Bottoms Up: Malbec & Torrontes are hot, hot, hot!

What’s hotter than Charlie Sheen’s wild escapades since the departure from his hit TV show? That would be Malbec and Torrontes. Both are flagship, varietal wines from Argentina, one of the top five producers of wine by volume in the world.

Malbec is one of the traditional red grapes used in France, but rarely is a solo artist there. In Bordeaux where it’s blended with Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot, it adds volume and plum-like nuances to the mix. Elsewhere in France, it is known as Cot. In Cahors in the country’s southwest, it is teamed up with Merlot and Tannat. It used to be much more widely planted in France, but sensitivity to frost and poor fruit development have substantially reduced its presence. Wine made from it is not usually long lived.

However, Malbec really thrives in Argentina where it is the major, red variety planted. Most of the original Malbec vines there now were brought over from Europe before phylloxera (root louse that destroyed most of the grape vines in the world in the 1860s) so were ungrafted, but recently phylloxera has resurfaced and forced much replanting on to resistant rootstocks.

So how does Argentinean Malbec differ from its European counterpart? Frost is not as much an issue here as in Europe, resulting in longer hang time on the vines. This allows for better ripening of the fruit reducing greenness in the finished wine. Most importantly, here in Argentina, it is bottled straight up. Often oak-treated, it has a softer, lusher character, definitely more New World in feel, and has much better aging potential. Characteristics of flavour are much the same, falling somewhere between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It has a very deep colour almost like inky blueberry, softer tannin, and a particular blackberry/plum, mocha, spicy character with hints of anise. It’s reasonably priced and extremely food-friendly. Check it out with beef; pork; grilled tuna, salmon or halibut; roast poultry or spicy Mexican dishes. Fab with medium, aged cheese and absolutely perfect with empanadas, one of Argentina’s local specialties!

Torrontes is a fascinating white varietal that has to be tasted to be believed. Indigenous to Argentina, it is found in Mendoza, the country’s most important wine region, but the best examples seem to come from farther north in La Rioja and Salta provinces. As a rule, it is not oak treated and generally consumed young. If I had to compare it to another grape variety, it would probably fall somewhere between Viognier and Gewurztraminer. Light straw with golden/greenish highlights, it’s extremely aromatic and smells like peach pit, flowers (roses, jasmine and geraniums), orange citrus and tropical fruit. In the mouth it is fruit salad a-go-go, with touches of honey or oregano. It’s usually dry and possesses great acidity (sour component). So yummy tasting, it keeps you coming back for another sip! Wonderful on its own, especially in the warm weather, it meshes beautifully with smoked meats; smoked fish and seafood; spicy dishes; exotic cuisine like Thai, Indian, Mexican and Hakka-Chinese and strong or smoky cheeses.

I’ve always thought that Torrontes would do well here because of its similarity to our city’s name. You know, “sip some Torrontes in Toronto.” Why haven’t some savvy marketing folks latched onto the connection yet and created a new phenomenon?

So do yourself a favour, run out immediately and get yourself some Malbec and/or Torrontes for a true taste of Argentina. According to the LCBO/Vintages website there are numerous Malbecs and several Torrontes in the system. With Easter just around the corner, this is a great opportunity to enlist these wines to accompany your feast. Guaranteed to please, try them once and you’ll be hooked. Enjoy!

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