Here's a funny thing about Malbec: Any wine reference book worth its grapes will tell you that it is one of the five permitted varieties in the Bordeaux red blend. But try to find a sample of it on the ground in Bordeaux, and the chances are you'll come up empty-handed.
Malbec ("Mahl-bek") seems to be the Rodney Daingerfield of Bordeaux grapes: It gets little respect these days in its ancestral home.
The underlying reason for this, it seems, is that Malbec is a finicky vine whose fruit is prone to rot and mildew in the cool, damp coastal climate of Bordeaux. But ask a Bordelais grower why there's no Malbec around, and you'll more likely get a dismissive shrug and sniff than a viticultural analysis.
Happily, though, Malbec still thrives in the arid climate of Argentina's Mendoza region in the foothills of the Andes. Made in the context of this South American nation's Spanish and Italian heritage, it produces a delicious wine that has almost nothing in common with Bordeaux except the color: It's red. (Malbec survives also in Southwestern France's Cahors region, where the natives sometimes call it a "black" wine - that's a story for another day.)
What I like best about Argentine Malbec - it may be the Italian component in the country's mixed Latin family tree that fosters this - it's an exceptional companion with a broad range of food. Its well-balanced fruit-and-acid profile makes it a natural with rare beef (bear in mind that Argentina is cattle country), but it's just as good with simple fare from burgers to fried chicken, and one of the best wine matches I've found for pizza.
Today's tasting, a perennial value favorite from Argentina, is the 2001 vintage Altos Las Hormigas ("The Ants"!), the basic Malbec from Altos de Medrano, a Mendoza producer owned by an Italian-Argentine group that includes the well-known Italian wine importer Marco de Grazia. This basic bottling, widely available for $10 or less, offers a benchmark example of quality Argentine Malbec. Keep an eye out also for the Las Hormigas Reserva, one of the best of the higher-price Malbecs in the $20 range.
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Altos Las Hormigas 2001 Mendoza Malbec ($9.49)
This dark reddish-purple wine shows characteristic Malbec red-berry fruit aromas with grace notes of brown spices. Full and juicy red-fruit flavors are nicely balanced by zippy acidity, providing the cleansing edge needed in a good food wine. Some spicy oak presence shows up as the wine opens in the glass, but fruit remains in the foreground. (A portion of the wine is aged in small oak barrels while the rest stays in stainless steel.) Closed with a black synthetic cork. U.S. importer: Vintner Select, Cincinnati, and other regional importers. (Dec. 1, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: As you'd expect of an Argentine red, it's a natural with beef, but you needn't save it for a steak dinner: It made a great match with juicy ground-round hamburgers flavored with red onions and garlic.
VALUE: Very good value.
WHEN TO DRINK: Well-balanced Malbecs might age, but like Zinfandel, I prefer to enjoy them while their trademark fruit is young and fresh. Drink over the next year, then move on to the succeeding vintage.
WEB LINK: Altos de Medrano has a Web page at
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Find a source for Altos Las Hormigas at Wine-Searcher.com:
Admin notes: Travel plans, and our graphics edition
Touching briefly on a couple of quick admin matters:
TRAVEL PLANS: We're celebrating the start of the holiday season with a quick long-weekend trip to visit family on Florida's Space Coast. Rather than skip a Wine Advisor edition, I hope to publish at least a brief report on Friday. But please be aware that both Friday's edition and Monday's weekly Advisor might arrive off schedule.
OUR GRAPHICS EDITION: Due to a technical glitch, those of you who subscribed to the Wine Advisor during the last couple of months were not offered the option of choosing our HTML/Graphics edition, which features simple formatting and, in most issues, an image or two - usually a photo of the featured wine's label; sometimes a photo to accompany the main article, or perhaps an advertiser's discreet banner or logo.
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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2003