Mendoza is a giant in many ways.
In the most obvious way, it is the largest and most important wine region in one of the largest countries on earth — a prodigious wine-producing nation that consistently hovers around the No. 5 spot worldwide.
Metaphorically, the Mendoza region of Argentina is a giant for what it has done with, and for, malbec, its adopted and most-prized grape variety. Mendoza lies in western Argentina, at the foot of the Andes mountain range, about 650 miles west of the capital city of Buenos Aires.
The Andes give Mendoza its altitude, with some of its best vineyards rising to roughly 3,000 feet in elevation, and others soaring past 5,000 feet, providing a sunny, dry climate with cool nights. The province of Mendoza is divided into regions, one of which, Lujan de Cuyo, was named Argentina’s first protected wine appellation in 1993. Another is the legendary Uco Valley (or Valle de Uco, as it often appears on labels), which includes the Tupungato, Tunuyan and San Carlos districts.
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Argentina has been home to winemaking operations since the late 1500s, due in part to both friendly and hostile visitors from across the Atlantic Ocean in Spain. But it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that malbec arrived in Argentina from France. This is when the sleeping giant’s eyelids began to flutter, though it would be another century and a half before the giant was fully awake. They move slowly, giants.
In Cahors, the wine region in southwestern France where malbec was born, it’s often a big wine full of heft and tannins — a good partner for the rich, local cuisine, such as cassoulet, duck confit, game meats, foie gras and black truffles. Argentine malbec is generally fruitier and less tannic than it is in Cahors, with hints of plum, blackberries, chocolate, earth and spice, plus a supple, velvety mouthfeel. Still, though, it’s a great complement to big foods: steaks, burgers and just about any seared meat plucked from a flame-kissed grate. Argentines eat their locally grown, grass-fed beef like it’s the only food there is, after all.
Malbecs from Argentina are no longer the across-the-board bargains that they once were (due, presumably, in part to an influx of foreign interest in the region), but there are still plenty of affordable bottles out there. While other grapes, including cabernet sauvignon and bonarda, are sometimes blended with malbec, many Mendoza malbecs are 100 percent varietals. Even in the case of blends, to be labeled a malbec in Argentina, the bottle must contain at least 85 percent of the grape.
Argentine malbecs, especially from within Mendoza, are relatively easy to find in shops and restaurants. Below are brief notes from a recent tasting. The bottles are listed in ascending order, according to price.
2015 Alamos malbec: This blend of 90 percent malbec, 6 percent syrah and 4 percent bonarda offers plum, blackberry, black cherry, smoke and vanilla, with a silky, soft texture. $13
2015 Bodega Argento malbec: Blackberry, plum, ripe dark cherry and a hint of toast are all present in this 100 percent malbec, aged four months in French and American oak. $14
2014 Kaiken Reserva malbec: Bright and jammy cherry and blackberry commingle with sweet oak and spice in this 96 percent malbec, 4 percent cabernet sauvignon blend. $14
2015 Don Miguel Gascon malbec: This 100 percent varietal offers bursts of blueberry, plum, herbs and mocha, plus a velvety texture and a long finish. $15
2014 Zuccardi Serie A malbec: Full of sweet black cherry, blackberry, herbs, minerality, tobacco and chocolate, this wine clocks in at 14.7 percent alcohol. $15
2014 Tomero malbec: From the Uco Valley, this easy-drinking 100 percent varietal offers plum, tobacco, cherry, chocolate and a touch of spice on the finish. $17
2014 Terrazas de los Andes Reserva malbec: Ripe and juicy dark fruits are accompanied by zingy acidity, spice and vanilla in this elegant, floral wine. $20
2014 Vina Cobos Felino malbec: Blackberry, vanilla and loads of cedar come through in this beautiful wine, which is surprisingly fresh and lively with a lingering finish. $20
2014 Trivento Golden Reserve malbec: Made of 100 percent malbec, this one starts with ripe dark fruits and leads to savory herbs, tobacco, tangy acidity and grippy tannins. $21
2014 Achaval-Ferrer malbec: Plum, earth, herbs, cigar box, ripe and vibrant dark fruits, tobacco, tangy acidity and a long, layered finish sum up this 100 percent varietal. $25
2014 Bodega Septima Septima Obra malbec: Cherry-strawberry bubble gum, a tiny note of banana taffy, silky texture and vibrant acidity made this one of the tasting’s best. $25