Masterful malbec

One thing before I forget: decant all these wines. Or at the very least open them well in advance of pouring. Now we can get started in earnest with this month’s tasting target: malbec. Once a relatively minor blending grape in Bordeaux, this thick-skinned grape (also called cot), is now found in France, principally in Cahors, where it produces big, usually rustic vins noires, or “black” wines. Outside of its homeland, malbec is found in Australia, Chile, California, and even Texas, where Becker Vineyards produces an appealing wine that is decidedly not black and rustic.

But it is in Mendoza province in the high-altitude deserts of Argentina that malbec has come into its own. With the Andes as a backdrop and snow-melt as the primary form of irrigation, wines of both power and finesse are the norm, and Omniboire asked Central Market’s wine guru, Heidi Holcomb, to assemble several for the panel to evaluate. Our host and fellow panelist was Moe Lazri, manager of the Fig Tree and Little Rhein restaurants, and the panel assembled in the Fig Tree’s elegant second-floor dining room overlooking the River Walk. Rounding out the team was developer, wine connoisseur, and partner in a new Napa Valley winery venture, Tom Yantis, and Xavier Perez, wine sales rep and connoisseur.

Though we didn’t know it until the end of the tasting, Heidi had ordered the wines on strict cost terms — from $8-$30. As contrarian as Omniboire tends to be, it would now be perversely satisfying to be able to say that price had absolutely no bearing on quality — except that wasn’t the case. The average scores (individual rankings varied slightly) rose in lockstep with bucks paid — until the last bottle. No fair skipping to the end of the article.

But it is genuinely satisfying to be able to report that all wines made the necessary 13/20 point cutoff — testimony to the merit of Mendoza’s malbec. The handsome label of the Fantelli 2005 Malbec Mendoza belied its cost, for starters. “Nice complexity for the price point,” opined Perez.

“Better-balanced, with tannins a little softer and some black pepper,” thought Lazri of the Simonassi 2005 Mendoza. “It’s a riper style, with more layers” seconded Perez, who also found “earthy cherry” and raspberry.

A younger wine from the 2006 vintage, the Terrazas de los Andes Malbec, mentions the vineyards’ 3,500-foot altitude on the front label, claiming that careful attention to location is an important tool in controlling quality. Apparently there’s some merit in the claim as Yantis called it “one of my favorites, with an intense, caramel nose and good, viscous mouthfeel.” Some controversy arose with this statement, however. “I’m a little the opposite,” said Perez. “I’m finding tart cherry and not as many layers. For the money, I’d go with the Simonassi.” As much as Omniboire likes controversy, we suspect a slightly flawed bottle, having tasted the same wine with the winemaker no more than three weeks prior to this panel, at which time it was beautiful and showed none of the slight funk on the nose that seemed to degrade this example.

The first real jump in scoring came with the 2005 Santa Julia Reserva, only a buck more than the Terrazas. “I get chocolate and coffee,” offered Lazri. “Creamy vanilla,” added Perez. “It’s a little closed and light, but, yes, vanilla,” seconded Yantis.

A little bottle age seemed to give the 2004 Telteca Antá Reserve a slight bump. “I’m very impressed with this one,” pronounced Lazri. “It’s well-rounded, all in balance, a crowd-pleaser.” Emerging as the Devil’s advocate, Yantis found a sweaty quality on the nose and both prune and caramel — and Omniboire tends to agree. The odd aromas blew off fairly quickly, however, leaving a wine that seemed typical of Mendoza’s love affair with noticeable but well-integrated oak.

The 2004 Salentien Mendoza-Valle de Uco sees 14 months in French oak and is bottled unfiltered at 14.5-percent alcohol — and yet it’s neither hot nor heavy with caramel, coconut, or any of the other oak-derived components such as vanilla. “It’s not my highest scorer, but good, no doubt — though the finish is a little short,” claimed Lazri.

Flaws of any kind were hard to find in the Famiglia Bianchi 2005 San Rafael Mendoza — and had the label been more user-friendly, it would have scored even higher. “Good harmony, good acidity,” declared Lazri; “The most layers so far,” offered Perez, a lover of layers.

It’s a $12 leap from the $18 Famiglia Bianchi to the $30 2005 Malbec Mendoza from Susana Balbo, the country’s most prominent female winemaker. Perhaps palates were a little tired by this time, but Perez actually found that “it has too much fruit for me,” and Yantis determined it to be “grassy at the start, `then` jammy, long, and extracted.” On the other hand, Lazri thought the wine had finesse and the tannins were “silky.” This is one of the wines that was sampled a day later and found much improved.

Argentina is this year’s New World Wine & Food Festival theme, and the Terrazas and Bianchi wines are among the many malbecs that will be presented from November 7-11 — often in the company of chefs from Argentina. A Morning of Malbecs, with many hard-to-find selections, will be staged at the City Club at the Majestic on Saturday the 10th, numerous winemaker dinners feature visiting Argentine winemakers, and the Grand Tasting that night at The Lodge will offer malbecs, merlots, cabernets, chardonnays, and more from Argentina and around the globe. Call the festival at (210) 822-9555 or log onto for more information.

The Ratings

2005 Famiglia Bianchi San Rafael Mendoza Malbec, $17.99
Layered blackberry and other dark fruits, spicy finish

2004 Salentien Mendoza-Valle de Uco Malbec, $16.49
Big, ripe flavors of blackberry and cassis, short but consistent finish

2005 Susana Balbo Mendoza Malbec, $29.99
Jammy fruit but good balance and elegance

2005 Telteca Antá ReserveMendoza Malbec, $12.99
Multiple layers of coffee, chocolate, and cassis; well-rounded

2005 Santa Julia Reserva Malbec Mendoza, $12.99
Closed nose but good fruit and light vanilla

2006 Terrazas de los Andes Mendoza Malbec, $11.99
Young, dark fruit; still one-dimensional but with good acid

2005 Simonmassi Mendoza Malbec, $10.99
Mature fruit, earthy character, somewhat tannic

2005 Fantelli Mendoza Malbec, $7.99
Bright fruit and acidity, great value

All wines are available at Central Market



Exceptional, snap it up

Extremely good, seek it out

Good, some outstanding qualities

Good, but consider price

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