Did you celebrate Malbec World Day last Friday, April 17? I most certainly did, tasting through a wide variety of Argentinian Malbecs along with my friends at The Wining Hour. All of them were lovely, all of them truly expressive of what the climate and topography of the region has to offer this noble grape—indeed, Malbec has certainly found its seat on the throne atop what are known as some of the highest vineyard elevations in the world. But I have to say that when it comes to Argentinian Malbec, my heart truly belongs to Bodega Catena Zapata so it was no surprise that the Catena Malbec was my favorite tasting in the line-up, so this is what I bring to you today. Salud.
Of all the wine related “holidays,” World Malbec Day (or Malbec World Day, as it’s officially called) is one that actually has historical significance. On this day in 1853, then Argentinian president Domingo Faustian Sarmiento approached French soil expert Michel Aimé Pouget to bring vine cuttings from France that he believed could prosper in Argentina.
Argentinian Malbec may have French roots, but the grape clusters found in the South American country are markedly different: the berries are smaller and are cloistered together in tight clusters. Thus it seems that Pouget, soil expert that he was, brought a specific clone that had already failed in France’s climate (and ultimately became extinct after the infamous phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800s).
Today, Argentina contains 75% of all Malbec acreage in the world and is the lead producer of the wine varietal. These fickle little clusters love Argentinian soil and it’s mostly to do with the elevation at which they’re planted. The predominant Malbec-growing regions lies along the foothills of the Andes mountains, which range between 2,800 to 5,000 feet in elevation. Though closer to the sun, the extremely cool nights and long winter weather season allows the grapes to mature slowly, maintaining a higher level of natural acidity that ultimately affects the flavor of the resulting wine. That winter weather, along with the steady wind flow through the mountainous terroir is what helps prevent mildew, disease, and other vine-related viruses. Additionally, the slow maturation process also means that Malbec is a late harvester. So the celebration of Malbec Day in Argentina isn’t just about the cultural history, it’s also the farmers and vintners time to celebrate the end of the harvest season.
Graffigna, established in 1870 by Italian immigrant Santiago Graffigna, is the oldest winery in San Juan and the second oldest winery in Argentina. Today the pioneering spirit lives on through winemaker Ignacio (Nacho) Lopez, and the Graffigna brand is one of the top distributors of Malbec wine all over the world.
The most readily available Malbec from Graffigna is their 100% bottling of the grape variety. It’s what Ignacio calls the “core” of the Graffigna wine brand. The grapes are harvested from various estate vineyards, each of which has their own unique elevation (the highest of which reaches 1 mile above sea level) and, thus, soil type.
In the glass the 2015 Graffigna Malbec is thick and maroon-like from center to perimeter. The aromas are a mix of dark cacao, lavender, natural wax, and a certain underlining acidity. In fact that crisp acidity is the first thing sensed on the tongue — stinging you, alerting you to the brightness of the seemingly dark wine. Yes, there are some dark fruits — if you swirl and stick your nose deep in the glass and take an engaging breath in, they are there. And on the palate, if you let the wine linger, swallow, and then exhale through the nose with lips closed tight, you’ll find them in the aftertaste. But, to my palate, there’s an innate earthiness about this wine. It’s more about dark, crunchy herbs — and that acid: That spice-filled, lingering, tingling acid.
This 100% Malbec is meant to be the easiest drinker, appealing to most palates and complimenting a variety of dishes. Ignacio’s recommendation: anything barbecued; admittedly, heavier meals will pair well with this light and lively red wine. My recommendation: I actually want to see what happens when this Malbec ages — that innate freshness is a bit too fresh to my palate. I crave something a bit more mellow.
14% ABV ; Retail: $12.99 (Note: This is the only Graffigna wine commercially available in the US at the moment)
If the 100% Malbec is the “core” muscle of the company, I do believe that the Limited Release red blend is the soul of their terroir. All grapes were harvested from a single vineyard in the Pedernal Valley of San Juan, Argentina, which sits just above 4,500 feet in elevation. Obviously, the different varieties age differently so each is picked at it’s appropriate time. Each grape went through initial skin maturation for 20 days, primary fermentation for 7 days, and the final blend aged in combination new French oak barrels (85%) and new American oak barrels (15%) for 18 months.
In the glass the Graffigna red blend is a royal blend — the color of plush purple velvet thickly lays in the glass. The scent is immediately decadent — full ripe blue and blackberries, dark chocolate ganache, with earthy aromas of red roses in full bloom, green-grassy herbs. The scent is as voluptuous as the visual.
The texture is smooth and even bodied. There’s a strong essence of oak that keeps everything round, the fruit full, the tannins plush, and the acid thin — without, I must add, tasting inherently of wood. The finish is a solid, and complete one. If that oak essence comes out anywhere it’s here, with the addition of toasty baking spices, making the aftertaste reminiscent of a mixed berry pie.
14.4% ABV ; Retail: Currently unavailable
Core of the company, soul of terroir — the High Altitude Malbec is the passion project of winemaker Ignacio Lopez. Yes, that’s his writing on the bottle, as this is a one-off barrel sample unavailable in the States or abroad.
As indicated by the title, the Malbec grapes for this wine were harvested from the highest elevation vineyards (4,500 feet to just below a mile). The interesting part about this harvest is that the grapes are plucked, sorted, and pressed right in the vineyard to ensure that every step of fermentation is 100% native to the grapes from that specific plot of land. No outside factors whatsoever. The vocabulary word to learn here is microvinification.
This is something Ignacio decided to do “just to see what would happen.” Whether the resulting wine will be bottled or blended is still to be determined (as is whether or not this will become a common practice for Graffigna).
The barrel sample pours thick like molasses. It’s such a dark purple-black color, you can’t see through it at all. But upon tilting the glass, there is just a slight, delicate perimeter of soft magenta. The aromas are equally thick with jammy notes and a wet, dank oaky scent reminiscent of walking into a cold barrel cave. Swirl, sniff again, and the wine emits little bits of floral perfume notes when placing the nose just at the top of the glass.
On the palate this microvinificated Malbec is dry, but very light. Flavors are a combination of cranberry juice and woodsy tannins that cling to the cheeks toward the finish. The finish is solid, but flavorsome, bringing to mind cherry cola and tobacco — like a sweet cigar.
Thank you to Graffigna Wines for getting me to geek out on Malbec and help me truly appreciate the significance of World Malbec Day. And thank you to winemaker Ignacio Lopez for taking the time to lead me through a tasting and discussion about this up-and-coming varietal. For more information about Graffigna, their wines, and to find out how to purchase their available wines, please visit the Graffigna website.
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