April 17th has been designated Malbec World Day. I would argue that any day is a good day for sipping Malbec. Why? Well, it’s a grape that is grown all over the globe, in many different climates and elevations, resulting in a host of styles to choose from.
Malbec originates in France, where it plays a minor role in the red blends of Bordeaux. It used to be more prominent there but devastating frosts in 1956 destroyed many of the plantings. Rather than replant, growers chose to repopulate the vineyards with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.
Cahors, a region in the southwest of France, is famous for its “Black Wines” based solely on Malbec (a moniker paying homage to their deep, almost-black color.) These are full-bodied, tannic wines that are very different in style from the lush, fruit-forward wines many people associate with the grape. (Cahors makes a great partner with grilled steak or lamb chops, by the way!)
And then there are new world versions of Malbec, especially from Argentina, the grape’s adopted homeland. Generally these wines are riper and more full-bodied than their European cousins; but it’s important not to paint all Argentine wines with the same brush.
At the entry level, these wines are smooth and syrupy, with low tannins, moderate acidity, and a barely perceptible sweetness; wines that are easy to drink and easy on the pocketbook. They’re fair-to-good quality and are widely distributed, which makes them popular with consumers. Many of these come from Argentina’s big producers who early on realized the market’s thirst for tasty, budget-priced wines.
If you’re planning a barbecue (post- COVID-19, of course) these wines should go in your shopping basket.
And then there are the other wines: those produced in the high-altitude vineyards of the Andes, where conditions are so severe that growing grapes can be a quixotic quest. Nevertheless, fearless winemakers persevere, making beautiful wine inspired by a seemingly impossible dream.
Boasting some of the highest-elevation vineyards in the world, Colomé (established in 1831) is also one of Argentina’s oldest wineries. Located in the Calchaquí Valley in the northwest, vines are planted between 5,000 and 10,000 feet, where temperatures are cooler and the diurnal shift is considerable. There’s also plenty of sunshine, resulting in fully-ripe grapes that retain a high level of acidity.
I tasted two wines from Bodega Colomé (both were sent as media samples):
2017 Colomé Estate Malbec (14.9% abv; $25 suggested retail price)
Overview: 100% Malbec from a blend of fruit from four estate vineyards, each which brings a distinctive quality to the finished wine. Vineyard plots lie at high altitude, varying between 7,000 and 10,000 feet. It was aged for 15 months in used French oak barrels, then a further six months in bottle.
Color: Deep purple velvet, all the way to the rim.
Nose: Ripe black fruit (plum, cherry, blackberry), soft hints of vanilla and baking spices; violets.
Palate: Fruit that’s a little less ripe than on the nose, moderate acidity, very soft tannins, alcohol that feels much lower than the hefty 14.9%. Really easy to drink, with moderate complexity. This one was my husband’s favorite wine of the three – by a long shot.
Pairing: Red lentil soup with spicy chicken sausage. The soft tannins didn’t fight with the cayenne pepper in the dish, as they might have in a more structured wine. In fact it was surprising how well the wine worked with the soup, with each shining on its own. I’d definitely put these two together again. And if you just need a warm hug, pour yourself a big glass of the Estate Malbec. I promise, you’ll feel better.
2018 Colomé Auténtico (14.5% abv; $30.00 suggested retail price)
Overview: 100% Malbec on vines brought from Bordeaux and planted on their original rootstock. Grapes were harvested from parcels lying at 7,500 feet, resulting in thick-skinned berries that contributed stronger tannic structure to the wine. Intended to be an “authentic” expression of the Malbec grape from this unusual terroir, the wine saw no oak influence; it aged 10 months in tank and a further 10 months in bottle.
Color: Deep purple throughout.
Nose: Whereas the Estate Malbec was all fruit and sweet spice on the nose, the Auténtico had a more savory quality: roasted meat and herbs complemented by a more restrained red and black fruit medley. After taking in the aromas, I could hardly wait to have a sip.
Palate: As with the nose, this wine was a lovely mix of fruit-herb-savory flavors. Much more tannic structure than the Estate, with higher acidity, too. Medium+ in body with a long finish of brambly fruit. This wine pleased my palate and I forced myself to save some for another meal.
Pairing(s): We tried this with a homemade pizza featuring tomato, pepper, onion, and slices of salami. Great combo! We also kept enough to sip with adobo-dusted pork chops the next night. A good match but the tannins in the wine fought a bit with the spice.
An experimental offshoot of Bodega Colomé, Amalaya means “hope for a miracle” in the Inca language, a nod to the difficult growing conditions in the Cafayate Desert of northern Argentina. Fruit for these wines comes from parcels scattered around the region, with other varieties supplementing the plantings of Malbec.
2018 Bodega Amalaya Malbec (13.9% abv; $16 suggested retail price)
Overview: In a nod to the multiple varieties planted at Amalaya, this wine is a blend: Malbec (85%); Tannat (10%); and Petit Verdot (5%). A quarter of the wine was aged in French oak barrels for eight months, to bring additional structure.
Color: Deep purple.
Nose: Red and black fruit: plums, cherries, blackberries are wrapped in just a bit of vanilla, sprinkled with clove and nutmeg. It smells like the holidays to me.
Palate: Stylistically I’d put this wine between the two previous ones: it has loads of ripe, delicious fruit but maintains a tannic backbone and bright acidity. It’s not overly complex but we both really enjoyed it. At $16 this will be on my go-to list of workhorse wines: those that are enjoyable to sip on their own; can pair well with a variety of foods; and are easy on the budget.
Pairing: Delicious with the adobo-crusted pork chops. I imagine it would have fared well with the lentil soup and pizza, too. I enjoyed the combo of ripe fruit and acidity as I sipped it as an aperitif the next day.
Both wineries featured in this post are part of the Hess Family’s far-reaching wine business. Now run by the fifth generation, wineries under the Hess umbrella are renowned for their commitment to sustainable farming practices as well as supporting local communities. If you’d like to learn more about their work in Argentina, here’s a link to one of my previous posts.
About Malbec World Day
I’m not sure of its origins, but April 17th is a day to celebrate all wines made from this French grape that has made itself home in vineyards throughout the world. Would you like to participate in the festivities?
Despite social distancing rules in place practically everywhere, you can still raise a glass with fellow Malbec fans. The best way to do that is with your Twitter account. Search for #MalbecWorldDay and scroll through the results. There’s bound to be a conversation that interests you, so why not jump into the fray?
Until the next time . . .
Stay healthy, stay sane, and keep drinking good wine!