The wind was howling and there was almost a foot of beautiful snow on the ground. With below-freezing temperatures, there was no way my wife, Arlene, and I were going anywhere. We were snowed in. What better time than to build a fire and cozy up with a bottle of wine from the cellar?
I was craving something red, and malbec was beckoning me.
An Argentinean malbec from Mendoza what caught my eye: A 2007 CarinaE Prestige, to be exact.
An Argentinean winery with a French history, the CarinaE winery was established in 2003 by Brigitte and Philippe Subra, who moved from France to Argentina in 1998. This is a small winery with several hectares in the high area of the Mendoza River. Only 5,942 bottles of this Prestige wine were produced; and the famed winemaker consultant, Michel Rolland, is the wine’s overseer.
I began opening the wine, and due to dryness, the cork broke. Luckily, I rescued the remaining third of the cork. Decanting always is an option, but I chose not to in advance, as Argentinean malbecs tend to be on the softer side.
After the pour, I looked at the color: gorgeous, deep ruby red with a purple hue—a classic color for malbec. Then, the swirl and smell: The first aromas to jump out were ripened plums, blueberry and violets. On the front palate, it had a nice, bright fruit, lush mouth feel, and softness with a backbone of minerality. Secondary aromas and flavors then came out such as deep currants, milk chocolate and soft saddle leather. The tannins were integrated and soft, making this 2007 perfect to drink right now.
Where else do they grow malbec? Where did it come from? It is commonly assumed that the grape originated in Cahors in southwest France, where it is called ‘cot’ or ‘auxerrois.’ In France, it is a dark, inky color with high tannins that produce brooding wines that will age well. Also a permitted grape in Bordeaux (where it is called malbec), it adds color and fruit. However, malbec is not used much now, as cabernet franc and merlot are the preferred grapes for blending Bordeaux. Small amounts also can be found in southern France and Loire.
Back in the New World, some malbec is grown in Chile; however, it is more tannic in this region and is used mainly in Bordeaux-style blends. California has many plantings of malbec and has had moderate success—again, best used in blends. Oregon and Washington State also have dappled with the grape.
Malbec struggles in many regions and countries. It’s a thinner-skinned grape, and needs more sun and heat than merlot or cabernet sauvignon. It also is susceptible to frost and many grape diseases.
Argentina’s warm and dry climate is ideal for this grape, and this is where it really shines. Malbec grown here is fruit-driven, with softer tannins and a more velvety texture than its French counterpart. In many areas of Argentina, there is little rainfall (only 8 to 12 inches annually). Thus, they use flood irrigation, which in low-valley areas can make the malbec lacking in true flavor.
It was vintner Nicolas Catena Zapata who elevated malbec on the global wine map. He focused on the quality by producing high-altitude vines up to 5,000 feet, which yielded better grapes for better wine.
So, the next time you are searching for a wine on a cold winter’s night, consider an Argentinean malbec—it will warm your palate and comfort your soul.
Tasting Tip: Use your head to taste: Tasting wine is more about using your brain: Which aromas and flavors can you recall from your personal experience repertoire? How many fruits, herbs, spices, flowers, terrior elements have you been exposed to and recall when tasting wine? Yes, the hardest part of tasting is describing.
Wine Recommendation: Catena Winery was the benchmark, but there are many good malbecs from Argentina, from simple, fruit-forward to more complex ones. If you like more tannic wine, try a Cahors from France to see the significant difference.
Certified Sommelier Stanley Browne is the owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves, Downtown at the MX and in Edwardsville.