'Less malbec and more Argentina': Why our favourite red wine has been given a mellow makeover

Grapevines growing in Mendoza, Argentina
Growers are taking Argentina’s signature grape in subtle new directions Credit:  Tim Martin

Argentina forged its wine reputation on the sort of big, chunky reds for which the term “winter warmer” might almost have been invented. These reds, mostly made from malbec, were lavishly fruity and so thick you could almost cut them with a knife and fork. Dark and opaque, they were high in alcohol and tasted like sweet plum jam and liquorice, with the oak – so much charry, toasty oak (and not always the greatest oak) – shouting over it. They were made with the intention (or hope) of grabbing attention and pleasing the mass market and they did – very successfully. But times – and the wines – have been changing.

Alberto Antonini is one of those who has been shaping the new direction. The Tuscan-born oenologist first visited Mendoza – Argentina’s main winemaking region – in 1995 and, excited by what he saw, founded Altos Las Hormigas in the foothills of the Andes. Things went well – very well – but just over a decade ago Antonini had a terrible realisation. “I didn’t drink my own wines. We were at the peak of our success – and I didn’t like them.”

Antonini is an urbane, blazer-and-trainered Italian with wine culture in his veins, and this was uncomfortable information for him to process. But “my change comes only with my own experience,” he says, philosophically. “I don’t look at it as a mistake, it’s how we got here.”

To understand what happened we need to rewind to the Nineties when – against a very difficult economic backdrop – Argentina was at the very start of its modern era of winemaking. Malbec had already emerged as a possible USP, but its acceptance was not universal. I remember visiting the country in 1998 and tasting a lot of bonarda and merlot, among other grapes, and having conversations with winemakers who were agonising about whether a focus on malbec might end up holding the country back. That may sound odd in hindsight, given that Argentinian malbec has been preposterously successful; Waitrose alone lists 22 different kinds on its website and the style is up there with New Zealand sauvignon blanc as a sought-after wine not just to drink at home but also on a night out. Back then everyone was clear that the grape – whose European homeland is Cahors, in south-west France – had great potential but some feared the consequences of embracing a single grape too warmly. What if it backfired and Argentina gathered a reputation as a one-trick pony capable only of producing a red wine for which there was little demand?

Antonini was happy to back malbec, though. “We [Altos Las Hormigas],” he says, “were the very first to focus exclusively on malbec.” From my perspective, Altos Las Hormigas has always made good wines within the parameters of what it was trying to achieve, but what Antonini seeks now – along with other like-minded winemakers – is “less malbec and more Argentina.” In other words, more “terroir-driven” wines, with more of a sense of place.

Invariably, and most obviously, this translates to a more careful use of oak. Wood used to sit on some Argentinian wine like a thick black toupé on a septuagenarian. The pricier the wine, the more oak there might be. The move away from this means that now you don’t have to look hard to find wines at more than £10 that have been made using no oak at all. More winemakers are choosing to ferment malbec in concrete rather than in oak.

Others use larger, older barrels – with a bigger vessel there’s less contact between wood and wine, and the more times the barrel has been used the less oaky flavour it imparts. There is also less enthusiasm for “toasty” oak, where barrels are heated before use: the higher the level of toast, the more spice and vanilla flavours you’ll end up with in the wine. “When a toasted barrel is new, it’s barbecue sauce,” as Antonini says, “which I don’t put on beef.”

Ensuring that a sense of place is not overwritten also means making sure the grapes don’t ripen too quickly or get too ripe. Very ripe grapes give big, bold, poster-paint flavours. Overripe grapes make wine that smells like fruit that has just turned – you get a fruity hit then it turns to ashes in the mouth. In a hot and sunny climate one way to manage ripeness is to plant at altitude – which is precisely what many producers, notably Catena which has done a lot of research in this field, have been doing.

Treating the grapes with a greater sensitivity allows malbec’s finer characteristics – not just its fruity might – to shine through. In wines made by forward-thinking producers such as Riccitelli, Mendel, Zuccardi, Bodega Colomé, Catena Zapata, Achaval Ferrer and Pulenta Estate you find more elegance – there might be violets, blueberries, damsons, a silky feel, the sense of layers like voile, and sometimes also an earthy flavour. If you look for them, you’ll also find it’s easier to find wines representing smaller sites – a vineyard, or subregion, say. Another era for Argentinian wine.

Wines of the week

The Party Malbec 2018 Argentina

(14%, M&S, £14)

An unusually gentle and rather beautiful new generation malbec made by Matias Riccitelli from grapes grown at altitude (1,100-1,500m above sea level) and aged in concrete tanks (there’s no oak). It has an earthy savour and dark fruit.

Altos Las Hormigas Malbec Clasico 2018 Argentina

13.5%, Shaftesbury Wines £13; Vinum.co.uk, £12.75)

There’s a pleasing freshness to this malbec. Most of the grapes come from Luján de Cuyo, with a little from high-altitude vineyards in the Uco Valley. There’s no oak – it’s vinified in stainless steel and then aged in concrete.

Berry Bros & Rudd Argentinian Malbec by Pulenta Estate 2018 Argentina

(14.5%, Berry Bros & Rudd, £12.95)

As you can see from the alcohol, this isn’t a shy malbec. It’s not too light either – there’s a luscious flow of blueberry and damson flavours – but importantly it’s not claggy. A great one to get in for Christmas.