Wine Tasting: Pairing and Appreciating Malbec Wine
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Wine Tasting: Pairing and Appreciating Malbec Wine

Learning how to taste and pair Malbec wines from Argentina and the Americas. History of the Malbec grape and wines which blend the Malbec grape. Appreciating Malbec Wines of Argentina. Best years for Argentine Malbecs. Regions that grow Malbec grapes and make Malbec wines. Blended wines with Malbec grapes. French uses for Malbec grapes.

Malbec is a dark, inkish purple grape that for centuries has been used in making blended red wines such as the Bordeaux and its modern American counterpart, the Meritage.  Traditionally, Malbec grapes were grown in much of France but especially the southwestern part of the country, where its firm tannins and rich, dark fruit flavors made it the choice for Bordeaux or in blends with Merlot and Tannat.  Compared to other grapes such as the Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec grapes require both more sun and heat in order to mature.  A severe frost in 1956 killed of 75% of the Malbec grapes in France, leading to its diminished popularity in Bordeaux wines.

Malbec enjoyed a renaissance in popularity after it was brought to the Mendoza region in Argentina, where it has since become a sort of "national variety" that has become synonymous with Argentine wine.  The first Malbec grapes were brought to the region in the mid 19th Century, though may of the grapes were later destroyed to make way for other grapes in order to produce cheap, jug wines that were popular during the country's economic turmoils throughout much of the 20th Century.  The grape was later rediscovered toward the end of that century and is now the most widely planted red grape in Argentina.  The high elevations of the Mendoza region allow for a grape that has softer tannins than its French counterpart, along with dark, rich and often overly ripe red and jammy fruit-forward characteristics.  For these reasons, Argentines have brought to prominence Malbec wine which is exclusively (or almost exclusively) made from that grape.  These wines pair well with red meats that might be overwhelmed by a Merlot or underwhelmed by a Cabernet.  Coming from a Latin American country, the price-point for a good Malbec wine is often well below (and therefore, more affordable) than many lesser-quality American or European red wines.  Within the U.S., Malbec grapes and straight Malbec wines have become more popular in regions from Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, California, to Oregon's Willamette Valley and into both Colorado and parts of Idaho.  Many of these wines are of a high quality, though in price tend to be less competitive than those coming from Argentina.

Tasting Malbec Wines:

True Malbec wines coming from the Americas should have:

  1. A rich, dark red, fruit-forward and overly ripe flavor on the palate.  This may also be jammy, depending upon the wine and the region.
  2. Soft tannins, giving it a less noticeable aspect of bitterness or more pronounced ripe fruit flavor.
  3. A lingering if subtle leather flavor
  4. A black peppery, often noticeably spicy peppery finish.

Argentine Malbecs from 2006 tend to have more of the spicy, black peppery finish and are often among the more sought-after Malbecs.  This is, in part, due to their ability to pair well with meats that might not compliment nor be complimenting of other red wines.  Still, most Malbecs from Argentina and many from the U.S. can be fairly versatile in how they pair with different dishes.

Pairing Malbec Wines:

The fruity and peppery aspects of Malbec wines indicate that it often pairs well with meats, stews, soups and roasts that are also peppery or otherwise strong and hardy.  These can include:

  1. French onion soup.
  2. Many beef and barley soups.
  3. Peppery or spicy beef roasts.
  4. Rich and full-bodied stews.
  5. Dark sausages, including spicy chorizo. andouille or smoked sausages.  
  6. Most game meats, especially if seasoned and cooked on a grill.
  7. Hamburgers or bacon cheeseburgers, especially if seasoned and cooked on a grill.

I personally make a spicy roast with lots of onions and a liberal amount of Montreal Steak Seasoning.  Not only will a Malbec pair well with my roast, I often add a cup or two of Malbec to the roast.  I also frequently add Malbec to my stews and may still have a glass with that dish.  Depending upon the recipe, a good Malbec will also pair well with a bowl of red beef and/or sausage chili, as well as certain barbecue dishes (though a good red Zinfandel may be a safer choice for the barbecue, again depending upon the dish's recipe).

Due to some of the peppery and leathery aspects of Malbec wines, these will not necessarily pair well with other red meats, especially those that have a more subtle or delicate flavor.  For example:  I would probably reach for a Meritage rather than a Malbec if I was having lamb.  Malbec would also not be among my choices to pair with foods having a rich marinara as the acidity and flavors are generally not complimentary.  Certain sausages, such as bratwurst or boudin, often don't pair will Malbec.  Again, variation in flavors of the recipes and in the different wineries can impact how well these wines pair with certain dishes.  A spicy lamb dish might go well with a Malbec, depending upon the recipe.

When in doubt about a Malbec, just ask.  Many of those working in boutique wine stores or larger liquor warehouses can recommend a Malbec, even if it is just based upon something they read in a magazine or a "shelf talker" wine description.  If they have spent any time in the field, they would also have learned from customers which wines are popular which ones are lacking.  Remember that there can be many differences in Malbecs even if they come from the same region, depending upon the time the grapes were harvested, the year of the harvest and even the skill of the vintner.  It is therefore important to try wines from different wineries and from different harvests before determining which Malbec, if any Malbec, is best for your dish.

I hope you found this article to be helpful.  If so, you may also appreciate these other articles:

Meritage Wine: America's Bordeaux-Styled Blend

Dry and Sweet Wines: Understanding Residual Sugar, Tannins and Acidity

Wine Tasting 101: Fruitiness Does Not Equal Sweetness

Top 5 California Zins for Under $20

Cinsault & Mourvedre, Red Wine Grapes for a Beautiful Bouquet.

"Anything but Chardonnay?" Learning about Chardonnay and an alternative, Viognier.

WSJ Wine Review — Wine Clubs Comparison (2012)

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