My blog-o-thon has slowed a little over the past week but the running is still going strong. So far I’ve clocked up just over 100k in the 5×50 Challenge and most of the time it really is quite enjoyable. Today’s incessant rain makes it a rather damp affair, ‘drenched’ being the operative word.
Today marks day 18 of the challenge, but it is also Malbec World Day. The day is significant in Malbec’s history as it was 160 years ago on April 17th, that Malbec officially takes root in the Mendoza region in Argentina. The variety originates in South-West France. It is one of the permitted grapes in Bordeaux as well, although these days it isn’t planted widely there. The region of Cahors is generally seen as the birthplace of Malbec. It is its wide recognition as the grape of Argentina that really put Malbec on the map and has prompted its wider planting in many other countries, particularly in the new world. But this popularity also means a more recent resurgence of popularity in its native land under the Appellation of Cahors, but interestingly the name of the grape is usually included on the label these days. Malbec typically produces concentrated, dark wines with intense black fruit flavours, often with a herbal or meaty character. The intensity and concentration ensure the wines are fantastic with beef, especially when barbecued or grilled.
Malbec is very easy to get hold of, so pop into your favourite retailer and pick up a bottle. I’m a great fan of the Zuccardi range, yet my personal favourites tend to come not from Mendoza, but from the higher altitude vineyards of the Salta region. Bodegas Colomé and its sister estate Amalaya make some brilliant wines and I’ve had very enthusiastic reactions to Michel Torino’s ‘Don David’ too. Recently I’ve also been quite taken with another area; Patagonia, in Argentina’s far south produces some fantastic examples, notably the Malbec Estate from Humberto Canale. A wonderful freshness combined with that trademark intensity of black fruit, owing to the long ripening season, make this a great choice too.
OK, so I was going to have a quick meeting with Andrew Maidment from Wines of Argentina to talk about his new initiative, to celebrate Malbec World Day. Little did I know it would become a masterclass, not only in Malbec, but many other grape varieties, as well as the intricate minutiae of Argentine beef.
Meeting in Gaucho should have been a giveaway I suppose. And Malbec really is at its best served with a juicy steak, or even better the marinated beef known as Churrasco. I am now in a position to tell you what the percentage of fat in each individual cut of beef is, but I’ll refrain for fear of losing you right away.
I started asking Andrew why bother with Malbec World Day? Is it just a gimmick? It seems a bit random to chose a Sunday in the middle of April, but the date, April 17th, is very significant for Argentine wine. On this date in 1853 a bill was passed in Argentina which allowed the planting of a whole host of grape varieties brought over from France and elsewhere. And that’s how Malbec made it across to Argentina. As I mentioned it wasn’t just Malbec, but it somehow seemed to do well in Argentina’s soils and climate and way down the line became internationally recognised as producing wines of excellent quality. Andrew mentions in particular the work done by Zuccardi and Catena in the nineties on researching the particular strains that worked best and propagating those to become even better. Consistent and long-term monitoring and lots of trial and error paid off.
We ordered a bottle of Calathus Malbec 2008 from the south of the Uco Valley in Mendoza. Interestingly, for the boss of Wines of Argentina, this was a new one on him, so that made it an easy choice. It also came recommended by the incredibly knowledgeable waiting staff at Gaucho. Andrew tells me that Phil Crozier, Gaucho’s wine director insists on detailed wine training for all members of the front of house team, and it certainly shows. When quizzed on the various wines on the list detailed information comes naturally. Anyway, back to the wine. A deep black fruit nose, full of spicy, leathery and tobacco aromas. Fairly full-bodied, perhaps slightly too much for lunchtime but delicious with the Churrasco.
I ask Andrew if he agrees with some voices that argue that Malbec is making Argentina a one trick pony. He clearly doesn’t, although he mentions he understands why people would say that. Look towards Chile and you see a whole host of variety coming out of that country that you don’t tend to see in Argentina. Many producers are working with varieties other than Malbec as well though. In particular in blends that are increasingly successful. Without being able to look into the future this is where he feels Argentina can really start to shine on the international stage. Innovation is the buzzword at the moment and experimentation with lots of new varieties will bring more excitement. He also believes the country could become more fragmented with smaller wineries making very individual wines.
But Malbec will remain at the heart of Argentina’s wines and so it should be. Andrew sums this up by explaining what is important for this grape and much of it centres around the Andes. It provides the all-important elevation, shelter, water for irrigation and the old glacial riverbed soils. Couple that with places as far apart as Salta, with some of the highest vineyards in the world, Mendoza at the heart and the much more extreme region of Patagonia in the south, and variety should not come as a surprise.
For Malbec World Day, Wines of Argentina are running a number of events, in both restaurants and wine shops. They are focussing their efforts on the likes of Laithwaites, The Sunday Times Wine Club and Majestic, all of whom have got market-beating ranges of Malbec in their stores and online and have really championed Argentine Malbec. I get the feeling Andrew would love to get a supermarket involved as well in the future but their ranges would have to be extended to make this a reality.
The most unusual initiative goes to a collaboration of English winemaker Chapel Down with Wines of Argentina and Gaucho Restaurants. Chapel Down will for the first time create a unique and authentic Malbec from grapes grown in the Mendoza vineyards of the Gaucho Restaurants. The grapes were picked recently and just this week they were crushed in the Chapel Down winery. The release of this unique wine will be on Malbec World Day 2012 and will be sold mainly in Gaucho but some may even make it into a small selection of shops. Similar collaborations are also taking place in New York and Toronto.
From Gaucho it’s a quick taxi ride to the Argentine Ambassador’s residence and a line-up of a hundred or so wines, about a third of which are Malbec with another dozen being Malbec blends. This is where I get to taste for myself how varied these wines can be. I got a bit of a Malbec awakening as I started to find a common thread in many of them. First I put it down to regional differences, but then I realised it wasn’t that specific. It’s a quality I find difficult to pinpoint. It is something aromatic, reminding me slightly of pine cones or rosemary, fresh woodland but not earthy. I guess I’ll just have to taste a few more to find the answer. A job I’ll gladly take on.