With its full-bodied structure, fruit-forward aromas, spicy flavors, and soft, velvety tannins, Malbec is as good of a wine to drink on its own or alongside a decadent meal. And it’s that flexibility that has drinkers hooked.
Another perk of Malbec? It’s not super expensive, especially when it comes from the place that makes the most of it — Argentina. The country exports more than 3.9 million cases of Malbec to the U.S., and there are plenty to be found at relatively low prices.
High volumes of inexpensive, easy-to-drink Malbec helped the country attract wine drinkers. However, a focus on premiumization and vineyard development is leading to even better quality Malbec that offers a more defined sense of place with every sip.
“Argentina has given Malbec an important place in the global wine scene. It’s a success story,” says Magdalena Pesce, general manager of Wines of Argentina. “Many different styles of Malbec are emerging as Argentine producers focus on precision of origin and reflecting the diversity of Argentina’s terroir.”
Malbec has been known since at least the second century, when the Romans introduced it to Cahors, France. The wine was loved by King Francis I, who often referred to Malbec as “les plantes du roi,” the king’s plants.
The vines thrived in the country’s mountainous landscape, continental desert climate, alluvial soils, and constant sunshine. Regions like San Juan, Salta, and Mendoza were particularly successful in growing Malbec.
“The Andes range creates extraordinary conditions for Argentina’s wine regions. It is the mountain that provides us with the climate, the water, the soils, and our identity,” says Sebastian Zuccardi, third-generation winemaker at Familia Zuccardi.
Past versus present
Malbec is now the most planted variety in Argentina, accounting for much of the country’s wine exports. But it didn’t happen overnight.
The modernization of Argentine Malbec started with high-yield grapes grown in valleys and foothills and producing simple, fruity wines that everyday consumers found favorable. Pioneer winemaker Nicolás Catena Zapata was among the first to recognize Malbec’s potential for better quality. In the 1990s, he began planting grapes some 5,000 feet above sea level.
Zapata’s deep understanding of Argentina’s terroir, Malbec grapevines, and the extreme limits it could endure paid off. Not only did Zapata prove that Malbec could stand up to the higher elevation, misty mornings, cooler temperatures, and brighter sun, but he managed to create wines with more depth and complexity that showcased the character of the land. His research and work resulted in the first premium varietal Malbec exported from Argentina in 1994.
Many winemakers have since followed in Zapata’s footsteps, focusing more on growing grapes at higher altitudes to control yields on soils that really put the vines to work. The result? Higher quality wines that offer more in the glass at a relatively reasonable price point.
“There is a growing market for high-end wines from Argentina. I believe that this is where we will see a lot of growth from consumers who have grown to trust Argentina for its quality,” says Pesce. “At $15 and $20, Argentine Malbec sings.”
Winemakers and organizations like Wines of Argentina are making strides to define Malbec as a noble variety and emphasize terroir-driven wines. Over the last few years, there’s been a greater push for more geographical indications to help further communicate the terroir differences and wine styles drinkers can expect from one region to the next.
“Without a doubt, Malbec is the best vehicle to express our terroirs, and it allows us to show the characteristics of the place with great transparency,” says Zuccardi. “Malbec is our emblematic grape, but I believe that the future is in the place and its interpretation.”
Drink it now
Argentine Malbec is a lush and fruity, inky red wine with rich flavors and aromas of black fruit, oak, and spice. Even leaner styles are starting to appear with winemakers opting to create fresh and unoaked Malbec wines in emerging subregions like Paraje Altamira, Gualtallary, San Pablo, and Los Chacayes.
Argentine Malbec is considerably versatile with food. Combine it with red meats and barbecue, a hearty vegetarian dish, or nothing at all. “Sometimes the best pairing is who you share with,” says Zuccardi.
Bottles to try:
Familia Zuccardi Q Vista Flores Malbec 2019 (~$20)
Red and black fruit aromas? Check. Rich and intense? Double check. Freshness on the palate underlined by notes of fruit, cassis, and spice? A black pepper long finish that begs for another sip? Yes, definitely, this powerful deep red wine has all that and a lot more to offer. Pro tip: Give it some time in the bottle to help soften the tannins.
Trivento Mendoza Malbec Reserve 2020 (~$11)
Bodega Trivento has been dedicated to producing elegant and silky Malbec in the heart of Mendoza for the last 25 years. Aromatic with plum and wild berry notes, this wine displays blackberry nuances on the palate that get a lift from notes of black pepper in the backend.
Luigi Bosca De Sangre Altamira Malbec 2017 (~$25)
It’s all about single-vineyard wines at Luigi Bosca. This one comes from the winery’s Paraje Altamira vineyard in the Uco Valley region within Mendoza. The wine has a chalky, structured texture resembling the soils from which it comes, while aromas are sprinkled with notes of strawberry and cherry.
Terrazas de los Andes Mendoza Reserva Malbec 2018 (~$19)
This Malbec, which consistently receives over 90 points from wine critics, is made by Terrazas de los Andes. Bright red with shades of purple, the Malbec is intense with floral and fruit aromas, while the palate is balanced with juicy fruit and spicy with notes of black pepper and chocolate. Medium-bodied and smooth with delicate tannins, the wine has a long and elegant finish.
Catena Zapata Catena Malbec Argentina 2019 (~$20)
Grapes from four different vineyards are used to make this soft and concentrated wine. Red and black fruit aromas are highlighted by fragrances of violets and a hint of vanilla. The palate is rich with black and blueberry nuances that intertwine with a touch of leather. Minerality comes into focus in the backend and extends throughout the long, memorable finish.
Grupo Peñaflor Esto Es Mendoza Premium Malbec 2020 (~$10)
Grupo Peñaflor has made wines in the Mendoza region since the early 1900s. This one is exactly what one would expect from a Malbec: dark fruits on the nose and palate, mellow tannins, and flavors of blackberries, vanilla, and toast on the palate.
Trapiche Vineyards Argentina Malbec 2019 (~$10)
From the high area of the Mendoza River comes this rich red wine. Trapiche is one of the oldest wineries in Argentina, established in 1883. This Malbec is dripping with fragrances and flavors of plums, cherries, and a dash of vanilla. Round in the mouth with a medium finish, this is an easy-drinking red that works well with food or all on its own.
Salentein Reserve Uco Valley Malbec 2020 (~$25)
A winner of several awards, this wine is intense and complex with aromas of red fruit and fresh-cut flowers. On the mouth, it’s dripping with sweet flavors of red and blackberries that are prevalent through the lingering finish.
Pyros Single Vineyard Pedernal Valley Malbec (~$30)
Now here’s a wine that is balanced with fresh fruit, firm tannins, and plenty of complexity. Aromas of sour cherries, star anise, and oak are pronounced while the intense structured palate is ripe with fruit and spice.
Other Argentinian wines to try:
Angulo Innocenti La Consulta Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 (~$19)
Argentina has more to offer than just Malbec, and Angulo Innocenti’s Cabernet Sauvignon is just one example of the fine wine the country can produce. Eucalyptus and green herb nuances bring out the plum, cherry, and clay notes on the palate. The finish is bright and long-lasting with supple tannins to boot.
Humberto Canale Gran Reserva Rio Negro Merlot 2018 (~$21)
Merlot is one of the few grape varieties that has adapted to the Upper Valley of Rio Negro in the Patagonia region of Argentina. This is one from winemakers at Humberto Canale, a winery that has existed since 1909, is one of the fine examples of round, soft, and subtle wines the area is capable of producing. Bright and intense, this wine displays concentrated red fruit and spice aromas complemented by woody nuances and grippy tannins.
Mascota Vineyards Unanime La Rioja Merlot 2018 (~$25)
From Argentina’s La Rioja region comes this complex red wine. The medium-bodied Merlot is ripe with plum, blueberry, and spicy aromas, but don’t let the fruity fragrances fool you. This wine is structured with firm, ripe tannins that extend throughout the long velvety finish.