The Wine Spectator recently released its Top 100 Wines for the year. Argentina was well represented with five wines (Australia had six), and all of the Argentine wines were malbecs, mainly from the Mendoza region at the foothills of the Andes in Argentina.

According to the Wine Spectator’s wine critic Matt Kramer: “There is no greater value in red wine anywhere in the world today than Argentine malbec.” (Augustus Weed, 2010 New World Wine Experience: Miraculous Malbec, The Wine Spectator, 1 November 2010).  Of the five Argentine wines in the Top 100, only the Trapiche Mendoza Vina Fausto Orellana de Escobar 2007 (rrp $US48) was more than $US25.

Malbec is one of the accepted varieties in Bordeaux. The Cahors region in south-west France was granted appellation controlee status in 1971. Due to the ravaging effects of phylloxera and changing tastes, until recently malbec plantings in Cahors were in decline. But perhaps spurred on by the export success of the variety in Argentina, some outstanding producers are now making fine examples of this big, rich and darkly coloured ‘black’ wine.

The spotlight, however, is on Argentine Malbec. Here the variety thrives in the high altitude and semi-desert landscapes of Mendoza and the surrounding regions. One of the wines in the Top 100, the Bodega Colomé Malbec 2008 (ranked 66th), from the Calchaqui Valley of the Salta province, holds the record for the world’s highest vineyard at 3000 metres!

The combination of high altitude, long days of bright sunshine and the warm, dry La Zonda winds, which bring warmth to the high altitude vines, produce vivid fruit of intense flavours, good acidity and fine tannins. Many of the better wines are made from 100 plus year old vines.

In contrast, French malbec is subject to a shorter growing season, which produces less ripe grapes and more austere (leaner and greener) and structured wines with more minerality. In fact, the Wine Spectator’s James Molesworth argues “there are few cases where so stark a distinction can be drawn between New World and Old World wines made from the same grape.” (James Molesworth, Malbec’s Ancestral Home, The Wine Spectator, 13 January 2004)

Mendoza is about 1,000 km west of Buenos Aires. Grapes have been growing in the region since the 1500s, but up until the 1990s production was mainly directed to the huge domestic market. Argentinians consume more wine on a per capita basis than almost any other country in the world.

The 1990s saw the restoration of democracy and an influx of foreign capital. Coupled with the devaluation of the peso and a renewed emphasis on making high quality wine, conditions were ripe for wine exports to surge.

Argentine malbec is particularly popular in the United States. Eric Asimov of The New York Times notes that the trade group Wines of Argentina estimates that US shipments of Argentine malbec have quintupled to nearly 3.15 million cases in 2009 from about 628,000 cases in 2005! (Eric Asimov, Argentina Opens the Tap for Malbec, The New York Times, 27 April 2010)

After a tasting of 20 bottles from the Mendoza region ranging in price form $US10 to $US50, Asimov made the following general assessment of the style:

Over all, these wines were juicy and straightforward, emphasizing fruit flavors with occasional nuances. They were consistent, generally unchallenging and crowd-pleasing. In short, what’s not to like?

That really depends on your point of view. Malbecs’ emphasis on soft, ripe fruitiness over more polarizing flavors and their velvety textures make them safe and reliable for people who may be unsure of their tastes. Some of the wines we opened were a little more ripe and jammy, while others were spicier and more linear. But these were small divergences in what was largely a uniform set of characteristics. (Argentina Opens the Tap for Malbec, The New York Times, 27 April 2010)

As Weed reported in his article, 2010 New World Wine Experience: Miraculous Malbec, The Wine Spectator, 1 November 2010, the best producers are aiming to take Argentine malbec “beyond affordable succulent reds to more complex wines that will transform and improve over time.” Kramer singled out the Achával-Ferrer Finca Bella Vista Mendoza 2008 (93, rrp $120), from Luján de Cuyo as the most elegant malbec he had ever tasted.

Argentine malbecs are not as easy to find in Australia, although I noticed that the online retailer Nicks Wine Merchants has a decent selection.  As I noted in my post, A Great Week for Wine Tasting!, at a restaurant I tried the Jed Malbec 2007, which is made by three young Aussie winemakers in the Mendoza region. Recently I picked up a bottle of the 2008 at Vaucluse Cellars for around $20. I really enjoyed this wine. A bit of fruit and a touch of spice, very soft tannins and alcohol of only 13.5%.

Many of my New York friends rave about these wines, so I think we will eventually see more malbecs on the shelves here. I would love to hear your thoughts?

Photo Credit: Argentina’s Napa Valley by Alexei Barrionuevo, The New York Times, 18 November 2010