Malbec is synonymous with Argentina, but its Mendoza heartland is stepping into a new era as winemakers seek to better express the region’s terroir with geographical indications (IGs). Argentina-based British wine writer Sorrel Moseley-Williams picks the best wines from Los Chacayes, Agrelo and Paraje Altamira
The rise in IGs – the newest is Los Chacayes, approved late 2018, with San Pablo and Gualtallary to follow suit this year – proves Mendoza Malbec isn’t homogenous purple juice but can enhance sommeliers’ portfolios with genuine points of difference.
Take Uco Valley. The region’s three departments – Tunuyán, Tupungato and San Carlos, and their cluster of subregions – have significantly different soil profiles, altitude and microclimates, leading to different bottled identities. It’s a distinction that’s often passed over on restaurant lists.
But the following three IGs are musts for any curious restaurant, and will give you a far more diverse array of Malbec styles for your list.
The floral yet nervy one: Los Chacayes
The latest sub-region to be granted IG status in November 2018, tucked away in the department of Tunuyán, Los Chacayes is one of Uco Valley’s mid-scale IGs, its altitude ranging between 1,100 and 1,400 metres above sea level (masl).
Its soil matrix is composed of colluvial river stones, large round rocks coated in limestone, that were created by the mountain river that charged through here long ago. ‘At Bodega Piedra Negra, we have poor rocky soils that are alluvial but also heterogeneous, meaning some zones are richer than others,’ says head winemaker Thibault Lepoutre. ‘The same plot can produce Malbec with lots of colour and tannins, as well as berries with less colour and freshness.’
Desert-like weather provides wide thermal amplitude and low night temperatures during maturation, he adds, helping to create tense wines sporting high natural acidity, a lot of body and tannins, yet retaining freshness.
‘Los Chacayes Malbec has a floral and spicy nose, while the mouth has big volume. Tannins can be a little wild, but they become rounded over time. What makes Malbec stand out from Uco’s other sub-regions is the violet, floral and spicy nose.’
Look out for:
BenMarco; a cluster of wines from Bodega Piedra Negra, such as L’esprit de Chacayes and the Reserva; SuperUco Calcáreo Río de Los Chacayes; Cadus Single Vineyard Finca Viña Vida and Appellation Los Chacayes; Casa de Uco Vineyard Selection and El Salvaje.
The velvety and elegant one: Agrelo
One of Mendoza’s longer-standing IGs and a Malbec cradle, Agrelo is one of 15 sub-regions located within Luján de Cuyo, its altitude running between 800 and 1,150masl. Soil types and weather vary wildly, says Santiago Mayorga, winemaker at Cadus Wines.
‘Lower Agrelo has deep clay soil, is prone to cold weather and berries ripen later. Higher up in the Andean foothills, it’s stony with calcareous limestone and little organic matter, similar to Uco Valley: that’s where we source our Single Vineyard Malbec.’
Malbec vines bud early and mature later at 1,150m, producing concentrated fruit, colour and tannins. ‘The long maturation period creates smooth round tannins, featuring mature plum, red fruits, pepper and violets in the mouth,’ he adds.
But it’s the tannins that truly define Agrelo Malbec, according to Edgardo del Popolo, director of viticulture at Susana Balbo Wines. ‘This sub-region is known for subtle and elegant tannins, which are unmistakable and a symbol of its personality,’ he says.
Look out for:
Cadus Single Vineyard Finca Las Torcazas; Chakana biodynamic Nuna Vineyard; Norton Lote Single Vineyard; Susana Balbo Signature Late Harvest Malbec.
The textured one: Paraje Altamira
Argentina’s first IG to take into consideration geographical rather than political divisions, Paraje Altamira is located in the highest part of San Carlos department in southern Uco Valley, created as a result of agricultural and climate studies in 2013.
According to Sebastián Zuccardi, viticulturist at Zuccardi Valle de Uco, Altamira’s location, between 1,050 and 1,150masl, is important because it’s placed at the start of the River Tunuyán’s alluvial cone.
‘The soils are very rocky because the water had a lot of energy at this starting point to move large stones; the size and number of these stones are an important characteristic of Altamira. Another is that they are covered in limestone, some close to the surface while others are two metres deep, which offers up diversity and gives a very particular identity to the zone and its wines,’ he adds.
Malbec from here offers up red and black fruit as well as herbs, thanks to the surrounding vegetation, but it’s the tannin texture that stands out for Zuccardi. ‘Vine roots hug these limestone-covered rocks, which makes for a very interesting tannic texture.’
Look out for:
Zuccardi Aluvional Paraje Altamira and Finca Piedra Infinita; Catena Zapata Catena Appellation Altamira; Mendel Finca Remota; Achaval-Ferrer Finca Altamira; Susana Balbo Signature Altamira; Finca Suarez Gran Malbec; Chakana Ayni.