By Celia Strong
Sometimes with wines, like other things in life, we have to look beyond the surface and see what’s inside. You can’t tell a book by its cover, they say, so maybe you can’t always tell a wine by its label? I think there are many wines we might fall in love with, regardless of what we might think of their labels.
Our grape this week is Malbec. Over time, I have tasted and enjoyed a range of wines made from this grape. There are as many versions of it as most other grapes — some heavier, some smoother textured, some fruitier. The more we try, the more we have to choose from on our lists of wine we like. Longer lists with more choices are always good.
Most Malbec wines come from Argentina. This grape made its way to this South American country in the late 19th century, where it adapted and thrived in the soil, climate and high elevation vineyards that are 5,000 feet above sea level. Malbec grapes have dark, purple skins that are slightly thinner compared to many other varieties. And they smaller than the Malbec grapes grown in France with vine clusters that are tighter and smaller. Argentine wines are fruitier, their textures are smoother and juicier, and their tannins are not as intense as their French cousins.
Malbec flavors can range from black cherry in cooler climates (like Cahors, France, Patagonia, or Washington state) to raspberry to plum to blackberry in warmer climates (Mendoza). On top of the basic fruit flavors, there are also pomegranate and blueberry, with milk nuances, chocolate, cocoa powder, molasses, black pepper, violets, vanilla, coconut, leather (depending on oak treatment) and sweet tobacco. Interestingly, the complex and intense flavors of Argentine Malbec wines makes many tasters think they have much more oak barrel aging than they do. The finish of many Malbec wines includes some smokiness.
With food, these wines can be very flexible. They go well with lean meats, beef obviously, but also ostrich and buffalo. Smoother juicier style ones can pair successfully with seafood and roast poultry and duck. They go well with a variety of cheeses such as Manchego, blue, aged Gouda and cheddar, and cheese from goat milk. Also, they complement earthy flavors like mushrooms and cumin.
The winery for this week’s wine is Robert Mondavi — which is why I warned not to judge a wine by its label. Well known for its higher tier wines from Napa, this winery is responsible for getting many of America’s wine drinkers started. Mondavi was an innovator. When Americans didn’t like Sauvignon Blanc, years ago, he made one blended with a tiny bit of Semillon and called it Fumé Blanc. There were acres of Zinfandel growing in California, many of them old vines, when Americans didn’t like dry red wines, so Mondavi made White Zinfandel. When we did start liking drier wines, red and white, we couldn’t all afford Napa Cabernets. He made Woodbridge. And, later, he introduced Robert Mondavi Private Selection wines. Not only did Mondavi make great wines, he made great wines at every level so everyone could enjoy good wine.
Our wine is the Robert Mondavi Private Selection Malbec, which is made from grapes grown in Mendoza, Argentina. This wine is full of intense blackberry, plum, blueberry and pomegranate flavors. It has hints of smoke, vanilla, coconut, coffee and chocolate. It is medium bodied with a smooth, juicy texture and goes with a multitude of foods. But, more than that, it’s just right for sipping at length, glass after glass. A delicious Malbec like this is a treasure, and a welcome departure from typical every day Napa wines. Remember, it’s not what the label says, but what’s in your glass. For only $7.99. Enjoy.
Celia Strong works at Bill’s Liquor & Fine Wines on Lady’s Island.