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Wine & Spirits

Where Malbec's on the rise

October 05, 2005|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Mendoza, Argentina — MATiAS MAYOL slowly pours a bottle of his family's Malbec wine into a 3-foot-deep hole in the backyard of his cousin's Mendoza, Argentina, home and silently prays: Pachamama, you have blessed Argentina with four great Malbec harvests in a row. How about five for five?

Mayol's Italian-Argentine family subscribes to the ancient Incan belief that, if you take care of Mother Earth -- Pachamama -- she'll take care of you. So, following the wine, a potful of pumpkin and hominy stew, several still-steaming empanadas and handfuls of olives from the family's trees go into the hole as offerings to the goddess.

The old lady must like Malbec. Mendoza, Argentina's premier wine region, has been blessed with year after year of textbook-perfect vineyard weather. The red wines, particularly the Malbecs, from 2005 may be Argentina's best vintage ever.

For Mayol, as for many other Argentine vintners, the good fortune is timely. He's part of a recent boom that means new wineries and improved viticulture dedicated to making world-class wines. Today, he can take full advantage of Pachamama's largesse.

Argentine wine is coming of age, says James Wolpert, chairman of viticulture and enology at UC Davis. And the potential for continued improvement is a little frightening to the rest of the winemaking world. "It's Argentina's turn to knock us out of our chairs," he says. "And they are doing it with a grape that no one's ever done it with before."

Malbec, the dominant grape grown in Argentina, has become its signature wine grape. Originally a minor Bordeaux blending grape, Malbec is ignored everywhere else in the world except in Cahors, France, where the varietal is a regional table wine.

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Malbec mystery

HOW Malbec evolved into such a charmer in Argentina remains a bit of an enological mystery. The clues lie in a combination of terroir, Darwinian selection and the influence of international consultants bent on modernizing a calcified wine industry.

"Something strange happened to Malbec in the soils and climate of Argentina. It mutated," says Steve Clifton, a Santa Ynez Valley winemaker whose Palmina and Brewer-Clifton wines have made him one of that region's tastemakers. Clifton, who along with Joe Bastianich (co-owner with Mario Batali of several restaurants in New York and wineries in Italy) has partnered with Mayol, is one of a handful of outsiders staking a claim in Mendoza. "It's all about the climate," says Clifton.

Visiting Mendoza in the dead of winter -- August in the Southern Hemisphere -- is like a trip to the surface of the moon. It's cold, with temperatures dipping below freezing. The vines, stripped of their leaves, are skinny twigs sticking up out of the rocky, gray desert soils. Even the oldest plants look undernourished.

In the spring, salvation comes from the towering, snow-capped Andes stretching along the western horizon. The snowmelt flows down to the desert following ancient trench lines first laid out by the Incas. When February's late-summer sun threatens to bake the vineyards, afternoon breezes rush down from the mountains to cool the grapes, saving them from becoming raisins before harvest in March and April.

Half of Mayol's vineyards are covered with 81-year-old vines. The other half were planted nine years ago. It's a common equation in a region that has been producing wines for hundreds of years and, of late, has experienced a renaissance.

Once a prolific producer of plonk, Argentina has spent the last decade overhauling its wine industry with the help of such foreign experts as Sonoma vintner Paul Hobbs, French enologist Michel Rolland and Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini. Out with the concrete vats from 1930 and in with stainless steel fermentation. Most of Argentina's wine is consumed by locals, but the more ambitious vintners are focused on exporting to the United States.

Argentine Malbec delivers a mouthful of wine, plenty of fruit on top of a sensuous, smooth structure, Hobbs says. He brought modern winemaking to Argentina 15 years ago when Nicolas Catena hired him to overhaul Catena Zapata. Now, with Vina Cobos, Hobbs has his own operation in Argentina and makes some of the most celebrated wines in the region.

"It's not as massively tannic as Cabernet Sauvignon, which has to be paired with a big chunk of protein," he says. "Malbec can handle a steak, but I like it because it does well with fish and even spicy food."

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