Monday, June 21, 2010

Malbec - Argentina's Bread & Butter

I was very lucky last week to be able to sit down and taste with Julian Gomez, the export manager for the Enrique Foster line. It was a great tasting and we had a chance to try some really cool juice. After the tasting I got to thinking about Malbec and Argentina, 15 years ago production and quality were not the same in Argentina as it is today, but I think that can be said for a number of wine producing countries - both new and old world.

Like many countries Argentina put a lot of emphasis on bulk wine production and little on quality. It has been wonderful to watch this region come in to its own and really focus on trying to produce world class wines. Beyond Malbec plenty of grapes thrive, one of the most fun to see become popular has been Bonarda, traditionally an Italian red varietal. The country has also shown they can make some delicious white wines using varietals like Torrontes, but at the end of the day, it's Malbec that pays the bills.

The tasting I had with Julian from Enrique Foster really opened my eyes to the versatility of the grape. For a while there I thought elevation was more important than the grape in Argentina. What with a number of producers putting the elevation of their vineyards on the label almost as large as the grape variety. Don't get me wrong, elevation is a key component to the success of Argentinian wines. Too much heat can over ripe fruit, but hot days and cool nights can help the grape maintain balance and that is exactly what the Andes do for Argentina. They allow producers to plant hearty grapes that need sun to ripen but cool to maintain balanced acidity and sugar levels.Once I got over my fear of heights (get it, elevation - heights) I found that the Malbec grape can show great depth and complexity.

With Julian we started off the tasting with the 2009 IQUE Malbec, entry level - usually retails for around $15 depending on your market. This wine expressed the grapes purity. It was fermented and aged 100% in stainless steel. The wine underwent malolactic fermentation but beyond that there was very little adulterating. It expressed wonderful ripe fruit flavors and was fruit forward and juicy but not one dimensional or lacking depth. It was just fun to see the grape naked.

We tasted up the line to the Reserva, the Limited Edition and ended with the Firmando. Oh my word, this may have been the finest Malbec I have ever tasted. Aged and fermented in oak this wine was big, bold, rich, well-balanced, complex, and earthy while still maintaining delicious dark fruit. I'm not a "ratings whore" but this wine was a well deserved 96 by Senior Parker of the Wine Advocate. Parker usually likes wines that are a little too big for me and lack depth but this wine had wonderful balance and complexity.

After the tasting I got a chance to ask Julian a few questions about their vineyards, both location and management. I heard the same things from him that I hear from other Argentinian producers, it's ideal for growing grapes. The Mendoza region where these grapes where grown has the perfect climate, soil and location. The diurnal variation (or range) is ideal for growing hearty varietals - hot days, cool nights. Mendoza (where much of the quality production is taking place) has the perfect amount of rainfall and in dry years they make up in with the water from the snow melting off the mountains. Very few vineyards need to irrigate, so water is virtually free - a major bonus when considered it's one of the largest costs at a winery. The region (again Mendoza) has the perfect soil type - alluvial. Great for growing grapes.

I would argue the biggest advantage that Argentinian winemakers over others like from California is the cost of land. An acre in Napa Valley can cost up to $300,000 or more, whereas an acre in Mendoza will cost no more than $25,000, and that's for the best sites. Cost of a vineyard can be an important factor when talking about yields. Yield is the amount of grapes that are harvested (picked) from the vine. The more grapes that grow on a vine the less quality each is likely to be. When you pay $300,000 an acre you have to make the most of your land, getting the biggest crop possible while still trying to maintain quality. In Mendoza if you run out of land you can just buy some more. It's inexpensive and there is plenty of it. Low yields are a key component in the Firmado (2-4 clusters per vine versus 10-12 for the IQUE) as well as other quality wines from Argentina.

I had a chance last year to hear Doug Frost speak. He is both a Master Sommelier and Master of Wine (there are only like 3 in the world - so needless to say, he's really smart). He shared with us a story about a trip he took down to Argentina to advise winemakers. He said he had every intention of having to scold the group, telling them to have more hygienic wineries, lower yields, less irrigation, etc. When he arrived he was speechless. Everything he thought he was going to have to tell them they were already doing. They had already discovered good quality trumped quantity.

I think Argentina has a bright future and I'm looking forward to watching them grow and become a player in the high quality international wine market. As always, thanks so much for reading I hope you enjoyed. Make sure to sign up for your 7 day FREE trial at to learn more.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director
Cru Wine Online


Brittany said...

It is interesting what you mention abotu the cost of land and the differences in price betwen acres in Mendoza and Napa. That is true, and if you go to Mendoza you can get a tour inside the renowned winery Bodega Bianchi.
Last year I had rented one of those furnished apartments in buenos aires which by the way I loved, and then I decided to head up to Mendoza. Wine is excellent and don´t get me started about food.
I really enjoyed it!

Cru Wine Specialists said...

Thanks for the comment. I have never been but heard it is BEAUTIFUL! I'm a big fan of Bianchi from their entry level Elsa on up to their estate label. Thanks again for the feedback.