Wine: Host a BYOB malbec tasting
Malbec from Argentina is arguably the best value in wine today. While other countries produce plenty of good-value wines, Argentina's malbecs offer unusual complexity at prices that don't break the bank. Even a $10 bottle can have you searching the glass for hints of mocha, berries, lavender or spice.
Market forces bear much of the credit for this. The dollar has remained strong against the Argentine peso even as European wines increase in price because of the euro's rise. Vineyard land and labor in Mendoza are much cheaper than in California. These factors keep prices for malbec low even as quality continues to improve.
To be sure, expensive malbecs can run into the triple digits. But to get a sense of what malbec has to offer, you really don't need to spend more than $15 or $20, and it is possible to stay close to $10.
Here's a fun way to explore malbec: Recruit some friends for an evening of wine tasting and geeky discussion about aromas and nuances. Have each friend contribute a bottle or two of wine, to help spread the cost and the fun. Concealing the labels is optional; if you do, make sure the bottles are clearly numbered. Take notes and go back to the wines from time to time as the evening wears on to see if they have changed.
The following wines would make an excellent lineup, but feel free to substitute others according to what's available at your favorite stores. That's what the fun is all about.
With each wine, look first for malbec's signature: deep purple color, aromas and flavors of blueberries and cherries, and a soft texture with tannins that seem to disappear rather than dominate the finish. Then look for the nuances that come from different vineyard sites or the winemaker's decisions before, during and after harvest.
Start with the Trapiche 2008 ($9). Note its fresh, grassy aromas, signaling little or no oak, with some musky, evening scent over the blueberry fruit flavors. On the palate, the wine is a bit heavy and slightly unbalanced but a delicious mouthful nonetheless.
Compare this with the Alamos 2008, which is an archetypal malbec: correct and . . . well, fine. Nothing wrong with it, but not very exciting, either. (This label has been spoiled by success, with its price creeping up to $13, though it is often on sale for less than $10).
Malbec's enticing aromas come into play with the High Note 2008 ($12). When first opened, this wine is very floral, with hints of lavender and violets along with clove and other spices. It seems to lack the low notes -- some flesh and heft on the palate -- but these fill in after about 30 minutes. This wine keeps getting better in the glass.
Aromas also dominate the Mapema 2006 ($20), with herbal scents of rosemary and sage yielding to meat and woodsy notes of tree bark and damp leaves. It is rich and lively, showing differently with every sip, suggesting it is going through its adolescence right now and hasn't quite figured out what it wants to be when it matures. It will be worth visiting again in a few years. (Local distributors are now carrying the 2007.)
The Finca el Origen Reserva 2007 ($10) shares those herbal qualities yet remains rooted in malbec's berry flavors. This wine's lightness sets it apart. It is almost European in style.
In contrast, the Valentin Bianchi "Elsa" 2008 ($9) is more New World, focused and intense. You may need to coax out its aromas of black olive, cherry and blueberry, but you'll be impressed with its concentration and structure, even though the tannins seem to vanish on the finish. Like any good wine, it leaves you wanting more.
McIntyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.