffer that contains sweet vanilla notes and rich blackberry flavours, begging to be paired with a steak or roast. In Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, this wine is often available through the online agent WineOnline.ca.
- There are others—Finca la Celia, Navarro Correas, Trapiche, Bodega Norton, Marcus James, Pascual Toso, Trumpeter and more. Try them all!
For the price of admission, they put the competition to shame.