Discovering the tiers of Malbec in Argentina

in Wine by

By Celia Strong

Sometimes, you just have to step up. With our wine lessons, this is one of those times. We’re going to look at several Malbec wines, all from the same winery, at different quality levels, at different prices, each giving us a different expression (fancy wine-speak that means version) of this grape variety. And, yes, we are going to Argentina. Where great Malbecs have been known to happen.

To begin with, let’s review a bit about this grape. Probably, it originated in northern Burgundy, the region in eastern France that grows great Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. For centuries, it was grown in Bordeaux, where it is still used in blends to soften the rough edges of not quite ripe Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots. In 1956, there was a huge frost in Bordeaux, and 75% of the Malbec vines died. Currently, it is used in much smaller percentages than before that frost. Malbec is thin skinned and needs more sun and warmth than either Cabernet or Merlot. With low yields, it can produce rich, dark and juicy wines. The Malbec grape gives its wine deep, dark, inky red or violet colors, ample tannins and plum and smokey flavors.

It was introduced into Argentina in 1868. There, it produces smoother, softer tannin wines with great complexities. A study, done at the Catena Institute of Wine and the University of California at Davis (the big wine school in this country), showed that Malbec from Argentina was distinctly different than Malbec from California. In Argentina, the best Malbec wines come from high altitude vineyards, in Mendoza’s Luján de Cuyo and Uco valleys. In 1994, Nicolas Catena Zapata planted the first Malbec vines above 5,000 feet. Now, that’s a new member of the “Mile High Club!”

Enough catching up, though. A bit about our winery, now, so we can get to our wines. Terrazas de Los Andes. Literally translated, that’s Terraces of the Andes Mountains. Makes you think of vines growing on hillsides, doesn’t it? Pretty good name for a winery. Terrazas is owned and operated by Moët & Chandon, the well-known Champagne company. In 1950, they saw an opportunity for expansion in South America. And, in 1960, they established Chandon Argentina in Mendoza. They restored an old winery, at the foot of the Cordón del Plata, a section of the Andes. In 1990, they started to make varietal wines. In response to what the wine markets of the world were looking for. And, they became Terrazas. With three tiers of Malbec wines.

Terrazas Altos del Plata is their best known, and lowest priced Malbec. For this wine, the grapes are hand-picked, allowing each grape to ripen. The grapes are de-stemmed and cold macerated for five days. Fermentation is done with selected yeasts and lasts about 15 days. The wine is aged in oak barrels for eight months, then clarified, filtered and bottled early for freshness. The finished wine is red with purple highlights. It has black fruit aromas, like plums and berries, along with hints of toast and white pepper spiciness. For $9.99.

Terrazas Reserva is the next step, or tier, up. These grapes are also hand-picked, but their skins are split very slightly, too. Fermentation and maceration lasts 21 days, with pumping over done to develop more flavors. It is aged for 12 to 14 months in barrels. One third new barrels and the rest second or third use, French barrels. The wine is clarified and filtered before bottling. And the bottles are aged six month before their release. The grapes for this wine come from two select vineyards in Mendoza (Las Compuertas and Altamira), at an average of 3,545 feet above sea level. It is more purple colored with red hints, and has very intense aromas of flowers (violets) and red fruits (raspberries and cherries). There are also toasted coffee and chocolate notes. This wine is much bigger in your mouth, with delicate tannins. A Malbec with great finesse. For $16.97.

Last, but not least for sure, Las Compuertas. A single vineyard wine. And quite a bit different than our first two wines. Partly because of the source of the grapes, partly because of how this wine is made. “Compuerta” translated into English means “gate,” sometimes “locked gate.” In the world of Argentine wines, this can ever refer to the gates in the irrigation ditches, sluices, running melting snow down from the mountains. Like its “siblings,” these Malbec grapes are hand-picked. But, further, they are hand sorted. Only the best go into these bottles. (Some of the extra, not-quite-so-good grapes are blended into the Reserva Malbec.) After fermentation, which takes 30 days, the wine is racked (moved gently from one barrel to the next), so that filtering is not needed. Eighteen to twenty months in barrels. Once bottled, the wine is stored for another 12 months, minimum, before it is released. Everything about this wine is more intense. It is a deeper shade of red with purple edges. Its aromas and flavors (plum, blackberry, black cherry, smoke, anise) are more distinct and complex. Las Compuertas has great tannin structure but is also succulent and silky textured. The type of wine you can use as a yardstick to measure other Malbecs against. For $49.99.

There we have them. The three tiers of Terrazas Malbecs. Each with its own fans, each with its own place in our wine drinking lives. The great thing is to try all three. That way you can always make your choice better. Enjoy.