Mal­bec Magic

James Suck­ling

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life -

fter a week tast­ing wines in Ar­gentina, first in the Patag­o­nia re­gion and then in Men­doza, I’m pon­der­ing mal­bec and what the grape va­ri­ety means for this fas­ci­nat­ing na­tion. Of course, it’s the coun­try’s most im­por­tant grape va­ri­ety. It is to Ar­gentina what pinot noir is to France, and what neb­bi­olo and sangiovese are to Italy. Mal­bec de­fines fine wines as a whole in Ar­gentina. But it’s also an un­canny grape va­ri­ety that can be made into a wine of just about any style imag­in­able, from re­fined, vine­yard-spe­cific Bur­gundy to high-oc­tane, un­fash­ion­able Cal­i­for­nia.

What’s in­ter­est­ing is how Ar­gen­tine wine­mak­ers are chang­ing the def­i­ni­tion of mal­bec, fo­cus­ing on fi­nesse and com­plex­ity. The ver­sa­tile grape va­ri­ety is fi­nally com­ing of age as a won­der­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tor or medium for the di­verse and al­lur­ing soils and mi­cro­cli­mates of the best wine re­gions of Ar­gentina. Don’t miss tast­ing the new mal­bec re­al­ity from this great coun­try.

The old-school style of wine­mak­ing in Ar­gentina is los­ing ground. Those jammy and al­co­holic reds that are vir­tu­ally un­drink­able are los­ing their mar­ket share. As a critic, I’m find­ing them harder and harder to like or drink. Why hide great fruit and ter­roir with over­ripe fruit, overex­trac­tion, over­pow­er­ing oak and sweet­ness? You lose the pu­rity and sense of place with wines that are block­busters, as they were so fondly called years ago, and many of us could not fin­ish a glass. What a waste!

I have met many young wine­mak­ers who de­spise the old style, such as Se­bas­tian Zuc­cardi, Marcelo Pel­ler­iti, Fer­nando Buscema, José Lo­vaglio and Ale­jan­dro Vigil. They want to show the world their amaz­ing vine­yards through re­fined, fo­cused and clear wines. They em­brace the great Euro­pean styles such as white Bur­gundy and Barolo, and they in­ter­pret their wines on those pa­ram­e­ters. I ap­plaud them.

“Too many wine­mak­ers in Ar­gentina use old recipes and just fol­low them to make their wines high in al­co­hol and overly fruity,” says Vigil, who is the head wine­maker for Catena Za­p­ata. “That isn’t the fu­ture. I want my mal­becs to make you thirsty. They can’t be full of wood and sweet­ness.”

Adds the name­sake of the pres­ti­gious Zuc­cardi win­ery: “To­day I’m not look­ing for fruit. I’m look­ing for tex­ture. In the be­gin­ning I would have many doubts about this path in wine­mak­ing, but to­day it’s a boom with my wines. Peo­ple are buy­ing them. We want to do the least pos­si­ble [in our wine­mak­ing] to show the most in our wines.”

I tasted more than 600 wines in Ar­gentina dur­ing my visit. The 2013 and 2012 look to be ex­cel­lent vin­tages in all re­gions, although 2014 is less con­sis­tent. And 2015 will be even more in­con­sis­tent due to hail and wet weather be­fore and dur­ing the har­vest, par­tic­u­larly in Men­doza.

So many of Ar­gentina’s young and old wine­mak­ers now un­der­stand that less is more in wine­mak­ing, es­pe­cially in Men­doza, but also in Salta and Patag­o­nia, two other key wine re­gions. Ar­gentina is a fine-wine power to be reck­oned with. It’s lead­ing the way with fine mal­bec. Buy some.

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