WITH the apparently unstoppable success of Malbec, Argentina is in the enviable position of having almost too big a hit on its hands.
Almost, but not quite. In "value-priced" entry wines, Malbec's fruit-forward, very approachable style often as not over-delivers for the dollar. And, not surprisingly, continues to be an unqualified hit with consumers.
However, dig a little deeper and you'll find there's a whole lot more to Malbec than meets the eye. Plus, you'll usually be well rewarded for the few extra dollars.
Mendoza has become synonymous with Malbec- no surprise, considering the area accounts for more than two-thirds of the country's entire production.
Within Mendoza, gaining plenty of attention over the last few years, are Luyan de Cuyo and Uco Valley, particularly for their high-altitude plantings (ranging between 900 to 1,600 metres in the Andes foothills), which can yield more complex and intense wines.
In fact, high-altitude plantings are now part of the wine lexicon, with the abbreviation "MASL"(metres above sea level) commonly used.
Although Malbec rules, it's by no means the only game in town, with no shortage of noteworthy Cabernet Sauvignon, other Bordeaux varietals, and Syrah, which are increasingly skillfully blended into middle and upper tier wines.
Malbec comes in any number of styles.
"It can be fresh, floral, ripe or even confected, although we tend towards a fresher, more food-friendly style, with good acidity," says Mendel winemaker and vineyard manager Santiago Mayorga (who also makes a superb Semillon).
Indeed, another point often overlooked, Argentines love their cuisine, which roams far beyond the perception of (excellent) beef and more beef, and varies by region.
During our recent visit, we encountered dishes as varied as mildly flavoured mountain hare (substantial, roasted and served whole), sinfully rich blood sausage (morcilla) and perfectly oven-baked lamb empanadas, all proving worthy matches for Malbec and its various blends.
? Mendel Unus 2010 ((Luyan de Cujo and Uco, 900 masl)
Polished blend of old vines Malbec (70 per cent) and Cabernet (30 per cent) yields a combination of elegant, tightly wound structure and seductive plushness; sixteen months in French oak; deep garnet in the glass, with black fruit, oak spice and fennel notes, finely balanced with good aging potential (PWS, c. $45. 91 pts)
? Finca Decero Malbec 2010, Remolinos, Agrelo Vineyard
The name means "from nothing," literally, referring to the fact that this 1,050metre foothills vineyard was started from scratch on alluvial deposits of clay and loams over gravely subsoils. Vibrant red berries on the nose followed by complex layers of cherry chocolate and dark spice notes with a definite mineral streak; good acidity and well-balanced French oak. Private Wine Stores (EW $25.99, 91 pts.)
? Ben Marco Malbec 2009 (blended with eight per cent Bonarda)
Crushed red berry aromas with layers of raspberry, mulberry and darker notes, an earthy mineral edge and intense, lingering close. From pioneering Susana Balbo, Excellent value. (EW, $23.99 91 pts.)
? Zorzal Malbec 2011 Tupungato (Uco) 1,400 metres
Vibrant red berry aromas, approachable, fruit-forward cherry and dark-fruit layered palate before a gently spicy end. Good value at $23-25 PWS (89 pts.).
? Alta Vista Premium Malbec 2011 (blend of Luyan de Cuyo and Uco fruit)
Approachable, fruit-forward style with good balance of floral and spicy notes and cherry chocolate layers wrapped in food-friendly acidity (EW $24.99 89 pts.).