The worldwide palate has been into Argentinean Malbec & other goodies from South America for a couple of years now.  While I have enjoyed a bottle now and then, I must admit I have been a skeptic about wine from South America in general.  There are several reasons why I have been right but several reasons why I was recently swayed towards optimism.

Some negatives: After the wine vine was introduced to Chile and Argentina in approximately the 16th century by the Spanish, experimentation and figuring out how to best grow tons of grapes for winemaking, the two countries got on a roll and made mass amounts of okay wine that was consumed locally until the market took a downturn in the 1970s.  (Then massive exportation of average wine began.)  One key to producing high quality fruit is to not grow too much in one area, aka – it is better to have a low yield.  This is typically measured through hectolitres per hectare in vineyard sites and is often controlled by the region’s wine regulation system.  For instance, in the Cote d’Or region of Burgundy, the maximum yield allowed for reds is 40 hl/ha (about 2.3 tons / acre) and for whites is 45 hl/ ha.  This is considered quite high for most of France.  Compare this to the average yield in Chile of 70 hl/ ha.  Another negative: it became apparent over the last 20 years or so that bottles from Chile were being mislabeled.  What they thought was Merlot was sometimes Carmenere, what they labeled as Sauvignon Blanc was often the Sauvignonasse or Tocai Friulano grapes.  DNA testing and more quality control is said to fixed this issue but the lesser grapes still take up about 30% of vineyard space, so it’s hard tellin’.  The wine law system in both Argentina and Chile is quite lax too.

Some positive points: The glory that is Malbec.  This dark grape’s origins are in Bordeaux and Southwest France.  When phylloxera charged through the country in the 1800s (read a blurb about phylloxera from cellar notes here), the original Malbec vines (along with all the others) were destroyed.  The wine industry was rebuilt, literally, atop American rootstalk.  Malbec, however, does not perform so wonderfully when grafted.  It is still one of the five prime varieties in Bordeaux used for blending, but is not as prevalent as it once was.  Much of South America is resistant to phylloxera – one of the few places in the world that is.  Hence, there are some really old vines that are in their all natural, never cut and grafted state.  Can this effect the character of the grape?  I believe yes.  It can result in a longer vine life, better sap flow, have better resistance to pests and harsh weather & result in better grapes all around.  Other varieties are being produced in Argentina and Chile too: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Torrontes, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Muscat & others but Malbec is what I am excited about today.

More positive stuff: both Chile and Argentina have unique and fantastic grape-growing conditions.  To the west of Chile is a low-ish coastal range and then the Pacific.  To the east are the insanely tall Andes.  Vineyards are primarily located on plateaus at higher and higher altitudes (up to 600m) heading east.  Summers are quite dry but ample water is available from the Andes.  The ripening season is long and steady — a major key in growing grapes suitable for fine wine.  Argentina is on the east side of the Andes where it is sufficiently protected by the mountains’ raindshadow effect = long dry summer and fall + major temperature shift between morning and night.  Plus, the altitude is even higher than that in Chile.  All of this is good good good for grapes.  Why?  At higher altitudes, the atmosphere is thinner and more UV rays hit the vineyards.  The grapes want to protect themselves so they form thicker skins.  There is an increase in color intensity and in soft, round tannin.  Malbec has the same flavor profiles when from South America and France (red fruits, chocolate, forest) but they have very different mouth feels.  High altitude also means cooler temperatures which means that the grapes keep generous amounts of acid.  This is crucial for well-balanced wine.

All of these factors result in a full bodied and intensely colored wine that has layer of flavors.  Two Malbecs that I am all for are Dona Silivana & Tempusalba both from Mendoza, Argentina.  They retail for about $20 and $24 respectively.  Why that much when you can buy Malbecs for $10?  Well, if you want to experience high quality and complexity in your glass, go for it.  There is a reason that you can get cheaper stuff and while that’s all good and I buy those too — it’s a different thing.  The two wines that I mentioned showcase Malbec made with artful expression and focus.