The Penniless Epicure: Malbec Beckons

Written by Josh Perilo on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

South America has been one of the rising stars in the wine
world for the last two decades. Unlike Australia, however, the prices of most
South American wines have not risen significantly. Chilean Merlots began
showing up in North American wine stores decades ago and they remain bargains,
while ultra-expensive wines like Australia’s “Australis” are becoming more and
more common.

Even more of a Mecca for bargain vino than Chile, however,
is Argentina. Many international grapes, like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc,
thrive there, especially on the sunny, fertile plateau of the Mendoza area.
These grapes, which were originally grown to produce “California style” wines,
are now coming into their own, and an Argentinian Chardonnay now tastes like,
well, an Argentinian Chardonnay. Softer and riper with telltale tropical fruit
flavors, the white wines from Argentina are a surefire bet when you need
something refreshing and inexpensive.

As far as reds are concerned, however, one grape rises above
them all in Argentina: Malbec. It has traveled a long way to get to where it is
now considered king, however. A hundred years ago, Malbec was used much more
prominently in the blending of red Bordeaux wines. While it is still legal to
use small amounts of Malbec in Bordeaux, it is very rarely done. At the same
time, south of Bordeaux in the Cahors region, Malbec was being blended with the
rustic Tannat grape to make the namesake “black wine” of that area. Once it
traveled across the Atlantic to Argentina, however, the grape took on a softer,
less tannic and riper flavor profile.

The typical Argentinian Malbec can be anywhere from medium
to full bodied, but it will always have dark fruit up front and a little spice
on the finish. Not as jammy as a warm climate Syrah or Shiraz, spicier than
Merlot and less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec has a character all its

If you’re a first timer with Malbec, a great place to start
is simple and inexpensive. Enrique Foster Ique Malbec 2008 ($8.33 @
Cabrini Wines, 831 W. 181st St. @ Cabrini Blvd., 212-568-3226) is a fantastic
basic Malbec that won’t throw your palate or pocketbook for a loop. On the
lighter side of the grape, it starts with ripe cherry and plum fruit. The
finish balances out the fruitiness with notes of cinnamon and pipe tobacco.
It’s great all by itself, but it’s even better with a chicken empanada.

The Malbec grape has a dark side to it, as I mentioned
before, even in sunny Argentina. When allowed to ripen to its fullest and spend
time in oak to mature, you can wind up with a serious wine that has bigger and
bolder flavors. The Punto Final Malbec 2008 ($10.95 @ Sherry-Lehman, 505
Park Avenue betw. 59th and 60th streets, 212-838-7500) is darker and more
muscular than the Ique. With baked fruit flavors of black currant and
blueberry, the intensity follows through the middle with smoky notes and
finishes with a hefty dollop of black pepper and vanilla. While there’s a lot
of fruit up front on this wine, it definitely fares better with food.
Preferably something grilled that was, at one point, attached to a mooing

If you’re entertaining and you want to share your South
American find with your friends and family, the Astica Malbec 2008 ($10.99
@ Grapes the Wine Company, comes in a party-friendly
magnum. Remarkably full of flavor for the low price point, this Malbec has the
signature dark berry-driven fruit up front and zing of spice on the finish, but
with a little less smoky oak.

For a grape that once played second fiddle in Bordeaux, this
storied berry needs absolutely no help being delicious and inexpensive south of
the equator.