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April 4, 2010

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Mendoza plus malbec is good quality and price

AS global demand increases, especially in new markets like Russia and China, the price of famous wines compels us to search for new more affordable alternatives.

Spending 5,000 yuan (US$732) to get a great wine takes little skill but getting a really good wine at a low price takes a great deal more. I taste thousands of different wines each year and in the inexpensive category the sad truth is that most are bad or at best drinkable.

The good news is that a minority, perhaps 10 percent or less, are actually quite good. In recent years, malbec red wines from Argentina have become some of the best inexpensive wines. For reasonable prices these offer dark color and rich fruitiness often with a touch of spice and soft tannins.

Malbec either originated in France or was brought in by a Hungarian wine maker many centuries ago. Usually blended with other varieties to provide color and fruitiness, it thrived in Bordeaux and other regions of France until a severe frost in 1956 wiped out most vines.

French wine makers replanted with merlot, cabernet sauvignon and other varieties that weren't so susceptible to frost and other climatic extremes. Today in France, only the Calors wine region in the southwest still has extensive plantings. But the malbec story is not a tragedy because this weather-sensitive grape found a new home in the mountains of Argentina.

Since the mid-19th century, malbec vines have been harvested in Argentina, but for predominantly cheap, diluted wines for the domestic market. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, pioneers like Nicolas Catena and others started to make lower yield, quality malbecs for export.

The best of these came from Mendoza, the elevated plateau bordering the Andes Mountains. The height provides an ideal combination of abundant sunshine to ripen the grapes and cool evenings that contribute greater complexity and elegance to the wines. In the past 20 years, malbec wines have become some of the best affordable reds.

Their generous fruitiness and soft tannins make them suitable for many kinds of meat, but perhaps because of the national obsession with beef in Argentina, most malbecs find wonderfully synergistic partners with steaks and roast beef.

In fact, almost any part of the cow from tongue to tail matches harmoniously with a good malbec from Mendoza. The wines' hearty and somewhat spicy nature also makes them suitable for many Chinese or Asian beef dishes that may overwhelm more delicate red wines.

There are several good malbecs available in Shanghai. My favorites include two wines from the fine producer Norton, the Barrel Select Malbec, a low-price wine that doesn't taste low-price, and the only slightly more expensive Reserva Malbec.

The reserva is a richer more complex wine, but both offer abundant ripe plum and other dark fruit flavors and typically malbec smooth tannins. The Broquel Malbec from Trapiche is another rustically delicious wine that shouldn't be missed.

Other Mendoza producers making fine malbecs include Cantina Zapata, Perdriel and the Moet-Hennessy owned Terrazas. Some producers are also making more expensive, single-vineyard Malbec wines that are showcasing the high-end potential of the grape. But the key point is that the combination of Mendoza and malbec mean you don't have to spend much to get a really good red wine.


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