Argentina – Malbecs in Mendoza

9 December 2011 – 22 December 2011, Mendoza, Argentina

(Almost all the photos – the good ones at least – were taken by Diane on her new Canon Rebel t3i)

Just to prove I didn't only drink wine - my first taste of Yerba mate

Diane, Nard and I spent two weeks before Christmas vacationing in Argentina. While we planned on visiting the Iguazu falls and going to the beach, one of our main goals was to learn more about Argentine wine.

Prior to visiting Argentina, my impression of their wines was that they were neither terrible nor memorable. An Argentine wine was synonymous with a dark, spicy and fruity Malbec.

After spending two weeks in the country and four days in the main wine growing region of the country, I concluded it was about as hard to find a really bad Malbec as it was to find a truly great one. They do exist – the Vina Cobos Malbec could hold its own against any top California Cabernet. But there may be half a dozen vineyards that currently have this ability, certainly not more than ten. I concluded that some combination of both the varietal, as well as the wine-making techniques both contributed to this strong mediocrity.

We drank so many wines while we were there – easily tasting over 50 wines in total – that it would be too time-consuming (and boring) to write about all of them. I’ll limit the discussion to the salient vineyards and bottlings we tried.

Vineyard at the Finca Adalgisa, where we stayed in Mendoza

1. Alta Vista

Mid-size producer with annual production between 2-3mm bottles. This was the last vineyard we visited in Mendoza – located in Lujan de Cuyo – this is my example of what would be considered a good vineyard with name recognition. People all around Argentina will associate Alta Vista with high quality wines – I enjoyed their Terroir selection Malbec and Diane liked their Atemporal sparkling rose.

However, I would rate most of the wines we tried in high 80’s – nothing meditative, memorable, explosive, or surprising.  In fairness, we did not try their top tier wine, Alto, but our palates were so shot by this point it didn’t seem worth it.  For wine with food, you can’t miss with these guys.  We had their “Premium” line which is considered inferior to the Terroir selection, and it went very well with our Italian meal at Sottovoce in Buenos Aires.

My wine of choice from the tasting was the Terroir selection Malbec – very representative of the varietal. Smooth all the way through, deep purple, with sweet dark fruity taste with a hint of spiciness:

2008 Alta Vista Terroir Selection Malbec

Diane’s favorite at the tasting was their rose champagne. Made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the label claims to use the traditional champagne method but we never confirmed with them. Light, crisp and refreshing:

2009 Alta Vista Atemporal

** 2008 Alta Vista Terroir Selection Malbec, $25

** 2009 Alta Vista Atemporal, $20

2. Pulmary

The first vineyard we visited was a tiny, family owned winery within walking distance from our hotel. The tasting and tour was great as we got to try wine samples from their cement tanks, oak barrels and of course the finished product.  Estefania, our tour guide, told us their annual production was around 50,000 bottles of Malbec, Reserve Malbec and a Malbec Rose (first time I ever tried it).  They are completely organic in their viticultural techniques and wine-making.

This was our first time ever tasting barrel samples and thought it was incredible to see how the wine developed over time to bottling:

Estefania giving us a barrel sample

We collectively agreed that we liked the 2008 reserve Malbec and the rose.  We bought a bottle of each to bring back to our hotel:

2008 Pulmary Donaria Reserva, 2009 CUQ Rosado

I thought their reserve Malbec was comparable in both price and quality to the Alta Vista Terroir Selection and I always prefer drinking wines from small producers when possible. I just wish they had better distribution in Argentina and abroad.

** 2008 Pulmary Donaria Reserva, $25

** 2009 CUQ Rosado, $20

3. Clos de Chacras

When keeping it real goes wrong – small producer, also in Lujan de Cuyo and I had high expectations. Their production is also around 50,000 bottles per year but the wines were acid bombs.  We had several of their entry level wines in addition to their reserve level Gran Estripe blend and it just wasn’t good. Too harsh with strong tannins that did not balance well.  When all things are equal, I give affirmative action treatment to small producers but these wines were not good:

2007 Clos de Chacras Gran Estripe Blend

* 2007 Clos de Chacras Gran Estripe Blend, $40

4. Vina Cobos

This winery is a joint venture between Paul Hobbs and two Argentine owners, Andrea Marchiori and Luis Barraud. They are effectively a wine negociant and have very close relationships with many growers that they buy grapes from. Due to their wide selection of grapes, they have several lines starting with the Felino, Bramare Appelation, Bramare Vineyard Designation, and Cobos. We tasted one example of each level and found all the wines to be extremely well made.

Diane loved the Felino Chardonnay – fruity with a light hint of oak and acidity.  Incredible value for an entry level Chardonnay. The 2006 Cobos Malbec was hands down, the most incredible wine on the trip.  You could immediately taste the complexity, change in taste throughout the palate, that every other Malbec we had on the trip had lacked:

2010 Vina Cobos Felino Chardonnay, 2006 Vina Cobos Malbec

** 2010 Vina Cobos Felino Chardonnay, $20

*** 2006 Vina Cobos Malbec, $175

5. Malbec and Aging Wines

Two questions I had before going to Mendoza: why Malbec and why were all the wines so young?

Malbec is used in Bordeaux blends in France and to a small degree in California but no other producing area made it their piece de resistance. After asking several producers, they claimed that Malbec was particularly well suited to the hot, dry climate (my response, so why not Cabernet?) but also, Malbec defined Argentine wines. It distinguished them on the shelf from the thousands of other Cabernets and Bordeaux blends in the market. From a marketing perspective that makes sense to me – why not make something very similar, but brand it as something different?

Malbec grapes hanging above our lunch table at Pulmary

When it came to the question of age, nobody had a great answer.  When I asked why they all drank such young wines, they would say, “Oh, you need to try our 2006 Malbec, it’s developing so well.”

When you taste the wine and even the wines that have aged for 2-3 years in the bottle, you see the potential for aging.  How would a 30 year old, first-growth Malbec taste?  Nobody knows because they didn’t make wines of this quality 30 years ago.  Additionally, the Argentine culture doesn’t seem to care for this idea of aging wine – they drink the latest wine with their steak and that’s that.

In the next 10-20 years, I suspect people will start to learn and start to appreciate old wines.  I’m tempted to do the same myself with a case of Vina Cobos Malbecs.

Cellar at Alta Vista