Malbec finds a home in Argentina

The roots of malbec are the Bordeaux region in southwest France where it is among the “big six” permitted red grapes.

Trapiche Winemaker Daniel Pi (Courtesy photo)

Trapiche Winemaker Daniel Pi (Courtesy photo)

Not in a million years would I have guessed that the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere would be Mount Aconcaqua in Argentina. My interest was in learning more about the vineyards east of the mountain in Mendoza, where some of the world’s finest malbec is produced.

The roots of malbec are the Bordeaux region in southwest France where it is among the “big six” permitted red grapes. Today, with diminished plantings, it is used in some blends, but lingers in the shadows of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot.

Malbec’s status in Argentina is quite different. It has found fame and a home in the sun, becoming the country’s signature grape and providing world markets with accessible full-bodied wines at reasonable prices. While vineyards exist in South Africa, Australia and Chile, their combined production doesn’t match the capacity of Argentinian malbecs.

For years, the Mendoza region has been a destination for adventure tourists who enjoy hiking, skiing and climbing. Today, a thousand vineyards and hundreds of wineries attract wine tourists in unparalleled numbers. Seventy-five percent of all Mendoza vineyards are planted in malbec. High altitude, arid climate and varied soil types create the terroir and potential for aromatic, powerful, but elegant wines. It is in Mendoza that malbec has become a solo act worthy of the global stage.

Trapiche Winery in Mendoza, Argentina. (Courtesy photo)

Trapiche Winery in Mendoza, Argentina. (Courtesy photo)

One of the oldest and largest producers of malbec in Mendoza is Trapiche, founded in 1883. Two-thirds of its annual production involves 50,000 tons or 3 million cases of malbec. Two million cases are exported to 18 countries including the United States, Canada, Korea and the United Kingdom and the remainder is distributed domestically.

Trapiche’s vast menu of wines is divided among four unique series that were all instrumental in the winery being named Wine Enthusiast magazine’s 2017 New World Winery of the Year. The winery sources grapes from more than 200 independent producers that farm nearly 2,500 acres of vines. The best expression of the Mendoza malbec is found in the Trapiche Terroir Series that showcase some of the best vineyards and longtime partnerships.

A tasting of current Terroir Series releases was hosted, via Zoom, by longtime Trapiche winemaker Daniel Pi, who arrived in 2002 when the winery was producing mostly domestic table wine. His focus on lower production single-vineyard malbec helped Trapiche achieve the status it enjoys today. Speaking of Pi, James Molesworth of Wine Spectator magazine wrote: “The winemaker’s new single-vineyard Mendoza Malbecs help raise the bar for the large industry in Argentina.”

Daniel described a Mendoza-style malbec as fresh and sexy with great color, expressive fruit and soft tannins. He spoke of the most recent vintage as an easy crop after early climate-related challenges resulted in 20 percent less volume. Fortunately, two-thirds of the harvest was in fermentation before the COVID-19 virus spread through the country. The region’s infection rate is minimal and operations are continuing with safety guidelines in place.

Another ongoing environmental challenge for the region is the reduction of snow level in the nearby Andres, reducing the volume of natural water and increasing the need for irrigation.

In the end, Pi believes his single vineyard malbecs are and will continue to be among the world’s best.

From vines originally planted in 1947, Daniel described the 2017 Trapiche Finca Coletto Single Vineyard Malbec ($60) as “a piece of landscape put into a bottle.” The spirit of the growers is expressed through the dark color and fruit driven flavors. There was an elegant freshness and strength to the wine that would pair well with pasta.

With fruit grown at nearly 3,500 feet above sea level, the aromas and concentrated fruit flavors of the 2015 Trapiche Fincs Orellana Single Vineyard Malbec add minty, herbal notes that linger through the finish. It reminded me, years ago, of a Mendoza-style malbec that was brilliantly paired with Abbaye de Belloc, a semi-hard sheep’s cheese created by Benedictine monks near the Pyrenees Mountains.

The first vintage Trapiche Medalla Malbec was produced in 1983 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the winery. It represents fruit from the first growing area near the cool upper side of the Mendoza River. The 2017 vintage is young, but represents good integration of fruit and oak and is readily available in the $20 range.

With numerous wineries and a growing number of highly rated releases, Mendoza malbecs should be on the radar of serious and emerging wine consumers.

Guest columnist Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 20 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email sfewine@gmail.com

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