Argentine Malbec Is Better Than Ever
On an afternoon in February, just before the world was upended by COVID-19, I stood under a tree on the edge of a vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina, and stuck my nose into a glass of wine proffered by Gabriela García, the co-owner of Lamadrid Estate Wines. It smelled of wild herbs and violets. I sipped. A rich magenta in color, the wine was deeply textured and silky. It tasted of blueberries and a hint of spice with an orangey acidity. Stern at first on the finish, it relaxed after a few minutes in the glass but kept its minerality. Made from the vineyard Finca La Matilde’s historic vines, which were planted in 1929, this 2013 Lamadrid Matilde Malbec was multidimensional and delicious.
It was not the kind of Malbec that Argentina used to produce. A decade ago, even the wines deemed “food-friendly” were over-extracted and over-oaked. Not anymore. My recent visit convinced me: It’s time to drink Argentine Malbec.
Now, with wineries, distributors, and importers everywhere suffering from lost sales due to restaurant closures, exploring a varietal or a region unfamiliar to you can help give a boost to the industry. And since we don’t have sommeliers to turn to for advice for the time being, it’s a good opportunity for some DIY wine education. So here’s a crash course in what’s been going on with Argentina’s leading grape.
Winemakers there have dialed back the alcohol and the wood in Malbec. They’re paying close attention to their vineyards. Using drip irrigation, they’re conserving water here on the dry side of the Andes. They’re using grape-skin compost and other sustainable methods to improve soil microbiology. Employing native yeasts, fermenting portions of the wines in concrete or cement, and aging much of it in older, neutral barrels, they’re going for nuance. With all of these techniques, they’re allowing the natural flavors of the vineyards to come out. And as they expand plantings in higher altitudes in the Uco Valley and Salta province, and in the cooler region of Patagonia, they’re producing Malbecs with a beautiful balance of acidity and ripeness.
“I think the wines are getting more sophisticated and more about terroir,” said Patricia Ortiz, the first woman president of the country’s winery consortium. She also owns the Zolo, Tapiz, and Wapisa bodegas. In 2012, she nabbed legendary Petrus winemaker Jean Claude Berrouet as a consultant at Tapiz, which is in the Uco Valley’s San Pablo appellation. Now Berrouet travels yearly from Bordeaux to work onOrtiz’s wines, lured by San Pablo’s intriguing terroir—its limestone soils and scruffy, high desert landscape.
Laura Catena has watched Argentine winemaking evolve since she first started working with her father, Nicolás, at Bodega Catena Zapata in the mid-1990s. Back then, she said, “I was told by French people, ‘You don’t have terroir in Argentina.’ And it makes me mad; I kind of believed it.” Today, it’s the quality of Argentina’s terroirs that has Catena arguing that the best Argentine Malbecs should be considered grand cru wines.
I agree. From a diversity of terroirs and at a range of price points, there’s greatness to be found in Argentine Malbec. Here are nine bottles to get you going.
2017 Altocedro Reserva Malbec ($30)
Winemaker Karim Mussi pioneered the La Consulta appellation in the Uco Valley, where huge diurnal swings in nighttime and daytime temperatures help keep the wines fresh. Made with fruit from 70-year-old vines aged in a mix of new and used barrels for 18 months, this earthy bottle delivers peppery and characteristic blueberry notes, but with an addictive lemon-and-stones finish.
2018 Amalaya Malbec ($16)
In this Malbec from American winemaker Donald Hess’ vineyards in the Calchaquí Valley, chocolate-coated raspberry notes mingle with a sly salinity and the earthy aromas that come from a portion of the wine’s fermentation in concrete. A bright acidity buoys the fruit and makes it imminently drinkable. It’s a bargain for when you’re grilling spring lamb chops, or digging into take-out souvlaki.
2017 Anko Flor de Cardon Malbec ($20)
Alejandro Sejanovich and Jeff Mausbach make Malbecs from some of Argentina’s most fascinating terroirs. The grapes for this one grow at 5,700 feet up on Salta’s Estancia Los Cardones vineyard, named for the native cacti that tower over the vines. It tastes like cherries smashed on hot stones, with a finish that wraps a tangerine-tinged brightness in chocolatey tannins.
2017 Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino ($100)
The label depicts four female figures in Malbec’s history: Eleanor of Aquitaine, for the grape’s French roots; an immigrant woman, for Malbec's move to the New World; Adrianna Catena, the winemaking family’s new generation; and a skeletal Madame Phylloxera, for the pest that ruined the world’s vineyards—except in Argentina, where old vines, grown from pre-phylloxera cuttings, produced the grapes for this bottle. Twenty-percent whole cluster, it has a floral spice that mingles with leather, smoke, and blueberry pie.
2018 Mattias Riccitelli Hey Malbec! ($23)
From rising Mendoza star Matías Riccatelli, this one’s a party-time crowd pleaser. It’s juicy and jammy with a charming rusticity and hint of café con leche flavor, but it sends you off with plenty of refreshing acidity. Enjoy it with spicy ribs or a saucy meatball sub.
2013 Lamadrid Matilde Malbec ($75)
Ninety-year-old Mendoz vines produce complex fruit for a bottle that starts off inscrutably but, with time (and decanting), opens up into gorgeousness. While nose full of herbs, and flavors of tobacco-y spice, dark berries, and orange peel are great, its best traits are structural: a luscious mouthfeel, well-integrated tannins, and the intensity of its mineral finish. Good stuff.
2014 Puramun Co-Fermented Malbec ($25)
Like a weightlifter walking a tightrope, this Malbec from famed Argentine winemaker Jose “Pepe” Galante is one big bruiser, but it is perfectly in balance. Plummy black fruit and lilting flower notes are enmeshed in well-defined grape tannins, thanks to Petit Verdot, which makes up 24 percent of the bottle.
2017 Wapisa Malbec ($22)
Pour a glass and get bowled over by the booming black-cherry perfume of this Malbec from Patricia Ortiz’s Patagonian winery. The vineyards are 21 miles from the sea, so the effusive aroma yields to freshness, salinity, and bittersweet acid, with a scrumptious prunes-and–dark chocolate finish.
N.V. Tapiz Espumante Rosé ($18)
For something different made with Malbec, here’s a loveable springtime sparkler, produced via méthode champenoise in the Uco Valley. A very brief maceration gives it a light, peachy blush. With exuberant strawberry and tropical fruit flavors, a fine, festive bubble, and a snappy, citrusy finish, it keeps you sipping and sipping.