Malbec grapes may be an unfamiliar to some, but it is gaining attention from wine drinkers. And for good reason, in addition to its remarkable depth and flavor of complexity, malbec makes up some of the best value bottles under $25 in the world.
In the past, malbec was primarily a blending partner, adding its spicy flavor to Bordeaux blends. But today it is being made into incredible single-varietal wines.
Although malbec is traditionally a French grape, Argentina is the country to credit for bringing this grape to the world’s attention.
Malbec’s transformation from French blending grape to the signature wine of Argentina began in the mid-19th-century when French agronomist Michel Pouget planted the first malbec vines — at the request of future Argentine president Domingo Faustina Sarmiento and Mendoza governor Pascual Pedro Segura. In the hot, high elevation of Mendoza malbec thrived, with none of its past weaknesses of disease and rot susceptibility that plagued it in French regions.
Mendoza sits on a high flat plain next to the Andes Mountains. This location near the mountains acts as a rain shadow, giving the area an average annual rainfall of fewer than 10 inches. Melting snow from the Andes feeds a unique and vast network of irrigation channels. The dry sunny climate allows the grapes a near ideal growing climate and flat land makes for a less costly mechanization of vineyard practices and harvesting for producers.
Malbec’s most significant characteristic is its intense dark color. Its aromas evoke cherries, strawberries or plums and sometimes cooked fruit — depending on when the grapes were harvested. Its taste is soft with nonaggressive tannin structure. When it is aged in oak it develops coffee, vanilla and chocolate aromas.
- 2015 Pascual Toso Malbec, Argentina (about $13 retail)
- 2015 King Mendoza Malbec, Argentina (about $13 retail)
- 2015 Llama Old Vine Malbec, Argentina (about $15 retail)
- 2015 Bodega Norton Malbec, Argentina (about $11 retail)
- 2015 Don Miguel Gascon Malbec, Argentina (about $15 retail)
- 2015 Felino Malbec, Argentina (about $23 retail)
- 2015 Antigal Uno Malbec, Argentina (about $18 retail)
- 2015 Corazon del Sol Malbec, Argentina (about $25 retail)
- 2014 Swinto Old Vine Malbec, Argentina (about $40 retail)
Over the last couple of months, I have had many readers wanting another column deciphering the confusing wine classifications in the world. The 1855 Classification of red wines of the Gironde (Bordeaux) was not the first — as far back as the 14th century a list was made of Jurancon’s finest vineyards and in 1644 the best wines of Franken in Germany were officially identified — but it is definitely the most famous.
The famed Bordeaux classification had its beginning on the request of Napoleon III for the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris being organized to showcase the best of France. The Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce was asked to come up with an official list or ranking of Bordeaux’s wines. The job was passed on to Bordeaux’s brokers, who created the list based on the quality and price of wines being sold on the market at that time. They picked four, which were considered the best known and fetched the highest prices, and they were called First Growths or Premiers Crus. In addition, there were 14 Second Growths, 14 Third Growths, 10 Fourth Growths and finally 18 Fifth Growths.
During the century and a half that followed, there has only been one significant change, and that occurred in 1973 when Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was promoted from Second Growth to First Growth, increasing the number of First Growths wines to five. This achievement is often cited as the only change ever to the classification, but the real story is slightly more complicated. Since 1855 the actual list has changed. Three estates, Leoville, Pichon and Batailley have split into two or more chateaux, while two separate names, Pouget and Pouget-Lassale have since combined into one known as Chateau Pouget. And third growth, Dubignon, has disappeared entirely with its vineyards as part of other Margaux properties.
Confusing as it may seem, Bordeaux’s classification continues to promote the region’s finest wines. With 10,000 chateaux and domains there are numerous exceptional producers in the region.
Local retail inventory changes too quickly to suggest Values and Splurges. Check with your local fine wine retailer for current Bordeaux classified wines available.
Italy’s sparkling Prosecco has experienced a bit of a transformation in recent years. This bubbly has been plagued by inconsistent quality — from the top of the pyramid, Cartizze, to celebrities jumping on board to promote everything from canned Prosecco made in Austria to low-end fizz. Italians, who historically take their wine production very seriously, took notice and worked to address the problem head on.
The heart of Prosecco production is the Veneto region bordering the towns of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano. Recently, a new labeling change has brought more stringent production requirements within the Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene zone. If the label has the name “Prosecco” it must adhere to specific production techniques and include only grapes grown in strictly controlled areas.
Italian wines are given levels of quality much like the French Appellation d’Origin Controlee. Beginning with the Vino da Tavola (basic table wine) to IGT, DOC and DOCG, each level has more stringent rules for growing and production. The change basically takes the areas previously given the lesser IGT designation a type of upgrade to DOC. To add to the confusion, it also technically renames the grape to its ancient name “glera” for producers outside of the named zones, effectively making “Prosecco” a place name and not a grape variety.
- NV Zonin Prosecco, Italy (about $15 retail)
- NV Candoni Prosecco, Italy (about $15 retail)
- NV Santa Margherita Brut Prosecco, Italy (about $25 retail)
There are many occasions for gift giving throughout the year, but it seems the pressure is heightened on Valentine’s Day. It’s easy to get caught in the commercialized crowd of gift buying. But if your sweetheart is a wine drinker, don’t even think about running into the store at the last minute for a shrink-wrapped heart shaped box of milk chocolate. There’s no need to grab the dyed carnations or even that expensive Valentines card, just head to your local fine wine retailer.
Put some thought into making the bottle you chose personal and, of course, romantic. Consider vintage ports and Champagnes because of special dates ranging from the year a person was born, life-changing events in a certain year or even the year of your first date with your valentine. If your budget or time doesn’t allow for the exact bottle, putting thought into the reason you are giving the bottle can be as sentimental; vineyards you have visited together or those you want to visit together. If you are looking for the ultimate romantic gesture, give a bottle of wine with a note planning a romantic getaway to the winery or the region.
We all know nothing shouts romance more than a bottle of Champagne, but for a added touch consider rose Champagne. This is not your flawed sweet bubbly pink of the 1960s. This wine is superb, not sweet, and spectacular.
But even if you don’t go the bubbly route, there is just something about rose wines that make them an ideal fit for Valentine’s romance. I prefer the dry styles of rose because they lie somewhere between white and red wines. The aromas are almost always fresh, enticing strawberry and cherry, and the flavors are crisp and refreshing with a light, zesty acidity. They will match almost any dinner menu item you are planning for your valentine.
Nothing says Valentine’s Day like hearts. And of my 25 years as a valentine gift recipient from my husband, I must say my most memorable and romantic was a bottle of Chateau Calon Segur from Bordeaux. The heart-shaped design on the label is thanks to Marquis Nicolas-Alexandre de Segur, whose portfolio of properties included the famed Chateau Latour and Chateau Lafite. Despite the illustriousness of his first growth jewels he famously said, “I make wine in Latour and Lafite but my heart is in Calon” as the reason behind the heart on the label. Another heart can be found at the estate, carved into the outside wall of the winemaking building. Not only is the label beautiful and romantic but the wine itself is one of the most exquisite wines I have tasted in my lifetime.
- 2015 Bell Red Blend, California (about $16 retail)
- 2015 Presqu’ile Rose, California (about $22 retail)
I recently met Jeff Smith of Hourglass Wines in Napa Valley and was intrigued by his background and the winery’s remarkable story.
Smith is a Napa Valley native, growing up in the valley next-door to many of the families who have transformed this wine region into one of the most elite in the world.
The family moved to St. Helena from San Francisco in 1964, where Ned Smith, Jeff’s father, became Napa Valley’s second ever real estate agent. But the family’s wine story doesn’t begin until 1976 when his parents, Ned and Marge, bought a six-acre parcel with the ambition of opening an inn, planting a grove of fruit trees and building a house. The inn thrived but the fruit trees didn’t.
As fate would have it, his neighbor happened to be Dan Duckhorn of the famed Duckhorn Vineyards. His father saw his steadfast success with grapes and decided to join in the planting with his favorite varietal, zinfandel.
Jeff Smith went on to college in San Francisco and then, for a streak, to play in a successful rock band. He returned to Napa Valley to work at the Robert Mondavi Winery where he would learn directly from Robert Mondavi. He also spent some times in the spirits industry, as SKYY Vodka’s second employee. During his five years at SKYY, it grew from a tiny business to producing 600,000 cases in annual volume, making it one of the fastest brand growths in American distilled spirits history.
After Ned’s death in the 1990s when a widespread phylloxera epidemic wiped out the zinfandel vines, Marge considered selling the family’s vineyards, but Jeff believed there was something truly unique and rare in them. Jeff, after consulting with Mark Kliewer, dean of viticulture at the University of California, Davis, replanted, but this time with cabernet saugivnon and christened the newly planted vineyard with the name Hourglass — a nod to the area’s unique geography.
His deep roots in Napa Valley and those iconic neighbors may be part of his story but it is Jeff’s profound knowledge of wine and his creative dedicated approach to winemaking that make his brand Hourglass one of the most sought-after in the valley.
- 2015 Hourglass Estate Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $43 retail)
- 2013 Hourglass Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $132 retail)
Super Bowl Sunday is just around the corner. This American tradition for more than 50 years is so much more than an opportunity to watch a football game — it’s an excuse to prepare an indulgent feast and pair up our favorite beverages.
These are just a few of the menu items I will be preparing for my feast. In front of each item I am placing a small card with the food item and suggested wine pairing. If I get creative it may be in a fun football theme frame. It’s much the same as you would do if you were having wine and cheese pairing party.
Sparkling Wine and Potato Skins
- NV Frexinet Brut Cava, Spain (about $12 retail)
- NV Piper Sonoma Brut, California (about $20 retail)
Barbera and Pizza
- 2015 Villa Monsignore Barbera, Italy (about $14 retail)
- 2015 Renato Ratti Barbera, Italy (about $24 retail)
Chardonnay and Mac and Cheese Balls
- 2015 Domaine Gayda Languedoc Chardonnay, France (about $12 retail)
- 2015 Chateau Ste Michelle Cold Creek Chardonnay, Washington (about $27 retail)
Albarino and Buffalo Chicken Wings
- 2015 Martin Codax Albarino, Spain (about $15 retail)
- 2015 La Cana Albarino, Spain (about $19 retail)
Zinfandel and Pulled Pork Sliders
- 2015 7 Deadly Zins, California (about $15 retail)
- 2014 Beran Sonoma Zinfandel, California (about $35 retail)
Grenache and Barbecue Brisket
- 2015 Flying Solo Grenache/Syrah, France (about $13 retail)
- 2014 Grant Burge Holy Grail Grenache, Australia (about $38 retail)
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