There’s more to malbec than Mendoza

Peter Ranscombe explores the regionality of Argentina’s malbecs with Phil Crozier, director of wines at steak house chain Gaucho.

MALBEC has been one of the wine world’s great success stories. Wind the clock back 20 years and few drinkers had heard of the all-conquering red grape.

Now, it’s become ubiquitous on restaurant wine lists and supermarket shelves. Malbec has manoeuvred itself into word-association territory; “think steak, think malbec” has almost become a mantra, even to the extent that drawings of meat now grace bottle labels.

A huge chunk of malbec’s popularity is down to its soft tannins, the material that’s also found in tea and makes drinkers suck in their cheeks. If diners find the firm tannins of France or Italy just too dry for their mouths then chances are they’ll find a mate in malbec.

Argentina has been at the forefront of the grape’s surge in popularity. Although the variety’s spiritual home is in Cahors in the South-West of France – where it’s also known as “cot” and is used to produce deep and dark wines – it’s the South American country that has become most closely-associated with its fruity tones, although others parts of the world are trying to get in on the act too.

One man who has helped to put malbec on the map in the UK is Phil Crozier, director of wines at Gaucho, the upmarket Argentinian steak house chain that is opening a branch in Edinburgh this weekend. Gaucho is the big brother to CAU, where I indulged in a spot of steak and wine matching last summer, and the company has an exciting story, as told by group chief operations officer Tracey Matthews to my colleague Steve Dyson over at BQ magazine.

Crozier wanted the Argentinian food served in the restaurants to be paired with Argentinian wines. When he began buying stock for Gaucho in the late 1990s, there were only about 13 malbecs being imported into the UK from Argentina.

Now, Crozier is involved in commissioning exclusive wines from producers in South America and Gaucho even owns a vineyard at Lunlunta in the Lujan de Cuyo area of Mendoza. Thanks to malbec being firmly established, he wants to see a greater focus on regionality; just in the same way that there are differences between Bordeaux wines created in the Medoc or Saint-Emilion, so there are variations between malbecs made in Mendoza and Salta and Patagonia.

One way to demonstrate the versatility of malbec is to pair different wines with the different steaks served by the chain. While the company’s four main cuts – fillet, rib-eye, rump and sirloin – come from Aberdeen Angus cattle in Argentina, the Edinburgh restaurant is also serving Limousin T-bone steaks and Cote De Boeuf from Borders-based butcher Shaws Fine Meat, all selected under the watchful eye of Jamie Robertson, the firm’s chef director, who worked under Jamie Oliver and who hails from Bonnyrigg in Midlothian.

Exploring regionality

Crozier selected five malbecs from the 200-odd wines on his list to pair with Robertson’s four steaks. What struck me most about all the wines was their freshness – Argentina’s vineyards are at altitude, which helps the grapes to retain their acidity – and the ripe fruit flavours, with warm weather allowing the grapes to reach full ripeness before being picked.

Two of the cooler climate malbecs really caught my eye with their elegance. The Humberto Canale Old Vine Malbec (£59.50) from Rio Negro in Patagonia had such crisp and fresh acidity that it felt like a white wine, with really intense raspberry and redcurrant aromas on the nose being joined by darker blackcurrant and vanilla flavours on the palate.

While the Humberto Canale’s cool climate came from its southerly location, the single vineyard 2015 Poligonos Tupungato Alto (£59) from the Uco Valley in Mendoza owed its crisp acidity to its altitude, weighing in at 1,300m above sea level, compared to the Humberto’s mere 250m. The Poligonos – arguably my favourite malbec of the night – offered minty and herbal aromas, with a sniff of pencil lead too; there was more blackcurrant fruit joining the raspberry and redcurrant on the palate, along with enhanced grip from the fine tannins and a crack of black pepper on the finish.

Staying in the Uco Valley and the Atamisque Cuvee Privee (£69.50), also from a single vineyard, this time at 1,150m above sea level, demonstrated malbec’s affinity for oak, showing more of the vanilla flavours on the nose and palate. That didn’t mean it was skimping on the freshness though, with plenty of acidity and black fruit to balance the well-integrated oak.

Grapes from the 80-year-old vines in Gaucho’s own vineyard in Lunlunta at some 980m of altitude were used to make the 2013 Vina Patricia (£51.50 per bottle, £13.50 per 175ml glass) with softer and rounder tannins. Lots of vanilla, blackberry and blackcurrant aromas and then more raspberry flavours coming through, with minty notes and a dark chocolate twist on the finish.

The Colome Terruno de Gran Altura (£58.25) is made using grapes from the three highest vineyards in the world, stretching from 2,650m to 3,111m in Salta. Made for Crozier by the Hess family, the red fruit flavours were more distinct on the nose – with redcurrant, cranberry and another smidge of HB pencil, perhaps more reminiscent of cabernet franc than its Bordeaux blending partner – and the tannins were drier and firmer, making it the only wine for me where the structure edged slightly ahead of the fruit concentration.

And the matches? For me, the Atamisque was the top all-rounder, going best with the rib-eye, while also working well with the rump and sirloin, so a good choice if sharing a bottle with diners who have selected a mix of steaks. The Vina Patricia struck the right chord for me with the sirloin, while the Humberto Canale sang with the rump, which was a revelation, with its lower fat content. The cooler climate options also ticked the boxes for the fillet, with the Colome just edging it.

Continuing the trend we’ve already explored with Zonin’s 1821 Wine Hotel and Contini, Gaucho is also offering off-sales, with its malbecs and other wines available to buy at