Thursday, October 23, 2008

Let's go to the Mal(bec)!

One of the first wines I wrote about on The Naked Vine was Malbec, not long after having discovered it initially. Since then, I haven't had much of an opportunity to natter on about this until-recently-overlooked varietal.

Lovers of French wine know that Malbec is one of six grapes that goes into the blend that makes up Bordeaux wines. (The others being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Carmenere, and Petit Verdot.) Malbec as a predominant varietal produces big, inky, tannic wines that historically haven't been very common.

Malbec took off as a singular varietal after it was exported from France to Argentina in the mid 1800's. The terroir of Argentina turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered for this grape. Argentinean Malbec has much less tannin than the French counterpart and, as a result, is a much more flexible, approachable wine.

I've long extolled the virtues of Malbec as a "grilling wine," but there are other benefits, as well. Polyphenols are the organic compounds that give red wine many of their alleged health-supportive properties. Malbec has some of the highest concentrations of polyphenols, making it an extra "heart smart" wine.

During my wine tasting recently, the staff and I got into a conversation about Malbec in its various forms. I ended up choosing three to try with a strip I had ready to throw on the grill. The contestants for this side-by-side-by-side were...

El Dueño 2007 Malbec ($9-11)
1919 2006 Malbec ($9-11)
Chateau Lagrezette "Zette" 2003 Malbec ($8-11)

The first two listed are from the Mendoza valley, which is where most of the best Malbec in Argentina is grown. The third is a French version. It's around 85% Malbec, with some Merlot and a little bit of a grape called Tannat (which produced an even inkier and more tannic wine than Malbec) blended in.

First impressions: The El Dueno smells a lot like a Zinfandel with a big burst of blueberries. You also get a snootful of fumey alcohol that takes some time to breathe itself out. Eventually, the body becomes somewhat tart, with a smoky pepper finish. The 1919 -- my first thought was "chocolate covered bacon." Yes, I'm serious. Work with me on this one. The body was rich, velvety, and much easier to drink on its own than the Dueno. The Zette was a disappointment. The nose reminded me initially of Robitussin, and the body was extremely tannic. Leather moving straight into big tannins without much fruit. Even after a couple of days, the Zette still was a big, tannic mess.

With the aforementioned steak, The Dueno became "brighter" with the beef. The tannins balanced out the fat in the meat and the berry flavors of the wine stepped to the forefront. It stood out well on its own. The 1919 was interesting. Rather than "playing off" the flavors in the beef, the flavors in the 1919 ran "alongside" them. Dark flavors of chocolate and coffee, as well as some dark fruit were a silky sidekick to the rich meat flavors. The finish had enough tannin to take the fat away and leave a pleasantly dry finish. The Zette again fell short. The beef and wine clashed, unfortunately, and we ended up leaving it for later. As I mentioned, I tried drinking it a couple of days later, and couldn't pair it well.

So, what's the verdict? If you like your wine to stand out from your beef -- then go with the Dueno. If you want a wine that you could drink by itself or that eases up next to the grilled meat and nuzzles gently, the 1919. As for the French? I hope it would be happy being part of a good, rich Bordeaux.

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