Malbec—An Argentine Masterpiece


Andy runs the wine department at my local Costco.  Andy is also a follower of this blog.  Andy and I had a little chat this past Saturday about wines and the wine-related articles I’ve authored over the past several months.  It was then that he made two requests for upcoming articles—Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc.  Well, a wise blogger listens to his audience, so today it’s Malbec.  Look for Sauvignon Blanc in the coming weeks.

Malbec traces its popular beginnings as one of the blending grapes for French Bordeaux-style reds, but it’s pretty much fallen out of favor in France because the thin-skinned Malbec grape is very sensitive to frost damage and the vines are hard to protect from disease.  Yet, whereas the Malbec grape is decreasing in popularity among French vintners, it has found renewed interest in Bordeaux-styles reds from California (where it is often used in Meritage blends) and, most notably, in Argentina.  In fact, Malbec is now practically synonymous with the Argentine wine industry, just as Merlot and Carménère define for many people the wines of Chile.

The Malbec grape produces an intensely dark wine with a deep purple color reminiscent to California’s popular Petite Sirah (also called Durif).  And as with Petite Sirah, the wine tends to run toward the tannic side.  As such, Malbec benefits greatly from proper cellaring for a few years to allow the tannins to mellow a bit.  This is not a wine you want to drink young.

To the nose Malbec imparts subtle yet complex scents ranging from chocolate and coffee to licorice and herbs with hints of spices. Beyond these subtle notes you’ll detect leather and pepper.  The strongest compliments start with a predominate plum and gradually taper off to some of the darker fruits such as blackberry, dark raspberry, and even currant and black cherry.  In the mouth, Malbec forms a very full-bodied texture with a jammy sensation not unlike Zinfandel.

Because of its tannic nature, Malbec pairs well with many of the same dishes as the Bordeaux-style red, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Zinfandel (think: red meats, game, and roasts).  But beyond that, you would do well to think of Malbec as your grilling and barbequing wine, similar to Shiraz.  Malbec and Shiraz share a peppery characteristic.  As such, both also go well with spicier Asian and Mexican and even certain Indian and Cajun dishes.  Hearty tomato sauces can also benefit from Malbec’s robust nature, so don’t hesitate to pair it with the more rustic Italian pastas and sauce-based pizzas.  On the vegetarian side, consider Malbec as a great compliment to earthier offerings such a mushrooms and eggplant.  If you’re going pair this wine with lighter vegetables such as zucchini, consider concentrating the flavors by caramelization or you’ll run the risk of the wine overpowering your main dish.

Malbec forms a very versatile companion to a large variety of dishes in anyone’s culinary repertoire.  You’ll definitely want to experiment with this one once you familiarize yourself with its characteristics and identify its limitations.  But don’t limit yourself to straight Malbec; try it as well in Bordeaux-style blends using Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carménère and Merlot.

Over the past several months we’ve covered Bordeaux-style reds, Châteauneufs, Zinfandels, and now Malbecs.  All have similar pairing characteristics as far as red meats, yet each has a distinct character that allows for specialization beyond just beef or lamb.  Understanding these differences in characters will give you—the home chef/dinner host—the fundamentals to understanding basic red wine pairings.  To get you started with a common food denominator, one with which you can compare how all four of these wines work in different ways to compliment a single main course, Wednesday’s blog will be one of my most-requested dishes—pecan- or walnut encrusted rack of lamb.  It’s a remarkably simple recipe that will have your guests raving about your culinary skills for months afterward.

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