If someone asks you for a wine from Argentina, they would probably mention a bottle of Malbec, from a producer, such as Catena, Norton, or Luigi Bosca, but did you know that this red grape originally comes from the Bordeaux and Cahors regions in France? It is a permitted blending grape in Bordeaux, but it had a hard time ripening, then when phylloxera hit, and grapes were replanted on American rootstock, less Malbec was planted. But before phylloxera devastated European vineyards, Malbec vines were transported to Argentina in 1853.
On April 17, 1853, the President of Argentina, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, asked Michel Aimé Pouget, a French soil expert, to bring over new vines to transform Argentina’s wine industry. One of the varieties Michel brought was Malbec.
According to the Wines of Argentina, “Argentina is the main producer of Malbec. With 109,686 acres, Malbec represents 38.6% of the total red varieties and 22.4% of the total cultivated area in the country (INV – 12/31/2019)… Malbec World Day is a global initiative created by Wines of Argentina that seeks to position Argentine Malbec as one of the most prominent in the world and celebrate the success of the national wine industry.”
The Secrets to Argentinean Malbec Quality
Is there a secret to why Malbec grapes produce top-quality wines in Argentina? In a Wines of Argentina seminar that I attended in 2018, the speaker noted that there are a few factors: altitude, climate, and soil.
From Mendoza north to Salta, the elevation at the foot of the Andes mountains increases from 300 to 2700m, with vineyards planted at all elevations. Altitude contributes to a variety of microclimates with varying intensities of sunlight to ripen the grapes. The more intense sunlight has caused the Malbec grapes in these areas to form thicker skins, which provides more tannins and deeper colour to the wine, as well as affect the aromas and flavours in the wine.
The climate in Argentina, on the eastern slopes of the Andes mountains, is very dry. As the weather moves from west to east, from Chile, clouds with moisture are pushed up the western slopes of the mountains which causes the clouds to precipitate by rain or snow, so that when the clouds come over the mountains and down the eastern slopes of Argentina there is no more moisture. Plus as the clouds move downslope, the air is compressed; compression generates heat so that the Argentinean vines get warm to hot, dry air flowing over them. This helps to keep out fungal diseases that thrive in cooler, damp conditions so that Argentina can more easily produce organic wines.
When you drive through a mountain range you notice that the higher mountains tend to be bare rock, with vegetation in the valleys. Vegetation can only grow successfully up to a certain elevation, known as the “tree line”. Higher elevations plus leeward slopes (e.g. the eastern Andes) results in low rainfall and increased exposure to solar radiation, which dries out the soil, resulting in a localized arid/desert environment. With the lack of vegetation in these areas of Argentina, there is little organic material to enrich the soil. The soil is basically decomposed rock from the mountains. This lack of organic matter leads to restricted vine growth. The lack of nutrients and dryness of the soil affects the flavour development of the grapes.
More Insights from Alberto Arizu
Further to these insights, I attended a seminar in 2019 with Alberto Arizu the great-grandson for the Luigi Bosca Winery. Alberto noted that traditionally in France where Malbec originates it is a fast ripening grape, but when it is planted at high elevation in Mendoza it ripens more slowly and gets a better concentration of fruit flavours. 60% of Argentina’s Malbec vines are planted above 1000m asl and are planted on their original rootstock. Alberto noted that Argentina has 4 advantages of growing Malbec over the rest of the world: 1) altitude = slow maturation of grapes which lead to more concentrated flavours, 2) alluvial soil – poor in organic matter gives good quality grapes, 3) dry desert – they get less than 200mm of rain while vines need 600mm of rain each year, 4) they use the best water in the world from the Andes snowmelt.
Alberto’s comments matched many reasons for Malbec greatness in Argentina as I was told in the 2018 seminar. These factors make Argentinean Malbec unique. We grow Malbec in BC, it is grown in California, Australia, and other areas, but none match all the factors covered by the high altitude Mendoza region.
Buying a Bottle of Argentinean Malbec in BC
For these reasons, on April 17, we should raise a glass of Argentinean Malbec and enjoy it with family and friends (in your safe 10 bubble of course). Do you need help picking a bottle of Argentinean Malbec in BC Liquor Stores? I can help you with a few that I have tried in the past. The full list of Argentinean Malbecs at BC Liquor Stores at this link.
Bodega Luigi Bosca Malbec 2018 ($23.99) – Almost opaque with mostly garnet colour and a touch of ruby. The Vistalba has a greater ruby tint. A lighter intensity sweet fruit aromas of blueberries, raspberries, and black plums, along with candied red fruits. The aromas get slightly stronger with decanting, plus you can add a touch of smokiness and tea leaves. Dryish, with a medium-plus body, thicker, silky, fully round mouthfeel. Medium acidity and very fine-grained light tannins. Ripe, sweet blueberries, blackberries, cherries and plums on the palate. A touch of dark chocolate, sweet spices, and floral with some swirling. With decanting you primarily get blackberries and blueberries, and some plums, with the other fruit flavours fading. The wine still has a nice thick, round, silky mouthfeel. Nutmeg spice becomes more obvious. A medium plus length, finishing round with rich, sweet, ripe, blackberries and plums. Light pepperiness and slightly drying tannins. You get slightly firmer tannins, light oak, blackberries and plums on the finish with decanting. –
- Trapiche Terroir Series Uco Valley Finca Ambrosia Malbec 2017 ($39.99) – My tasting notes from the 2014 vintage: Light intensity, dark ripe fruit nose. Medium-plus body, dry with firmer tannins. Light mouthfeel. Ripe black fruits, nutmeg and pepper on the palate.
Bodega Catena Zapata Alta Malbec 2016 ($59.99) – This wine has a deep dull ruby colour in the glass. A nice nose, showing cloves, purple fruit and sweet spices. This wine is fuller-bodied, dry with fine chalky tannins and some minerality. Fresh purple and black fruits together with some violet floral and sweet spices. –
- Bodega Catena Malbec 2018 ($24.99) – My tasting notes from the 2017 vintage: This wine has a mix of garnet and ruby colours; it is translucent in the glass. Nice aromas of nutmeg and purple fruits. Medium-plus body, dry, semi-round, with light acidity and medium intensity tannins. Smoke and raspberries on the palate. Bright fruit flavours from the acidity in the wine. An elegant wine. –
If you are willing to allow 15% Cabernet Sauvignon with the Malbec, then this wine is a winner as well.
Bodega Vistalba Corte C 2017 ($23.98 at Everything Wine) – Garnet with a ruby tint. Almost opaque, 98%, to the rim. A medium intensity nose, with deep ripe aromas of blackberries. Light smokiness, oak, vanilla, black plums and sweet spices. With decanting the aromas get a bit stronger. Slightly off-dry, medium-bodied with a very soft, silky, light mouthfeel. A mix of plums, blueberries, blackberries and black cherries flavours. A touch of dark chocolate and oak. Some floral with swirling. A significant mineral streak. Very fine, light tannins. As with the nose, with decanting, the wine gets a slightly bigger, thicker mouthfeel. The tannins are a little stronger and have a chalky feel. There are more blackberries than blueberries and no floral, but you do now get a coffee component. The minerality persists with decanting and gives some additional excitement to this wine Medium length. A round finish, with sweet ripe black fruit flavours. Tannins are quite light and not that observable; more acidity. Some light pepperiness with swirling. With decanting the tannins become a little firmer as well as an increase in pepperiness. You still get nice sweet, ripe, black fruit flavours on the finish. You can enjoy this wine with or without decanting. –
Other Argentinean Wines
Here are a few other Argentinean Malbecs I am recommending based on my past knowledge of the wineries and their wines. No recent tasting notes.
- Graffigna Malbec ($14.99)
- Trapiche Reserve Mendoza Malbec ($14.99)
- BenMarco Dominio del Plata Malbec 2018 ($26.99)
- Bodega Norton Reserva Malbec ($15.97)
- Escorihuela 1884 Estate Grown Mendoza Malbec ($15.99 on sale till May 1)
- Trivento Golden Reserve Lujan De Cuyo 2018 Malbec ($24.99)
- Kaiken Seleccion Especial Malbec ($15.99)