Two samples of Malbec wine recently showed up on our doorstep unbidden. That's unusual because wineries almost never send the rest of the Cab crew (the traditional Bordeaux quintet of grapes that also includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) out on the media circuit—with the exception of Merlot, and after last week's barbecue with Merlot column, I think we're done with Merlot here for the season.
That's it—'tis the outdoor grilling season. And who brings something called Petit Verdot to a barbecue? Malbec is a minor player in local Cabernet-based blends, used, if at all, in homeopathic doses of 1 or 2 percent. The grape hit the big time in Argentina, however, where they're big on wood-fired meats—hence the red-blooded, gaucho pampas cred the varietal boasts at the asado, or barbecue. It helps that Malbec tends to be an intense, red-fruited wine, but less tiresomely tannic than much Cabernet Sauvignon.
For a time it looked like cheap Argentinian Malbec would become the next cheap, Australian Shiraz—maybe it's a good thing it didn't. Think of it as the Zinfandel of Argentina. Last time Swirl met Malbec, we liked samples from Chateau St. Jean, Arrowood and Imagery Estate.
Hess Collection 2013 Mount Veeder Malbec ($58) Hess Collection says they've got more Malbec than anyone in Napa Valley, where the grape occupies more than 400 acres—about neck and neck with Sonoma County. This wine, never mind what I said about red fruit, swirls in the glass like a Stygian current, deep purple and black-fruited. The fruit is ripe and furry, a whiff of a grape-laden arbor on a humid, late summer day in the shade, plus fig jam and dense Christmas fruitcake. But the palate is cool, and grainy tannins bring an iron finality to a finish that's not metallic or bitter, and doesn't leave you reaching for the water bottle to spray down your tongue.
Rodney Strong 2013 Sonoma County Reserve Malbec ($40) This venerable Sonoma County winery has picked up 60 acres of Malbec in the last four years—seems like a lot for a sideshow variety, but this wine is a solid classic of the style. A hint of smoke suggests a well-used grill, skipping the "burnt rubber" aroma that is either a flaw or a charm with some South American examples. Blackberry wine brings Zinfandel to mind, then red plum and raspberry offer Merlot comparisons—split the difference and call it pretty good.