Anthony Gismondi: Time to give Argentinian Malbecs their due

Argentina’s best wines are on par with many of the world’s top labels, and they can be purchased for a lot less money.

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The rise of the Malbec grape and its resulting varietal wines has been well-documented in these pages over the years. The current run is closing in on 30 years, although the biggest and best changes have unfolded in the last decade.


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Despite its success, Malbec still faces headwinds. First, despite wide recognition in the UK and the USA, it has come with a cost, a low price to penetrate the market. Over the years, bargain-basement FOB pricing has made it much tougher to sell premium, high-end wine that typically requires prices two to three times what consumers have been used to paying. It doesn’t help that Malbec lends itself to making lush, soft, juicy reds that can absorb a lot of oak, a style that attracts commercial producers, adding more pressure to produce large quantities over high quality.

That said, a dedicated group of producers reaching for the stars are turning out some impressive Malbec even if we don’t see most of them in B.C. The major change has come with a willingness to seek out cooler higher sites, vineyards we might suggest that are more about altitude than attitude. But, as you can imagine, it comes with higher production costs.


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Today, Argentina is a world leader in high-altitude grape-growing and Malbec is thriving at 1,000 to 1,500 metres above sea level. The benefit of altitude is cooler nights and large diurnal temperature swings between day and night of the kind most winegrowers never experience. Grapes do much developing in the final four to six weeks of ripening where the temperature is the determinant of any single component of flavour or aroma, be it blueberries, rose petals, black cherries, or tar, or any other countless possibilities.

Since varying flavours and aromas are produced at different temperatures, the best wines need a vineyard with a range of favourable temperatures to capture all the desirable flavours and aromas. A good start is a nighttime temperature in the low teens followed by daytime highs in the mid to high 20s.


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Ultraviolet rays are another leg up for Argentine Malbec. At altitude in the Andes, UV light amplifies the grape, energizing its flavour and fragrance markers. The search for high-altitude sites has increased the collection of terroirs previously not growing Malbec. Blending fruit from those sites tends to increase complexity, leading to better wines that fetch higher prices.

If you haven’t noticed, Mendoza, once the be-all and end-all of Argentine Malbec sourcing, has been carved up into numerous sub-regions and subzones. Some of the best include Paraje Altamira, San Pablo, Tupungato and Gualtallary in the Uco Valley. Closer to Mendoza City, Perdriel and Las Compuertas are home to fine wines. At the same time, further afield look to Pedernal in San Juan, the Calchaqui Valleys in Salta and Río Negro in Patagonia.


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Canadian retailers haven’t been all that helpful when it comes to encouraging Argentina to up its game from the soft, inexpensive Malbec legacy, so the movement of serious modern Malbec has languished, in essence, hindered by gatekeepers more interested in their bottom line than Malbec’s. There have been some breakthroughs, mostly in private wine shops, but much more needs to happen before Argentina gets it due.

The painful part of all this is Argentina’s best wines are on par with many of the world’s top labels, and they can be purchased for a lot less money. If you are searching for some big-name wine, here is a shortlist to consider: Achaval-Ferrer, Bodega Francois Lurton, Catena Zapata, Cuvelier Los Andes, Cheval des Andes, El Enemigo, Mattias Riccitelli, Terrazas de Los Andes, Zuccardi and Dominio de Plata.


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This week look at some of the best Argentine Malbecs in the market and guess what, for the most part, they are on sale till Sept. 4. Imagine that. So enjoy them while you can.

Weekend wine picks

Finca La Linda Private Selection Old Vines Malbec 2018, Maipú, Mendoza, Argentina 

$17.49 I 88/100

UPC: 7791203001675

I was in awe the first time I saw this high-altitude (96 metres) vineyard with 30-year-old vines back in 2010, so I’m not surprised by the quality of the wine coming from it. The fruit jumps from the glass even in this cool year with bright notes of blueberries and blackberries with a commensurate dusting of savoury dried herbs. It is a slightly more sophisticated look for a soft, round dense red that makes for a delicious mid-week wine you can serve with grilled sausages or mushrooms.


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Felino Malbec 2019, Mendoza, Argentina 

$21.99 I 90/100

UPC: 897941000974

Felino is a rambunctious Malbec made with a mix of fruit from the Valle de Uco and Lujan de Cuyo aged in new American oak for eight months. The nose and palate are dominated by rich, soft black, juicy plum fruit streaked with licorice, black pepper and smoky, dense sweet tannins. It has always been a friendly wine you can drink early. A perfect backyard barbecue red, capable of rolling into autumn and winter to handle most any dish as the intensity of the fare amps up with the weather. Hedonistic and unapologetic.

Catena Malbec High Mountain Vines 2019, Mendoza, Argentina 

$24.99 I 91/100

UPC: 7794450008053

Catena’s High Mountain Malbec is a blend of high-altitude, family-owned vineyards. The precision you taste results from Laura Catena and chief winemaker Alejandro Vigil blending three sites at Lunlunta, Maipù, El Cipillo, Eugenio Bustos and Gualtallary, Tupungato. The 2019 growing season was solid and dry, yielding smaller berries and low yields left the wines bright and ripe — a great combination for Malbec. Look for attractive red/black fruits with a touch of mocha, toasted oak and superb balance — fine value most every year.


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Amalaya Malbec 2019, Calchaqui Valley, Salta, Argentina 

$21.99 I 90/100

UPC: 007798104763039

When I see this wine at retail or on a restaurant wine list, I know that no matter what else happens, I’m going to be able to secure a solid bottle of wine at a bargain price. Perfect under screwcap, it consistently tastes like it smells: an alluring mix of red and black fruits with a dusty, stony, mineral underside. It is wonderfully dry and fresh, the palate juicy and round, and the tannins light but structured. The esperanza por un milagro (waiting for a miracle) Amalaya is grown at some of the world’s highest vineyards (1,800 metres). It is mostly Malbec mixed with 15 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Tannat, and it is an absolute bargain at $21.99. Back up the truck.


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Luigi Bosca Malbec 2018, Mendoza, Argentina 

$19.99 I 90/100

UPC: 7791203001231

A steady, value-for-money performer, the latest edition comes from an outstanding year in Argentina. At 50+ years old, the east-facing, biodynamically farmed vines are matured at Finca La Linda, at 950 metres above sea level in Luján de Cuyo. The nose and palate are rich and expressive, offering black plum flecked with blueberries and black raspberries, spending a year in French oak to round out the edges and firm up the tannins. This one is age-worthy, but you can drink it now with grilled beef or the classic Italian offering, spaghetti Bolognese. Good value.

Recipe match: Branzino, clams and lemon saffron sauce

Created by Chef Jasmin Porcic of Edge Catering, this dish celebrates Chef Porcic’s European heritage. Featuring Mediterranean Sea Bas (also known as Branzino), the recipe mixes citrus and spices with the fresh fish for a “unique sweet taste and texture,” according to Porcic.


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Branzino, clams and lemon saffron sauce

8 x 2.64 oz (75 g) Branzino filets (ask butcher to clean fish for you)

2.2 lbs (1 kg) manila clams

7 oz (200 g) heirloom carrots

3.5 oz (100 g) asparagus

1.41 oz (40 g) edamame, blanched and shelled

3.5 oz (100 g) leeks

10 sprigs of fresh thyme

1 cup (250 mL) white wine

1 cup (250 mL) whipping cream

3.5 oz (100 g) butter

Pinch of saffron

1/3 cup + 1 tbsp (100 mL) olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 lemon

2 fresh radishes

Fresh micro basil, for garnish


The best way to cook fresh vegetables is to steam them to keep as many nutrients as possible. In this case we are using beautiful, colourful heirloom carrots and what I like to do is to wash and gently scrub them with a sponge dedicated for vegetables. Cut carrots on a bias about 1/2-inch thick. Steam for 7-8 minutes and cool until ready to plate.


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Asparagus can simply be cut on a bias 1/2-inch long and steamed for 2 minutes then cool and reserve until plating.

Clams and lemon saffron sauce

Place clams in colander and rinse them under cold running water.

Cut leeks into 1-centimetre pieces and rinse with water to clean.

In a large pot, add the white wine, leeks, and thyme and bring to a boil, then add in the clams and cover. Continue cooking until all clams are open. If there are any that do not open, discard them.

Transfer into a bowl and remove the clam meat from the shells, saving a few with the shell on for garnishing. Strain the liquid into a small pot and bring to a boil. This liquid is enriched with clam nectar and will be phenomenal base for sauce. Add cream and saffron then reduce the heat. Simmer until sauce thickens, season with salt and juice of half a lemon.


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Gently score Branzino skin with a sharp knife and season with salt and pepper.

Heat a non-stick frying pan on medium heat and add 2 tbsp of olive oil. Place fish in the pan skin side down. Gently press with spatula or spoon to ensure an even sear on fish. This will create beautiful crispy skin.

Cook until that side is golden brown then flip, add 75 g butter and juice of 1/2 lemon and baste for 30 seconds. Remove from the pan and place on a plate for 1 minute to rest and then proceed to plate.

In a small pan, heat remainder 25 g of butter and warm up carrots, edamame, and asparagus, then season with salt and pepper.

Place Branzino on the middle of the plate (2 fillets, stacked), arrange clams in shell and vegetables around the fish. Add clam meat to saffron sauce and spoon over the fish.


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Garnish with thinly sliced radishes and micro basil. Enjoy!

Serves four. 

Recipe match

Branzino (sea bass), clams and lemon saffron sauce takes us to Europe searching for fresh white wines. 

Di Lenardo Pinot Grigio Monovitigno 2019, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy $18.99 

Clean and bright with the softness of Fruili and floral honey, baked pear, citrus, apple, quince, and almond. A rich/rich match.

Sartarelli Classico Verdicchio 2019, Marche, Italy $26.99 

Grassy green apple, crunchy pear and green melon flecked with melon and tangerine rind with a citrus current — the perfect wine for this inviting seafood dish.

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