Argentine malbec has become very popular. So much so that many people do not realize it is actually a French grape varietal that has been grown in Bordeaux and France’s southwest for centuries. It arrived in Argentina in the 19th century, but really started to make a splash in the 1990s. It is now the most widely planted grape in Argentina and is most at home in Mendoza, the country’s largest wine region.
The new wave of Argentine malbec was ushered in by Nicolas Catena, who studied and worked in California before moving back to his native land all the wiser from an enology and business standpoint. If one person can be credited with putting Argentine malbec on the map in the Bay Area, it is his daughter, Laura Catena, who for years has tirelessly been promoting her family’s wines while moonlighting as an emergency room doctor.
Catena’s polished, fruit-forward style has undoubtedly influenced the face of malbec in Argentina. Thanks to Catena Zapata (the name of the winery), Susana Balbo, Ben Marco, Tikal and Luca, all started by people who either share the name or worked for Catena, were able to get off the ground, putting their own spin on the grape.
Credit must be given where it is due, though, and as much as I respect the Catena family, another producer, Bodegas Weinert, was making world-class Argentine malbec as early as 1977.
Founded in 1975 by Bernardo C. Weinert when Isabel Peron briefly headed the country, it was one of the few producers that thought about quality over quantity during this time. Stylistically, the wines took their cue from France, and to this day they are pretty old world — meaning more rustic and acidic, though by no means lacking in fruit. The wines also have an unbelievable capacity to age, as evidenced by the evolution of its debut wine.
I first tried the ’77 Weinert malbec in 1995 when I bought it for Hayes and Vine Wine Bar. At the time, it was one of the few Argentine wines I could get my hands on in the Bay Area, but its lure was the value that it offered, especially in comparison with other wines of the same age. I think it was on the list for $75. Ten years later, the same wine reappeared on the wine list at CAV, having developed further and become even more enjoyable. Sadly, it jumped to $270 a bottle.
Recently, I had the privilege to enjoy this sensational wine again. Filled with fresh tobacco, plums, spice and molé, it is by no means tired and has the pedigree of a very good Bordeaux. You can still find it for about $215 a bottle, retail, relatively speaking not a bad deal at all.
For kicks, I also opened up the 2004 Weinert Malbec that sells for $25 to drink side by side with the ’77. While approachable, it is still very young. However, stick a half-case away as it will be a worthwhile investment.
Catena makes several levels of malbec, and while it is not possible to try one that is as old as Weinert, they seem to hold up pretty well, especially the Catena Zapata Argentino that retails for $100 a bottle. This said, even the basic ($20) can hold up for a good five years in some vintages.
The contrast between Catena and Weinert is stark, but both producers deserve big props for taking this grape seriously and elevating its popularity to a level never achieved by the French. Score one for Argentina there.
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.