Malbec means Mendoza

Argentina is the world’s 6th largest wine producer yet, until quite recently, their output was almost completely ignored in the UK.  And, although things are beginning to change, compared to the other large New World countries, the USA, Australia and Chile, they are still under-represented on our shelves.

This is a shame as even their cheaper wines are almost always very attractive and approachable.  And, moving a little up-market, you’ll find wines that are truly delicious – in a leaner, more European style than, say, Chile – and also excellent value.  This is particularly true of their reds with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Malbec the varieties to look out for.  The least-known of these, Malbec, is often described as Argentina’s ‘signature’ grape or unique selling point.  Indeed, for many of today’s wine lovers, Malbec is synonymous with the Mendoza region.

But, like many varieties found in the New World, Malbec’s origins are in France, in Cahors in the south-west – an area I’d recommend that those who enjoy this grape should investigate further.  It was also once widely grown in Bordeaux but the vast popularity of Cabernet and Merlot and the difficulty of ripening Malbec in the relatively cool climate has meant that its importance has reduced significantly there. 

MalbecSo, the largest plantings now are in Mendoza in the foothills of Argentina’s Andes Mountains where it seems to thrive.  Malbecs from brands such as Catena, Trapiche and Argento are reliably good and widely available in supermarkets and wine shops, but I was particularly impressed with a bottle of Don Nicanor’s Nieto Sentiner that I found in a local independent wine merchant, Grape and Grind in Bristol’s Gloucester Road (£13.99).

Rich and quite full-bodied but in no way heavy, lovely blackcurrant and blackberry fruit flavours followed an enticing aroma of violets.  There was also a subtle smokiness in there from 12 months in barrel.  All in all, a delightfully harmonious and rewarding red, ideal with red meat or, for vegetarians, perhaps, an aubergine bake.

Cheap and Bland?

I went out for a reunion meal with some friends and former colleagues at Bristol’s River Station restaurant recently and, inevitably, the wine list was pushed in my direction.  Choosing wine for a dozen people is never easy, particularly when, as here, I didn’t know much about the tastes of many of them.  I also had to bear in mind that we were there to catch up with each other and to chat, not to taste and appreciate the wine.  As a result, my focus was on wines that no-one could really dislike at prices that few could object to.  I could have been forgiven for choosing something cheap and bland, but I wanted to do better than that.

The guests were ordering a wide range of different dishes so a white and a red were clearly needed.  I love the Spanish variety Albariño and there was a nice example on the list, similarly a Mâcon-Villages caught my eye.  But I eventually chose Peter Schweiger’s Grüner Veltliner from Austria (around £30 on the wine list) as the white peter-schweiger-gruner-veltliner– fairly rich and full-bodied with plenty of fruit but unoaked; a wine with plenty of character but fresh and harmonious that should pair well with most dishes.

For the red, I was looking at the South American section of the list – a Chilean Merlot or Carmenere or an Argentinian Malbec, perhaps – when our server pointed to Prunus Tinto, a Portuguese wine from the Daô region (also about £30), which was a personal favourite of his and, apparently very popular.  Prunus_Dao_TintoI hadn’t initially considered this – although I’m a big fan of Portuguese wines, they can be tough and tannic, which wasn’t the type of wine I wanted for the group.  But, he assured me that this was very drinkable and I went along with his recommendation.  I’m pleased I did as this proved a real winner: very soft and with lovely black fruits and a slight smoky edge.

My reward for 2 successful choices?  I’ll get the job of choosing again next time!

Mushrooms and Malbec

norton malbecSome good friends of ours don’t eat meat so, when we visit them, we are normally treated to some interesting fish dish and, almost always, to an attractive white wine to accompany it.  But, not this time!  Dinner was a rich and flavoursome mushroom and chestnut casserole – something that even the most assertive white wine would have had trouble in matching.  Happily, our hosts came to the same conclusion and served Norton’s Malbec from Mendoza in Argentina, which worked admirably.

As someone who enjoys both meat and fish, I get less practice in pairing wine with vegetarian dishes but the process really is no different: first, consider whether the dish is delicate or robust (or somewhere in-between) and look for wines that are similarly delicate or robust.  Then, what are likely to be the dominant flavours on the plate?  How can you match those?

Taking our mushroom casserole as an example, there are some quite strong flavours so the wine needs to be able to stand up to them and not be overpowered.  It must also cope with the umami (savoury) taste of the mushrooms and the earthiness of the chestnuts.  Which is why the Malbec worked so well: weighty enough (14% alcohol) yet with plenty of juicy fruit and not too much in the way of drying tannins.

Yet, you can also find vegetarian dishes at the other end of the spectrum. Risotto Primavera (rice with young vegetables) is much lighter and more delicate and, with the creamy texture of the risotto, a white Maçon-Villages or something similar would be a good choice; not too heavy and with just a touch of richness.

With those ideas – and without the encumbrance of ‘white wine with chicken, red wine with meat’ – food and wine pairing with vegetarian dishes really shouldn’t prove too difficult.

Just one final point for strict vegetarians: some wines are clarified using egg whites; although no residues remain in the bottle, if you want to avoid these, check the back label of any wine you’re buying to see that it is suitable or, failing that, the producer’s website should give you the relevant information.