Peter Ranscombe continues his journey through the 12 wines of Christmas with top-end bottles from Argentina.
TAKE a walk along a supermarket wine aisle and it’s easy to dismiss Argentina as a land full of simple malbec.
Row after row of cheap and usually very cheerful red wines demonstrate how the country and the grape have captured the public’s imagination.
Think steak, think malbec – it’s a tried a tested formula for many of us, whether it’s in the supermarket or in a restaurant.
With its easy-going tannins, its fruity mix of blackcurrant and raspberry flavours, and its ability to take a wee bit of sweet vanilla oak, it’s little surprise that malbec has won a place in many of our hearts.
Yet there’s a whole other side to malbec too.
A recent online tasting hosted by the Argentine embassay in London illustrated what happens when malbec goes all grown-up.
The wines on show demonstrated the grape’s more serious side, when winemakers concentrate on individual sites, rather than consistency-driven large regional blends – the single malts alongside the blended whiskies.
Presenter Amanda Barnes captured the idea perfectly when she said Argentina’s style was shifting from Bordeaux to Burgundy – instead of using new oak to add sweet vanilla flavours, winemakers were instead concentrating on making wines from tiny plots.
Swedish master of wine Madeleine Stenwreth, the other presenter on the video call, added that winemakers from Argentina were also drawing inspiration from north-west Spain, and treating malbec like garnacha, using gentler winemaking techniques to tease out its perfumed side.
Both those elements came together in the 2017 Bodegas Trapiche Terroir Series Finca Ambrosia Malbec (£32.99, Noel Young Wines), from Gualtallary, a high-altitude region within Mendoza’s Uco Valley.
Violets, blackcurrant, and blackberry on the nose were joined by smoked ham and beef mince, hinting at the more savoury palate, with raspberry jam and well-integrated vanilla accompanying the black fruit flavours.
The tannins were grainy and textured, with the classic bite needed for steak, all wrapped up in fresh acidity, which carried on through into the long finish.
A sign of what’s to come
Two of the other cracking examples from the online tasting are sadly not available in the UK – the 2016 Pyros Single Vineyard Block No 4 Malbec and the 2019 Proyecto Las Compuertas Cinco Suelos Malbec.
This is where Scotland’s legion of independent wine merchants can work their magic though – ask about single-vineyard malbecs and gentler winemaking and they’ll be able to talk you through what’s in their range.
The Pyros hails from San Juan, the second-largest wine-producing region after the all-conquering Mendoza.
Malbec is just edging ahead of syrah in terms of output, and the Pedernal area in which the Pyros is made is the highest part of San Juan, and with its coolness making it home to aromatic whites like sauvignon blanc and gewürztraminer.
Block #4 has juicy blackcurrant and blackberry aromas and flavours, with lusher cassis, vanilla, raspberry, and a hint of herb.
There’s a surprising grip to the tannins too, along with great freshness.
New Generation Wines imports other bottles from Pyros, so look out for the brand in independent wine merchants’ shops.
My favourite wine at the tasting was the “Cinco Suelos” or “five soils”.
Its complex nose ranged from violets, black fruits, and dark chocolate through to roast meat and a bit of damp fur.
Texture was key here, with grainy yet well-integrated tannins, more fresh acidity, and balsamic vinegar touches amid the graphite and dark chocolate notes.
Bibendum imports other wines under the Proyecto Las Compuertas label, with three of them on sale through the Gaucho chain of Argentine steak restaurants – check out Scottish Field editor Richard Bath’s recent review of the Edinburgh branch.
For something easier to find, try the 20018 Trivento Golden Reserve Malbec (£12 down from £16, Asda and Tesco).
Trivento is a much larger producer, with its wines having featured regularly in my Wine to Dine column in the main Scottish Field magazine.
Its Golden Reserve shows its possible to make quality wine in bigger quantities, although – as the lower price tag suggests – this is a blend of grapes from four areas within Mendoza’s Luján de Cuyo region, rather than a single vineyard.
It’s textbook malbec – blackcurrant and raspberry on the nose and then juicy dark fruit on the palate, with fresh acidity and a meat-friendly graininess to its tannins.
Given their quality and complexity, I expect we’ll see more malbecs in these styles appearing on our shelves and on our wine lists in the years ahead.
Tomorrow: the 12 wines of Christmas continue with Rutherglen in Australia.