So you want to drink Malbec for a change?
By John Schreiner
November 20, 2006
In the British Columbia wine market, sales of Argentinean wines are suddenly on a tear.
In dollar terms, in the 12 months to the end of September, those sales have zoomed 32% from a year earlier, to $12 million. Almost all of it is red wine.
There are many reasons for this sales jump, including the favourable prices of many Argentine wines. There likely is some drift of bargain hunters from Chile, a category which is much larger but also has been stalled around $35 million for five years now.
Another explanation for the bounce is Argentina is a growing number of consumers are discovering the Malbec grape variety. In most parts of the world, it serves only as a blending grape in Bordeaux or Meritage blends. Historically, it has been Argentina’s flagship red, championed by most wineries.
According to the new Oxford Companion to Wine, about 20,000 hectares of Malbec is growing in Argentina. “The wines are generally much more ripe and lush than their French counterparts, although they are similarly capable of extended aging,” writes Jancis Robinson.
The current list of the Liquor Distribution Branch includes 21 Malbecs from Argentina, by far more than any other single varietal, and up from 16 two years ago. Clearly, there is a demand or the LDB would not list so many. There is a wide range of pricing, from $9.99 for Funky Llama Malbec to $40 for Bodega Melipal Reserva.
I have tasted the Funky Llama (clever critter name!) and found it a solid Tuesday-night hamburger wine, my description for wines that get me through the week without breaking the bank. I have not tasted the $40 wine.
Two of the 20 Malbecs are from Viña Doña Paula, an emerging young Argentine winery that has decided to specialize (but not exclusively) in Malbec. Export manager Carlos Trad recently was in Vancouver, leading informal tastings.
His winery, which made its first commercial releases just four years ago, was established in 1997 when one of Chile’s leading wine groups invested just across the Andes. The group picked up 760 hectares of land. About 177 hectares were vineyards planted as long ago as 1970, including Malbec. Since 1998, the group has been planting new vineyards as it anticipates its sales growth. They still have about 500 hectares left to plant.
Doña Paula tackles the market with wines in three tiers, starting with an entry level label called Los Cardos, with wines in the $13-$14 range. They are not stuck just on Malbec. The Los Cardos Sauvignon Blanc is a solid example of this white variety – crisply fresh, with the tang of lemon and lime in the flavour. With a dry finish and with some mineral notes, this is a good wine for shellfish.
The reds on the Los Cardos range include a fruity Cabernet Sauvignon and a lean Syrah. Not surprisingly, both were slightly overshadowed by the winery’s 2005 Los Cardos Malbec. The wine tastes like a big spicy bowl of cherries and red fruit, a tasty wine and good value at $14.
Doña Paula’s middle tier is made up of its estate wines under the Doña Paula label. The 2004 Estate Cabernet ($20) is a substantial step up from the entry tier. The wine is dark, with a powerful aroma of fruit, flavours of plums and a tincture that is plump and rich.
The Doña Paula Estate Malbec ($21) is not quite as plump as the Cabernet. But it has an appealing juiciness on the palate, with aromas and flavours of spicy red berries and cherries. This wine should come into its own with a big barbecued steak, which is how the Argentines would enjoy it.
The Argentines, by the way, really enjoy their wines, drinking about 30 litres each per year (easily 50% more than we drink). It is a big wine-producing country with such a good home market that only 15% is exported.
Top of the line from Doña Paula are the wines it calls “seleccion de bodega.” On offer is a very impressive Malbec ($37). There is such a limited allocation of this wine that it is available only from the local agent, the Winspeer Group.
Made from old vines Malbec, this wine is rich and dark in appearance. The aromas show plums and vanilla (the wine spent 18 months in French oak, hence the vanilla). On the palate, there are layers of flavour: plums, liquorice, vanilla. The texture is concentrated but the long, ripe tannins give the wine a long, satisfying finish. A textbook Malbec.