Value Vino: Malbec and Manifest Destiny
Published: May 9, 2012
Argentina has done such a thorough job of coopting malbec, that you'd think the grape to be autochthonous. (I have always wanted to use this word, basically a fancy form of "indigenous.") Truth is, its home is in France where, until the arrival of the phylloxera louse in the late 19th century, it was a part of the quintet that made up the classic Bordeaux blend. Apparently, the grape was a tough one to grow in Bordeaux, where it often failed to mature adequately, and the Bordelais were just as happy to be rid of it.
Pockets of malbec cultivation nevertheless remain in the Cahors region of Southwest France, and the new spirit of experimentation with grape varieties other than cabernet and chardonnay has led some Texas vintners to encourage its planting here. Now seemed to be a good time to stage a mini malbec Olympics.
Whereas there is a plethora (another great word) of possibilities when picking an Argentine malbec, the choices are far fewer in both France and Texas. For the Argentine standard-bearer, it seemed reasonable to go straight to Catena, which, according to the back label, has been "since 1902 Argentina's Malbec Pioneer." A Texas pioneer, Becker Vineyards, was selected to uphold the Lone Star standard (though an upstart did sneak in), and the venerable Clos la Coutale got the nod for France — largely because it was the only one available. Two wine-friendly friends and I tasted blind. My friends, you need to know, fall firmly into the Old World camp of wine fanciers.
Which is why the 2008 Clos la Coutale Cahors ($17) nosed out the 2009 Catena Malbec Mendoza ($22) by a hair — 16.5 versus 16 out of 20. I thought the Cahors was beginning to fade, though it remained elegant and well-mannered, its 20 percent merlot component adding a degree of appealing softness. Catena's high-altitude rendition, on the other hand, had more verve and expressed more fully the spicy, dark fruit qualities we have come to associate with the grape in its adopted home.
The dark horse in the Texas contingent came from William+Chris, a young producer whose wines I had recently sampled at the winery on 290 near Johnson City. The grapes for their 2010 Texas Hill Country Malbec come from the Granite Hills Vineyard, and though this was the lowest-scoring wine, it was clear that the winemakers' light, fresh approach held some potential appeal. The 2009 Becker Vineyards Malbec ($17) claims to be, and clearly is, crafted "in the style of the great malbecs of Mendoza, Argentina." No provenance is noted on the label, however, leading me to think that some of the grapes come from out of state. But the wine nevertheless had that characteristic brambly-herbal, Texas taste that was much improved with time in the glass — and with food, after which some pretty plum and coffee hints emerged. (I did a spicy lamb sausage pasta.) Good try, Texas, but no medals this round. Maybe in four years.
Veteran food, wine, and spirits writer Ron Bechtol has been a Current contributor since 1993 and is the local editor of the Fearless Critic restaurant guide to San Antonio.