Argentina High Altitude Malbec

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | dec. 2018

I was having dinner at Frank Stitt's Bottega restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, back in 1990 when I first tasted a Malbec from Argentina. Frank, who learned the trade at the foot of Richard Olney (A Year in Provence) in Provence, is famous for his Southern cooking style that features the deep rustic flavors similar to Southern France. I was having a grilled hanger steak with confit potatoes and roasted shallots while discussing a merger of my company with the president of Dorsey Trailers, Marilyn Marks. In those days, once you passed the Mason-Dixon Line you were in a new world culturally, and Birmingham was no exception. A gigantic statue of Vulcan the Roman God of Fire overlooks the city from Red Mountain, an homage to the great steelmaking city that Birmingham once was. That same statue features a leather apron over its chest while the naked buttocks face north as if Vulcan is “mooning” the damn Yankees. Even more unusual was the reality of a woman president of a southern Alabama manufacturing company. The merger didn't work out but I've always remembered the wonderful taste of that Malbec with the steak. The story of how Malbec got to Argentina is even more interesting.

The story begins in Spain in the 1500s when Spanish explorers introduced variations of la uva negra(the black grape) to Chile and Argentina. Today that grape is referred to as Pais in Chile and Criolla Chica in Argentina. These grapes produced high yields of mostly-forgettable wines for centuries until 1830 when the French botanist Claude Gay established the first vine nursery in Santiago, Chile. His aim was to emulate the great wines of France by importing the classic varieties: Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Malbec. By 1850, Chilean wineries were planting the varieties. Another Frenchman, Michael Pouget introduced cuttings from the Chilean nursery to Argentina in 1852.

Malbec only survives in the southwest of France today in the Cahors region for several reasons. Malbec is a very thin-skinned variety and as a result is susceptible to a variety of plant diseases and hazards like coulure, Downey mildew and rot. It is affected by the slightest hint of frost in the spring. The grape needs an abundance of sun to ripen fully. It will overproduce with too much rain or irrigation and it ripens sooner than Cabernet and Merlot. Given all this, it is not surprising that the Argentinians initially screwed up the attempt to produce marketable wine.

The Argentinians planted Malbec in the wrong places at first. They planted at low elevations and used flood type irrigation (think of rice farming if you want a better picture). The result was so bad that some Malbec was pulled out and the old “black grape” Criolla was replanted. In any event, from 1850 to 1980 the variety produced wine that was only drunk in South America, hardly a competitive product in the world marketplace. The flood irrigation caused the vines to overproduce and diluted the flavors. I think that the only reason it survived was the Argentinians love of meat from their famous cattle ranches for the asadoand the need for a gulpable red wine to wash it down with.

The expansion of California wines in the '70s and '80s led California bulk wine producers to South America during the 1980s. In addition, Argentinian vintners were traveling north to be educated at the famous California viticultural institute UC Davis. The influx of outside ideas and education led the Argentinians to the slopes above Mendoza where Malbec thrived in the dry soils bolstered by unfiltered light and evenings cooled by the mountain air. This was the initial success of South American Malbec, but the complete answer was literally to go higher.

Nicolas Catena was one of the first to recognize that by planting in even higher altitudes, like Vista Flores in the Uco Valley, Altamira and Gualtallary, as well as Salta in the north, the true character of the Malbec grape could be achieved. These areas vary in altitude from 2,800 to 5,000 feet.

Altitude has a major impact on Malbec for several reasons. Increased altitude means cooler days and thus a more even ripening season. It also causes greater diurnal temperature variations, allowing acid retention as well as increased concentration. In addition, research has shown that aromatic precursors in Malbec are enhanced by sunlight, which along with UV exposure, increases with altitude.

“There is also another huge factor to consider in the case of high-altitude Malbec and that's the soils” explains Leo Erazo winemaker at Altos Las Hormigas. “With increased altitude, we see the structure of the rocks changing. This means the soils are poorer, allowing better drainage. Areas such as Altamira have rocks covered with calcium carbonate, giving finely grained tannins and marked minerality.”

The evolution of Malbec has also played out stylistically, and while it will never be a light wine, some wineries, such as Zuccardi and the Michelini brothers, have been pushing a more mid-weight expression. They are harvesting the grapes earlier to increase freshness and experimenting with whole bunch fermentation. Malbec does have the ability to absorb and express oak within a certain framework. These same vintners have been reducing the exposure to toasted oak, which allows the true Malbec character to shine through. The Malbec's I've selected for this article reflect that style with lower alcohol, increased freshness and reduced oak exposure.

The 2015 Tilia Malbec is $8 at Woodman's and is 13.5 percent alcohol. Tilia is the lower priced version from Nicolas Catena's vineyard's younger vines. The grapes are sourced from a variety of vineyards in Eastern Mendoza at altitudes varying from 2,600 to 4,300 feet above sea level.

Aromas of black cherries and plums are accompanied by notes of violet and vanilla. On the palate the wine is rich and full-bodied with flavors of ripe blackberries, cranberries and black currants followed by tastes of sweet spices and vanilla. This would be a great wine to serve with a soy-star anise braised Asian pork belly. Great price to taste ratio!

The 2015 Andeluna 1300 is $12 at Woodman's and is 14 percent alcohol. The grapes for this wine were grown at the 4,300-foot level of the Uco Valley. The name Andeluna literally means Mountain Moon in deference to the hauntingly beautiful high Andes location which features tremendous diurnal temperature swings amidst rocky, calcareous and minerally soils that give this wine its distinctive flavor.

The wine exhibits intense violet colors with aromas of plums and sweet cherries. Aromas of flowers and subtle toast and spice are followed by a balanced soft taste of dark chocolate mocha and roasted plums that would pair up nicely with braised short ribs

The 2015 Zuccardi Q is $16 at Festival Foods and is 14 percent alcohol. The “Q” is grown from select vineyard lots in Vista Flores (2,904 ft.) and La Consulta (3,494 ft.) in the Uco Valley. The grapes were whole bunch fermented in gravity filled tanks, fermented with indigenous yeasts with soft extraction and complete malolactic fermentation for 20 days. The finished wine was aged in concrete and oak. This was my favorite of the bunch.

Deep purple color is tinged with bluish tones at the edges giving it a beautiful look. The aroma is of intense red fruits and rose and violet mixed with wild herbs. The flavor is long both soft and silky supported by great structure and acidity as well as freshness and minerality. This wine could be cellared for future enjoyment as well. This has enough texture to stand up to a roast leg of lamb or a grilled rib eye steak.

I thank you for reading my column and hope you have a quiet and peaceful Christmas and a successful New Year.

More from Category

Stay up-to-date

Sign up for a monthly digest of everything new in GB.