If you want to peek all the way back to the Naked Vine’s germination, you’ll find a Malbec among the first set of wines I ever wrote about. Since then, Malbec has remained a go-to grape for many occasions, most of them involving grilled or roasted meat of some sort.
Over the years, I’ve tried to turn a lot of folks on to Malbec. It yields a big, flexible, food-friendly wine that’s consistently one of the best values out there. It’s a perfect wine to pair with almost anything in line to be dragged across fire. While I can’t take all the credit for the increased availability of this happy, dark grape, I’m glad to see dozens more Malbec varieties in the South American section of wine stores. (The fact that there *are* South American sections is a nice bonus, too…)
Here’s a quick refresher on Malbec. Malbec was initially most widely cultivated in France, where it was one of the six grapes allowed in the blend of red Bordeaux. (The others being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere.) Malbec yields inky, tannic wines on its own – so it was usually blended into the Cabernet and Merlot to add depth and structure. The amount of Malbec grown in France has steadily declined over the years, due to vine health issues and an improvement in winemaking technology. (One province in France, Cahors, still makes the bulk of its wine primarily from Malbec – although the grape is known there as Côt.)
In the mid-19th century, not long before the phylloxera outbreak that nearly wiped out all European wine, a French agronomist named Miguel Pouget brought Malbec cuttings from France to Argentina for propagation. In the Argentinean soil, something magical happened. The wine made from this Malbec took on an entirely different characteristic. The wine was still inky and dark, but it lacked much of the powerful (some would say overwhelming) tannins. Instead, it yielded a plummy, smoky wine with a much smoother texture.
The bulk of Argentinean Malbec is grown in the Mendoza province – with the most renowned wines grown in the high-altitude regions in the foothills of the Andes like the Uco Valley. Altitude agrees with the Malbec grape, and the higher-altitude vineyards are the most prized.
Tara at Balzac recently sent me three bottles from Bodegas Salentein, a modern Uco Valley winery. I’ve written a number of reviews of Malbec as pieces and parts of other columns, but I haven’t had the opportunity to do a true Malbec comparison. These three bottles from three different Salentein labels lent themselves to this little project:
Salentein 2012 Uco Valley Reserve Malbec ($20)
Killka 2013 Uco Valley Malbec ($15)
Portillo 2013 Uco Valley Malbec ($10)
The first thing I hope you notice is that the relative price of these wines. Malbec’s increase in popularity hasn’t popped the prices out of reasonable range. This is a good thing – especially with grilling season getting into high gear. You’ll never have to hunt too hard to find a reasonably priced Malbec.
We started with the Killka and the Portillo. I thought they’d make an interesting contrast – since they’re made, obviously, from the same grape, same vintage, and the same set of vineyards. The two also have the same alcohol content, acidity, and residual sugar content The real difference was in the winemaking process. The Portillo begins its process from grape to wine at low temperatures and is not fermented in wood. The Killka underwent a much more traditional process, and was aged with the addition of oak staves for eight months. Thus, the Portillo gets more of its tannin from the grape skins alone, while the Killka adds tannin and oak flavors from the wood.
The Portillo was a big, plummy, straightforward wine. The mouthfeel is full and round, yielding a very easy-to-drink quaff. Basically, it reminds me of a solid, table wine. Nothing too complex. The Killka, on the other hand, was softened by the touch of wood. It’s still a big wine, but it’s softer and smokier with some vanilla on the finish from the oak. I thought it was the more pleasant of the two wines to drink on its own. With some grilled pork chops and red potatoes, the Portillo was the better of the two – probably because the complexity wasn’t lost. We killed off the Portillo and saved the Killka to go alongside the Reserve.
The Salentein Reserve had a bit of a flavor of both winemaking techniques. It started off with the similar cold maceration process before full fermentation, and the wine was aged for a year in oak barrels. It also included grapes from an additional vineyard at even higher altitudes. The results were easy to see. The wine ends up big, but it’s a very well-integrated wine, especially for twenty bucks. The flavor balance was excellent. My note reads, “About as delicate a Malbec as I can remember.” There’s a floral/herbal characteristic to the nose which is quite pretty and a nice amount of smoke to go along with the firm tannic finish.
Side-by-side, the Reserve and the Killka taste somewhat similar, but I thought the Reserve was just “better.” Even when we forgot which wine was in which glass momentarily, it was clear which was the Reserve. With food – a grilled flank steak this time – there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the two. Either worked just fine. The steak, with its richer flavor, was better than the pork with Malbec in general, as well.
In general, Malbec will serve any needs for reasonably big red wine. Once you find a flavor profile you like, ask your friendly neighborhood wine store person for recommendations of similar styled ones. You’ll be happily busy for awhile. Fire up the grill and get to it!