What is it? Malbec is a grape variety, one of the six allowed in the making of French Bordeaux, where it is used strictly for blending. It’s also the main grape in the red wine of Cahors, which is usually dark, muddy, very tannic wine—not for the timid. In 1956, 75 percent of the Malbec crop in Bordeaux was destroyed by frost and it’s never quite recovered. But, the thin-skinned grape thrives in Argentina, where there’s more sun, heat and robust soil and where the wines produced are softer and less tannic than those of Cahors.
Gus Magann—occasional City Weekly contributor and owner of Vine Lore, Inc.—says about Malbec, “Argentine Malbec usually offers flavors of plums and anise, but this is only if the grapes have proper hang time. If not, the wines are green and unpleasant. I think Malbec’s popularity is both an asset and a liability. On one hand, notable producers are selling a lot of tasty, affordable wine. Yet with this popularity comes production merely to meet demand and a lessening of quality along the way.” So, buyer beware.
Just as the massive increase in production of Pinot Noir thanks to the movie Sideways led to a watering down of the product overall, Malbec’s popularity has resulted in many not-so-great wines. Thankfully, they’re mostly cheap enough to try a few until you find some you like. Here are some notes on the ones I tried.
Colores del Sol Malbec 2009 ($6.99): Black cherry and blackberry notes dominate in this bold wine, which is more black than red. Like many Argentine Malbecs, and all of the ones discussed here, this comes from the Mendoza region. It’s a little chalky in texture, with some mocha flavors, and higher alcohol content (13.5 percent).
Trapiche Malbec 2009 ($8.99): Trapiche is a well-known producer of Argentine Malbec and this is its entry-level bottling. However, I’m not crazy about this wine. The 13.5 percent alcohol is noticeable and the wine tastes a little bitter and green, but gets better after spending some time in the glass. Skip this one and upgrade to Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec 2008 ($9.99). For the extra buck, you get surprising elegance (for Malbec), blackberry and plum flavors, silky texture and good complexity. Although it’s a whopping 14 percent alcohol, the oak lends finesse that isn’t evident in the Trapiche Malbec 2009.
Doña Paula Los Cardos Malbec 2009 ($8.99): A chef friend turned me onto this wine, a good value and cheap enough to drink with gyros. Plum and blackberry flavors abound, along with hints of black pepper.
Don Miguel Gascon Malbec 2009 ($10.99): Smoky, deep-purple Malbec with black cherry and blackberry flavors. It’s a little dusty, with some mocha notes; not my favorite. For the same price, I’d opt for Bodega Elena Malbec 2009, with dark, intense, black fruit flavors and hints of oak. Grill a steak for this one. Finally, Crios de Susana Balbo 2009 ($11.99) is an interesting, high-alcohol (13.9 percent) Rosé of Malbec, with a lot of body and depth—definitely not a wimpy Rosé.