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WINE SAVVY: Learn the grape malbec

David Devere

In the 1980s, South American wine was dominated by Chilean products. Chile makes merlot, sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon blends. They were and still are inexpensive and mostly one-dimensional, meaning the price might be their best quality. Back then, Argentina was best known for foolishly attacking the United Kingdom in the brief but bloody Falkland Islands war.

I used to travel to Chile quite often. My father was a mining executive, and I'd spend my summer and Christmas vacations in Santiago. During one trip south, my plane was diverted to Mendoza, Argentina, due to foul weather in Santiago. I remember thinking how drab and depressed the city in the mountain seemed. The airport had just one runway, and passengers were relieved when our Eastern Air Lines flight took back to the skies rather than the announced possibility of an overnight stay.

The wine industry in Argentina, back then, didn't exist outside of its borders. That all changed in the early 2000s, and now you can't go anywhere without seeing Argentinian Malbec on the shelf or on the wine list. Seemingly out of nowhere came a wine favored by everyone, and Mendoza is its cultural capital.

Malbec is known as "cot" in France, and it is indigenous to the southwestern region in an area known as Cahors. The wine from Cahors is deep dark purple, very tannic and can seem harsh on the palate. It is bold and has aromas of leather and cedar and has a high alcohol content. You've probably never had one or seen one for sale because a good Cahors is difficult to make. Because of this, cot was sent down the river to Bordeaux and mixed with merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Cot's dark color was used to deepen the color of wines that had good flavor but were pale. According to "Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties Including Their Origins and Flavours" by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz, the first Frenchman to plant cot in Bordeaux in 1782 was named Malbeck.

In 1868, the French agricultural engineer Michel Pouget, on a mission for the provincial governor of Argentina, brought cot from Bordeaux to Mendoza. When asked for the name of this new grape it was recorded as malbec, and here it languished for almost 150 years in obscurity. The Argentines carefully tended the grape formerly known as cot and malbeck and it started to change. The bunches of berries became tighter and smaller when compared to their cousins in France, and the acidity rose to a level never before attainable.

While no one knows for sure why these changes took place, most believe the grape changed due to the elevation. In France, the grape is grown at 500-700 feet above sea level. In Argentina, the grape is grown at 2,500 to as much as 9,000 feet above sea level. The cold nights, thinner air, shorter summers, hot days punctuated by windy periods are all effects of elevation, and these were enough to turn a simple, rough-on-the-edges, not-so-interesting wine called cot into international sensation malbec.

Argentinian malbec is unique, it has become the signature wine of Argentina, and it has far eclipsed Chilean wine in terms of quality. It has flavors of black cherry, plum, blackberry and blueberry as well as black pepper, leather, coffee, cocoa and tobacco. In well-made examples, the tannins can be very fine, and while it is high-alcohol — close to 15 percent — it is well-balanced.

This makes malbec the perfect wine to sip while sitting by the fire or to pair with dinner. It pairs well with beef, lamb, buffalo, venison or intense cheeses. Pairing spices would be parsley, thyme, rosemary, cumin, coriander, clove, garlic, shallot, green onion or barbecue sauce. I'd pair it with shepherd's pie made with lamb and rosemary.

With success comes imitation, and most wine-producing regions are now trying to jump on the success of Argentinian malbec. While some of these wines are good, I suggest sticking with the real stuff and possibly paying a little more for a better bottle. Price really does matter here. Quality Argentinian malbec can retail for $10-$12 from Mendoza, and malbec can be had for $25-$30 a bottle.