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World of Wine: Malbecs offer plump fruit flavor at good price

Ron Smith, World of Wine columnist

In a recent survey of the wines in my cellar, I found a preponderance of malbec. Why? The reason for me is something I call 'wine security'. This is the equivalent of what our grandparents referred to as financial security back in the days when people were taking their money out of banks and putting it under their mattresses.

What makes malbec unique to all the wonderful other red wines that are offered — the pinot noirs, zinfandels, cabernet sauvignons, syrahs and merlots?

Dark ripe, plump fruit flavors are a good start, but for the price conscious, it is a great bargain.

Known as Argentina's signature red varietal wine grape, malbec was brought to Argentina from Bordeaux, and mostly planted in the country's most notable wine region known as Mendoza.

This very high, desert-like region with snowmelt water from the Andes providing the needed irrigation produces malbec that is distinct from all other parts of the wine growing regions of the world.

Although malbec's fame is attributed to the quality and quaffable wines coming from Argentina, it originated in Cahors, a tiny, ancient region in southwest France. While the Mendoza wine is known for its fruit forward flavor, the Cahors malbec is a very dark red, with strong tannic flavors, according to The Wine Bible.

In France, malbec plays the role as a blending varietal where it has small but important acreage for that purpose. It struggles with disease and weather problems and because of the powerful tannins is not sought for a stand-alone drink. Still number 2 in world production of malbec, France's 15,000 acres pales in comparison to Argentina's 75,000 plus acres.

Recognizing malbec's popularity increasing with American consumers, California, Oregon and Washington state growers are planting some acres to capitalize on this ever-expanding market.

Before the Volstead Act for alcohol Prohibition of the 1920's, malbec was a significant variety in California bulk blending of wines. After Prohibition, it was a minor variety until it was discovered as an excellent blender in "Meritage" Bordeaux style blends in the 1990s. It has since jumped in acreage — thanks in part from the increased popularity of these blends, and the increasing imports from Argentina. Currently more than 7,000 acres of this variety are grown.

Oregon and Washington state wine grape growers have planted some malbec vines, but their wine is used mostly in blends, with currently very little interest in expansion because of popular competitive red varietals.

With malbec's bold flavors and richness, many wine tasters believe that the intense use of oak barrel aging is employed.

While some oak aging is carried out with the lower priced wines, malbecs are generally in contact with oak barrels for fewer than 6 months.

Higher priced and premium malbec wines with the indisputably recognizable blueberry smell will typically retail for $24 or higher and spend 20 or more months in an oak barrel. Time is money in this business like any other, so if you want that particular impact when drinking your malbec from Argentina, be prepared to pay for it.

Malbecs are food friendly and go with smoky cured beef, charcuterie, chili, spaghetti and of course, burgers and steak.

Ron Smith, a retired horticulturist, writes weekly about his love of wine and its history. Readers can reach him at tuftruck1@gmail.com.

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