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December 26, 2014

Uncorked A century in the making, Argentine malbec's appeal is international

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Posted: Wednesday, June 11, 2014 12:03 am | Updated: 12:07 am, Wed Jun 11, 2014.

Complete this analogy. Cabernet is to California as malbec is to _____? If you answered Argentina, go to the head of the class. For those wondering what the heck malbec might be, read on.

Malbec likely first came to prominence in Bordeaux, France, where it is still one of the five red varietals allowed in Bordeaux blends. Malbec is still grown in Bordeaux today, though less often as temperature fluctuations make its thin skin prey for mildew, rot and frostbite.

More is now grown in southwestern France, as well as California where it is principally used in red Meritage blends, but in Argentina malbec is the prima donna grape.

Like the United States, Argentina had no native vinifera grapes. Vinifera was first brought to the region in the mid-1500s by immigrants. Jesuit missionaries were the first to recognize the foothills of the Andes provided ideal conditions for growing grapes. The city of Mendoza, located in the heart of today’s major wine-growing region, was founded in 1561. Vineyards north of the city were producing wine on a commercial scale by 1569.

For several centuries Argentina’s wines did not leave Argentina. With its thirsty populace, and cheap plonk ruled — winemakers aspired to make as much wine as possible and quality did not enter into the equation.

Argentine grape growers have always depended on snowmelt from the Andes to irrigate their vineyards. To that end, the ancients built canals, ditches and troughs to bring water to their vines. Modern day drip irrigation was unheard of. For hundreds of years vineyards were flooded to encourage luxuriant vine growth and cluster development. This over irrigation assured large amounts of diluted poor-quality wines.

Argentina ranks ninth in the world for number of acres planted to vines but it was not until the 1990s that wines worthy of export to foreign markets were produced. Though malbec was introduced to Argentina in the mid-19th century, it did not come into its own until the late 20th century when the country became more politically stable allowing top producers and foreign investors to concentrate on making varietal wines that would appeal to an international audience.

One such producer established 130 years ago is Trapiche (tra-peach-e), which makes an array of wines from malbec certain to appeal to all budgets. Winemaker Daniel Pi, who is credited with bringing Trapiche into the 21st century, attributes his success to what he calls the “Five Secrets of the Andes”:

  • Great sun exposure leading to thicker skin grapes that adds complexity and structure to wines
  • High-altitude growing areas characterized by cool nights and warm days that results in slow ripening to give wines tannic structure
  • Continental climate where Pacific winds are sheltered creating the dry desert conditions in which malbec thrives
  • Pure water from Andes snowmelt for irrigation
  • Soil where vines have to struggle, resulting in grapes with more concentrated flavor development

Malbec is the perfect red wine for the Argentine asado — which we Southerners refer to as a barbecue — especially if a good piece of beef is involved.

Publix in Oxford has a large selection of wines by Trapiche ranging in price from $9 to $15. Try these two easy drinking reds with a burger or steak:

Trapiche Oak Cask malbec. Grown at an altitude of 2,500 feet. High-altitude fruit is prized by the world’s vintners for its intensity and few regions can compete with the altitudes of Argentina’s vineyards. An inexpensive, well-made wine that’s pleasant on the approach, balanced with a smooth finish.

Trapiche 2011 Broquel (Bro-kel) malbec. Also grown in the nose-bleed section from a vineyard planted at an altitude of 3,700 feet. Dark, dense wine with a slight sweetness on the approach. Concentrated dark fruit flavors with a smooth finish. We quaffed this down with a smoked filet of beef. Delicious!

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