In a restaurant in Buenos Aires, I ordered a “half” parrillada, so they plunked down only about five pounds of beef on the hibachi grill on my table.
There were a half-dozen cuts of Argentina’s rich and chewy grass-fed beef – steaks, chops, blood sausages, kabobs … and a curious off-white rectangle cut about the size and shape of a box of matches.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Señor, it is the udder.”
The waiter beamed. My wife paled. My 8-year-old daughter made her lunch the french fries. I cut a little piece and chewed. It was tough and flavorless – utterly unlike the tender, juicy rest of the feast. Another life adventure chalked up.
But the wine. Oh, the wine was malbec, the redolent, blue-velvet wine that has put Argentina on the map. It smelled and tasted of black sweet cherries and dark chocolate, with ample body and ripe tannins that gave it a silky finish.
Sipping malbec all by itself is popular because it’s like biting into one of those indulgent chocolate-cherry bonbons by Brach’s. U.S. sippers in the influential 18-to-34 range flock to it for the same reason they like the Italian sparkling wine called prosecco – it’s cool, and it’s cheap.
It’s full and rich enough for a big, grilled steak without packing the astringent tannins of a cabernet sauvignon. Malbec is closer to the friendly appeal of merlot or pinot noir.
Malbec sales to the U.S., its top market, have soared 17 percent so far this year, according to a study done for the Wines of Argentina trade organization. It makes up 64 percent of all Argentine wine sold in this country.
Malbec was a standard grape in France in the 1800s, blended into its fabulous Bordeaux reds to give its saturated color and the astringent tannic structure it had in that cooler climate. In 1852, it was brought to Argentina to upgrade that country’s then-mediocre grape industry.
Then something wonderful happened. In its warmer, sunnier new home as much as 4,000 feet up the slopes of the Andes, malbec turned from mouth-puckering to marvelous – full of fruit, spice and softness.
Daniel Pi, winemaker today for Trapiche, cites several reasons.
Intense high-altitude sunlight blazing through the thin air thickens the skins, producing more flavor. Hot days ripen the grapes. Chilly nighttime temperatures preserve the acids that give the wine its zing. The arid mountain climate limits rain, so pure mountain snowmelt can be doled out in careful quantities. Finally, poor soil sends vines into crisis mode, producing their best grapes to ensure survival of the species.
Excellent malbec came to the U.S. in the 1990s, establishing a toehold first in Miami because of its Spanish-speaking population. I modestly point out that I wrote a column in the Miami Herald in 1997 that said: “You read it here first. Malbec will be Argentina’s finest wine.”
And now you can read this here first as well: Watch out now for the pale, spicy grape from Argentina called torrontes. It’ll be Argentina’s finest white grape.
• 2013 Mountain Door Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina: dark violet hue, smoky aromas, flavors of black sweet cherries and spice, soft tannins, smooth; $12.
• 2013 Achaval Ferrer Malbec, Uco Valley/Lujan de Cuyo/Medrano, Mendoza, Argentina: aromas of violets, flavors of red raspberries and milk chocolate, ripe tannins; $25.
• 2012 Amado Sur Malbec, by Bodega Triveno, Mendoza, Argentina: deep violet hue, aromas and flavors of red plums, vanilla and dark chocolate, smooth tannins; $15.
• 2011 Broquel Malbec, by Trapiche, Los Arboles, Tunuyan, Uco Valley, Argentina: aromas and flavors of black raspberries, earth and smoke, long, smooth finish; $15.
• 2012 “Leo” Malbec by Valentin Bianchi, San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina: smoky aroma, flavors of black plums and black cherries, crisp acids, smooth finish; $17.
• 2011 “Leo” Malbec Premium by Valentin Bianchi, San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina: spicy black cherries, full body, ripe tannins, silky finish; $30.
Fred Tasker has retired from the Miami Herald but is still writing about wine. He can be reached at email@example.com.