By Celia Strong
As we go into another lesson, and another trip as well, I seem to be more excited than usual. We are going to do three wines today. All from the same source, but all different from each other. My excitement comes from knowing that one of them is a red blend, based on Malbec. You should know by now, with all the lessons we’ve been through together over the years, that I like blends and I really like Malbec. A while back, meaning a month or more ago, I had a customer tell me that Malbec was a “flash in the pan.” I think they meant not a great variety and not here to stay. Boy, do I hope they were wrong.
Now that I’ve told you Malbec, yes, your guess is correct. We are visiting Argentina. Home of many great wines made from Malbec. And other grapes. To begin, here are some interesting Argentine wine facts. Eighty percent of all Argentine wines come from the Mendoza region. The city of Mendoza is twenty-five hundred feet above sea level. About half a mile. The vineyards in the Mendoza region are from two thousand feet above to almost five thousand feet above sea level. Mendoza vineyards have more than three hundred sunny days a year. And, their grapes have the longest hang-time in the world. That means their wines are balanced with ripe fruit flavors and soft tannins. Salta, another region, produces only one percent of all Argentine wine. Salta vineyards are located from fifty-five hundred feet above sea level to seven thousand feet above. Some are as high as nine thousand feet above sea level. This altitude and the region’s longitude mean there can be a forty degree range in temperatures in one day, day after day. The grapes ripen slowly and maintain their acidity. Water is very scarce for these vineyards, and they are planted facing toward the East, against the Andes Mountains, so that they get afternoon shade.
Our winemaker is Susana Balbo. In Argentina, which was settled by Spanish and Italian immigrants, there are many times when old European ways are expected to continue. This means that Susana, a woman, is working in a profession dominated by men. Not only is she surrounded by men, but over time and with her experience, she has been accepted as a leader among them. She earned her oenology degree in 1981. Since then, she has been involved in making more types of wine than most winemakers. She was the first Argentine winemaker to be hired outside of her country to consult with other wineries. Australia, California, Chile, France, Italy, South Africa and Spain have all benefitted from her knowledge and expertise. Working or not, she spends a month every year in a different wine region of the world. There, she studies with local growers and winemakers. Susana started to make wines with her name on the label after working for other wineries for twenty years. All her education and experience culminated in wines that are known for their balance, with layers of complexity. Her hope, for those who drink her wines, is that every sip is as good as the first. Some consider Susana to be the best female winemaker in the world.
The wines we are going to look at today are three with the Crios label. “Crios” is a Spanish word that means “offspring.” Crios is like a second label to the Susana Balbo label, less expensive, more everyday wines. Susana chose that name because it reflects her working with her son and daughter. The Crios label shows three hands on it. One inside another. It was derived from a Mayan artifact and refers to her and her two children. Nice!
Our first Crios wine is the Red Blend. The one I’m so excited about. It is made mostly from Malbec, about sixty percent but it can vary a bit from vintage to vintage. Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot and Tannat, make up the balance, with more Cabernet than the other two. The grapes for this wine grow in the Uco Valley (a sub-region of Mendoza) and they are handpicked at harvest. They are macerated for fifteen to twenty days, fermented, and the wine is aged in French oak for about eight months. Some new, but mostly second use barrels. This blend is a deep ruby color – Malbec wines do have intense color to them – with a hint of bluish-purple at the edges. The nose is complex, which we can partly thank the blend for. Each variety is evident as we sniff our first glass of this blend. Black plums and a hint of smoke from the Malbec, black currant and dark cherries from the Cabernet, baking spices from the Petite Verdot and more black fruits from the Tannat. Smooth tannins and an exceptionally long finish complete the package. For $10.99, this is a great wine for all kinds of foods and occasions.
Our second wine is Crios Torrontes. You, hopefully, remember some of the Torrontes wines we’ve talked about before today? This is a white variety, grown almost exclusively in Argentina. It makes wines that are aromatic and lush, excellent with Asian flavors. It’s coming back now? Also, it is a perfect wine for turkey dinners. This Torrontes is grown in the Calchaquies Valley at over fifty-five hundred feet above sea level. (This valley is located partly in Salta, a northern regions in Argentina, from which the best Torrontes wine come.) The grapes for Crios Torrontes are hand-picked, also, and the wine is one hundred percent this grape. White pear, white flowers and citrus notes lead layers of other flavors. This wine’s acidity is really bright, which means it makes you keep sipping. Perfect! In Argentina, they enjoy this wine with goat cheese, in addition to the other flavors we’ve mentioned. There are a lot of goats in Salta and good goat cheese is everywhere! I’ve tried this pairing, and they’re right. For $9.99.
Crios Malbec is our third wine today. The “flash in the pan” wine? These grapes grow in Luján de Cuyo and Uco Valley, both in Mendoza, in vineyards that are slightly more than thirty-seven feet above sea level. Like the other Crios wines, they are all hand-picked. This wine is almost all Malbec, only a tiny, tiny percent of Bonarda is blended in. Like the Crios Red Blend, it is reddish purple. It has black cherry, coffee and vanilla notes, spices and sandalwood. Some of these flavors come from the nine months of barrel aging done for the wine – seventy percent French oak and thirty percent American. There is a juicy texture to this Malbec, smooth and lingering in your mouth. A style of wine we all usually like very much. At $10.99 we can enjoy it often.
And what about the past, the present and the future? Susana sees her role as winemaker as the connection between the vineyards (the past), the winemaking (the present) and the wines as you drink them in your glass (the future). If our future includes these wines, we’re doing well. Now, all we have to do is drink enough so Malbec stays around. Enjoy!