Our Picks: Premium Malbec

Malbec was first brought to Argentina from France in 1853. 'La uva francese', as it was known by growers at the time, grew quickly in popularity as it thrived in the dry, sunny climes of Mendoza and Salta. In the 1960s and 70s, Malbec fell out of favour, with many vines uprooted in favour of Cabernet and Merlot, as well  as high-yielding varieties like Criolla for cheap table wine. It was  in the 1990s, following an influx of investment and knowledge in the form of European winemakers, that Malbec's potential in Argentina was rediscovered. Since then, Malbec has ridden one wave of success after another, and its popularity shows no signs of waning.

Renowned winemaker and pioneer Alberto Antonini, co-founder of Altos Las Hormigas in Mendoza, first visited the region in 1995, and saw its potential for making a fresher style of Malbec then was being produced at the time. Alberto insists that, while Malbec has found an ideal home in Argentina, it is still on a journey to fulfil its true potential, and that its future lies in purity and sub-regionality. Together with the help of his long-term friend and soil mapping expert Pedro Parra, Alberto conducted extensive research on the vineyards and soils of Mendoza, leading him to some exceptional sites. For almost a decade now, the Altos Las Hormigas wines have been made without new or seasoned oak. By using concrete and neutral untoasted foudres, Alberto aims to reveal the distinct characters of the vineyards in his wines. As Alberto explains: “Malbec is a fragile variety that is easily overpowered by young toasted oak and an excess of oxygen in small barrels can strip the energy and vitality from the wine. It is a matter of taste, but I do not enjoy the coffee, sweet vanilla and cocoa flavours typically found in the big, ripe, oaky styles of Malbec – they are better suited to a cappuccino or ice cream! Fortunately, there is a growing appreciation for a fresher, more refined and elegant style.”

While Argentine Malbec may have forged its reputation on big, ripe styles with lashings of oak, many winemakers are  now following in Alberto's footsteps, taking a 'less is more' approach in pursuit of a more authentic and complex style of Malbec. Thibaut Delmotte of Colomé in Salta, Argentina's oldest working winery founded in 1883, agrees that this movement is linked to the huge advances in the studies and practices in the vineyard, though that is not to say it is easy! Thibaut explains: “The challenge of producing pure, refined Malbec is in achieving balance at every step in the vineyard, from pruning through to harvest, followed by a gentle hand in the winery. One small mistake will show in the wine - there's nowhere to hide!”

Asked about the future of premium Malbec, Gustavo Hörmann of Kaiken believes diversity also has a big part to play. In Mendoza, there are very notable differences between Malbec from the traditional winemaking region of Luján de Cuyo, from neighbouring Maipú with its warmer climate, and from the richer soils and high-altitude vineyards of the cooler Uco Valley. “Even within the Uco Valley,” explains Gustavo, “there is huge variety thanks to different microclimates.” The high-altitude vineyards (up to 1,600 metres) of the renowned Gualtallary sub-region in the north of the Uco Valley, where vines are grown on poor calcareous soils, produce unique expressions of Malbec that combine freshness, structure and herbal characters. From the Altamira sub-region, in the south of the Uco Valley, comes a vibrant style of Malbec, with a distinctive mineral character from the chalky soils. However, Gustavo stresses there are several other emerging sub-regions that will play a key role in the future of premium Malbec from Argentina: “Look out for Los Chacayes, the latest sub-region in Uco to get its own GI. It's in the heart of Uco Valley, where very poor, stony and sandy soils produce Malbec with great concentration and complexity.”

We hope you enjoy these Malbecs. While different in style and origin, they represent all that is exciting about premium Malbec – pure expressions of variety and site.

Altos Las Hormigas `Appellation Altamira` Uco Valley Malbec 2014

This single vineyard wine is made with minimal intervention. Fermented with wild yeasts and aged in large neutral oak for 18 months, it displays delicate fruit, fresh acidity and a complex structure. Layers of red cherries combine with wild rocket, thyme and a touch of minerality.

Causse du Théron `En Pente` Cahors Malbec 2014

The team at Altos Las Hormigas visited Cahors in 2013 to learn about the origins of Malbec. They discovered vines planted on Kimmeridgian limestone, and selected two vineyards owned by a local family for their Cahors Malbec project. Named after the steep vineyard on which the vines are grown, ‘En Pente’ is wild fermented and aged in concrete for two years. The wine is pure, with vibrant fruit and mouth-watering acidity. As winemaker Leo Erazo explains: “We decided not to use oak because we want the most extreme level of purity. The soils that we are working with give some structure, but also delicacy. For ‘En Pente’, the tannins come from the limestone.”

Bodega Colomé Lote Especial `El Arenal` Salta Malbec 2017

Made from thick-skinned grapes grown on the poor soils of ‘El Arenal’, a single vineyard at 2,600 metres above sea level in the Upper Calchaquí Valley, this mountain wine is powerful yet refined, with plush fruit, floral notes, round tannins and a long finish.

Bodega Colomé Estate Series `Auténtico` Salta Malbec 2018

This pure, unoaked expression of Malbec is made with minimal intervention and is a tribute to the winery’s ancestors. Grapes are sourced from Colomé’s 90-year-old vineyard at 2,300 metres above sea level. It is a complex and stunning wine with great concentration and fine tannins.

Kaiken Ultra Malbec 2017

Grapes are sourced from three separate areas in the Uco Valley: Altamira, Los Chacayes and Gualtallary. Each area brings its own distinct qualities and characteristics to the blend. The wine is aged for 12 months in French oak barrels, of which 30% are new and 70% are second and third use. The wine displays black fruits, spice and underlying floral notes, with good structure and soft, ripe tannins on the finish.

Finca Flichman Dedicado, `Tupungato Vineyard` Uco Valley Malbec 2016

For decades, the very best wine produced by the Finca Flichman estate was kept by the family for sharing with friends, the moniker ‘Dedicado a amigos’ handwritten on the label. This is the inspiration behind their flagship Dedicado range, produced from the very best hand-harvested parcels of fruit. This elegant Malbec is sourced from the high-altitude Tupungato single vineyard in the Uco Valley and combines red fruit aromas and hints of spice from oak ageing with ripe tannins and bright acidity.

Kaiken `Mai` Mendoza Malbec 2016

Meaning 'first' in the Pehuenche dialect, ‘Mai’ is Kaiken's flagship wine. Sourced from 100-year-old vines at the estate vineyard in Vistalba (Luján de Cuyo), which produce very low yields of extraordinary concentration, this 100% Malbec is structured and powerful, yet balanced. It is aged for 18 months in French oak barrels, which lend a complexity and roundness that carries through to the finish.

Amalaya `Gran Corte` Calchaquí Valley 2017

Made from estate-grown fruit from Cafayate in Salta, this Malbec-dominant blend has intense aromas of black fruits with sweet spice undertones. Small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Tannat add freshness and structure to the blend. It impressed the judges at the Sommelier Wine Awards last year, picking up the Food Match Trophy for steak.