The Vines of Mendoza

The Vines of Mendoza | Chicago Tribune


Malbec's star turn

Argentina's 'wild and spicy' wine captures hearts and wallets
Bill Daley
January 28, 2009

Mad about malbec yet? If you're not now, you'll likely be a fan soon. This Argentine red has become a red-hot pour.

Stats tell the story. Dollar sales of Argentine malbec in the United States were up 147 percent in 2008 as compared to 2006, according to The Nielsen Company, a market research firm. The U.S. is Argentina's top export market for malbec.

"Malbec is probably the hottest new wine category in the store," said Mike Baker of Chicago's Wine Discount Center. "The Argentines have succeeded with relative ease in making and marketing an exciting category."

According to Baker, the wines are concentrated, full-bodied and soft, and they charm with balanced dark fruit, chocolate and light oak flavors. "The wines are popular because they taste good and they are priced right," he said. "Many tasty bottlings are under $20 and a handful is under $10."

Tom Benezra of Sal's Beverage World stores describes Argentine malbec as a cross between cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel.

"There is a somewhat wild and spicy side like red zinfandel yet it often displays a measure of elegance and sophistication like a cabernet," he said. "The obvious raspberry and boysenberry fruit flavors with toasty spice make it easy for novice wine drinkers to enjoy, but its class and complexity can appeal to connoisseurs as well."

Malbecs give you high quality at bargain prices and they are so food friendly. Serve with hearty food, such as beef stew, grilled steak, even sausage pizza.

Efrain Madrigal of Sam's Wines and Spirits compares the surge in popularity of Argentine wines in general, and malbec in particular, to the Australian wine boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. But, he thinks the Argentines are operating at an advantage.

"The lower-priced Argentine wines have much more depth and finesse than comparably priced Australian wines," he sad. "That is why I think they are attractive to a wider audience. Even the wine buff will find something to like in these lower-end examples."

Madrigal said more expensive malbecs, those priced at $20 or higher, are as good as the best of California and Bordeaux.

Malbec's stunning rise in popularity is all the more astounding given this red wine grape was long considered something of a B-grade actress in its native France. Except in Cahors, in southwest France, the grape was used for blending.

Argentina came to the rescue. First planted there in the mid-19th Century, malbec proved a fruitful grower across throughout the country. Mendoza, a region running along the Andes at the country's western boundary, is particularly noted for its malbec.

Over the decades, malbec has steadily improved in quality and status to such a degree that Wines of Argentina declares on its Web site ( "The most emblematic Argentinian wine is made from this variety."

Move over, Evita, malbec is Argentina's new star.

Bill Daley answers questions on wine Sundays in Smart. Hear him on WGN-AM 720's "The Noon Show" and the 11 p.m. news on Fridays and on "The Nick Digilio Show" at 9:35 p.m. Saturdays.
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