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Take a tango with Malbec

A reader called just before the holidays and asked about scoring “a good Malbec for around $15.” Wow, talk about easy pickings!

Malbec was prominent in the Bordeaux region of France but ultimately fell from favor – except for small plantings around Cahors. Today, the varietal has become the signature red grape of Argentina – particularly in the winery–rich area of Mendoza.

Here, the grape flourishes from verdant valleys to mountainside vineyards. With more than 650 wineries (at last count) and more than 360,000 acres planted in wine grapes, it’s obvious that wine – and Malbec in particular – drives this economy.

Malbec takes to the typically poor soils and widely varying weather conditions like no other grape. While I’ve yet to sample a bad Argentinian Malbec, they are mimics of the terroir – and expressions of the grape change pleasantly as you move between the four predominant growing regions.

Broadly, Malbec is a more primitive cousin to Merlot – or a more earthy Zinfandel. The wine usually expresses a deep plum to garnet color, is medium–bodied and delivers ripe, luscious red fruit flavors. Oak aging adds layers of flavors and creates enjoyable complexity.

Crios 2008 Malbec

Winemaker Susan Balboa is a rarity in the predominantly male–dominated Argentine wine industry. She gained acclaim with her initial releases of a reserve line that included Torrontes, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. Crios (which means “offspring”) pays homage to her remaining grapes – and her three children, whose handprints are represented on the label.

In this warm, yet dry climate the Malbec achieves near–perfect ripeness which bestows intense flavors of blackberry, peppery spice and balsamic herbs. The well–drained slopes of the region’s hillsides have proven to be ideally suited for Malbec, allowing the wines to achieve complexity and harmony that some critics say rivals those of Napa or Bordeaux.

Among other very good Malbecs I’ve recently tasted in the $10 to $12 ranges are: Barricas 2007 Mendoza Malbec, which is luscious with flavors of raisin, currant, prune and toasty notes that hang around through a lingering finish.

Puelche Reserva 2007, a wine from nearby Patagonia, is bold and intense. Again, plenty of ripe raisin flavors combine with black fruits to create a wine that is as at home with grilled lamb chops as it is with roasted root veggies.

Of course, no talk of Argentina Malbec is complete without a mention of Catena. From the entry level line, Catena Malbec (2005–2007 is on shelves now) wine lovers will find a 100–percent Malbec that is carefully blended from four vineyards, each lending its own element to the wine’s character.

The Angelica vineyard lends ripe plum and chocolate flavors with a very soft, supple mouthfeel. The La Piramide vineyard offers blackberry fruit with a slight earthy tone and notes of spicy black pepper. The Altamira vineyard brings a core of black currant and cassis, with excellent structure and length.

And the Adrianna vineyard lends exceptional concentration with explosive floral aromatics. Together they make a complex blend of aromas and flavors, a wine with excellent concentration, balance and freshness.

Catena Malbec climbs in price, to around $20, but it’s well worth the extra money - particularly for a special dinner or gift.