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The mysteries of Argentinean malbec

When this robust wine is good, it's a perfect pairing for grilled beef. But as Jon Bonné discovers, finding great bottles can be tricky.

Wine should be all about pleasure, so there’s nothing less fun than a cautionary wine tale.

As anyone who has encountered its food can testify, Argentina is a nation obsessed with beef. Eating steak a couple times a day is a perfectly reasonable practice. The parrillada mixta — a basic grilled combo of beef cuts, sausage and offal — is brilliant in its simplicity. Beef straight from the Argentinean pampas, preferably cooked over an open flame and topped with a fried egg or gilded by garlicky chimichurri sauce, is a daily staple.

Seeing how Argentines love their beef, you’d expect wines made from malbec, their adopted national grape, to be the perfect match for meat hot off the grill. One of the six noble red grapes of Bordeaux, malbec offers robust fruit, chewy tannins, and smoky, leathery overtones that should prove a custom-tailored fit.

So it came as a huge shock during our recent tasting to find so many Argentinean malbecs either out of balance, beaten into submission with too much oak, or dominated by tannins too wild for even the heartiest hunk of hanger steak.

This was personal. When it comes to steak, malbec is where I’m inclined to go first, but often it's not that easy. Even on steakhouse wine lists, Malbec makes only occasional appearances. (Aside, of course, from Argentinean steak joints, where it's found in abundance).

As a grape, malbec has a rough-and-tumble history. Once a crucial part of the Bordeaux equation, at least until the 1950s, it largely fell out of favor in its native France. With the exception of a few patches of the Loire Valley, where it’s often called cot, only the appellation of Cahors — where reds must be at least 70 percent malbec — still stakes a major French claim.

But Argentina has embraced this castaway grape. It thrives throughout the country, nowhere more so than in the central-western Mendoza region, where the sandy, alluvial soils are not unlike Bordeaux’s but the altitude — with vineyards rising over 3,000 feet — is notably different. Bordering the precipitous Andes, Mendoza is home to some 900 wineries.

When done right, Argentinean malbec is packed thick with the scents of red fruit and blackberries, dark notes of leather and charcoal or smoke, and tannins refined enough to take on a piece of grilled beef and without overwhelming your mouth. It should have power and structure, but without the hard edges that can often plague cabernet sauvignon.

So why the hard edges and lackluster flavors?

Stuck in transitionTo solve my malbec mystery, I called Nick Ramkowsky, a partner in Sausalito, Calif.-based Vine Connections, who specializes in importing Argentinean wines.

The Argentinean wine industry, Ramkowsky pointed out, is in distinct upheaval: a struggle to move from large production, high yields in the vineyards and a focus solely on the home market to more rarified treatment, lower grape yields and an export-driven market. Since the 1960s, malbec plantings in Argentina have been reduced by four-fifths of total acreage as producers focus on quality wines for the world market.

“You have this explosion of new wineries and explosion of exports, and people are trying to do wines that they perceive are going to do well in the U.S. market,” Ramkowsky said. “In the last 24 to 36 months, I’ve seen more change in Mendoza than in the past 10 years.”

What that means, in part, is a lot of experimentation. Some individual producers are struggling to share best practices through a relatively hidebound and closed industry.  Perhaps the most visible is Susana Balbo, who has gained prominence not only for the quality of her wines but for her starring role in a male-dominated industry.

But change is always chaotic. Despite the presence of top consultants like Michel Rolland and major players like the Rothschilds (as in Lafite), the Argentinean style is still hard to pin down, and quality doesn’t even track with price tags. Altos Las Hormigas, whose wines start at under $10, and some other larger producer, whose wines sell for more than twice as much, have mastered a food-friendly style. More and more wines are marked by the jammy flavors and high alcohol (15 percent was the highest in our tasting) that polarize drinkers.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to go into them finding the identity of these wines,” Fred Dexheimer, beverage director of BLT Steak in New York, told me. “I’m excited to see there’s a lot of potential. But there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Dexheimer came to a similar conclusion as Ramkowsky: Argentina still struggles to bridge the gap between its homegrown traditions and the tastes of the modern market. (Chianti had to do much the same in the 1970s.)

As someone who pairs a lot of red meat and red wine, Dexheimer limits his malbec picks to a few carefully selected from producers with a proven track record (most of whom are represented by Ramkowsky, as it turns out): for example, wines from either Susana Balbo or the Luca label from Laura Catena. Daughter of noted Argentine winemaker Nicolas Catena, her malbecs have the right balance of acid and tannin to offset a hearty chunk of beef.

Another option is to seek out a blend. Malbec is often combined with cabernet sauvignon, which can even out the wine's structure and add complexity.

When done right, Argentinean malbec remains a terrific pairing for meat off the grill.  But for now, shop with care — and hope that Argentina’s divide between old and new resolves itself.

Our tasting of some two dozen Argentinean malbecs (and one Chilean) spanned vintage years 2002 through 2005 and yielded a handful of quality picks. Blends with under 70 percent malbec weren’t included in the tasting. Here are eight that made the cut:

Susana Balbo 2004 Mendoza ($26, Vine Connections): The reigning queen of Argentinean wine earns her reputation on what’s in the bottle. This latest release blends in 10 percent cabernet sauvignon, which helps bulk up its structure and aromatics.  Dark and tarry, with dried tobacco, nutmeg, leather and a raspberry overtone amid sweet licorice from 80 percent new French oak. Chewy and thick, with the presence of a smoke-filled room. For the budget conscious, Balbo also just released a 2005 young-vines malbec from her second label, Crios de Susana Balbo.

Kaiken 2003 Mendoza ($11, TGIC Imports): Pungent, with blackberry, tar and charcoal. Ripe and full, great for barbecue, with its fine, tapered finish that keeps gripping. Straightforward, but pleasing.

Mapema 2003 Mendoza ($18, Vine Connections): Big, brambly fruit, with cocoa and black plum. The tannins are hefty and mouth-drying. Truly requires food, but the solid fruit still comes forward.

Ben Marco 2004 Mendoza ($19, Vine Connections): The result of Susana Balbo’s husband, Pedro Marchevsky, trying to make a wine that shows off the terroir of Mendoza. Some drinkers might be thrown off by the floral, soapy notes from 12 percent bonarda (an aromatic Italian grape grown widely in Argentina), but it’s complex, with baked cherry and dry mineral character. Fine tannin on the end and a delicate, tapered finish demonstrate its finesse. The blend also includes 1 percent cabernet franc.

Bodegas Escorihuela 2004 ‘Don Miguel Gascón’ Mendoza ($11, Pasternak Wine Imports): This always-popular bottling shows well again. Smoky and dense, with black fruit and tar, plus a dollop of warm oak and slightly coarse tannins. All holds together nicely.

Viu Manent 2003 Single Vineyard Colchagua Valley ($23, various importers): The Chilean ringer in our panel, with 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, did quite well. Rich with pepper, graphite, dried mint, vanilla and dried branches. Layered with black fruit, and notable for its solid acidity and just the right amount of concentration. Finish had almost too much grip, a signal that it needs time to mellow.

Valentín Bianchi 2003 “Particular” San Rafael ($28, Quintessential): Sweet and full of licorice. Heavily oaked, but it’s smooth, with good concentration in its core and without going over the top as some other Bianchi wines did. Chewy, slightly grainy finish.

Gusto 2002 Mendoza ($24, Vine Connections): The Southern Hemisphere project of Guy Davis from Sonoma’s Davis Family Vineyards. In addition to 11 months in 50 percent new oak, this benefits from the extra years of age. Warm, with black cherry and a green-leaf note. Still packs notable fruit, though there’s a slightly acrid overtone in the finish.