Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tasting Malbec by telephone

Though it's a solitary sensation, wine tasting is usually a communal experience. Not many people, even professionals, open a half-dozen bottles to sample by themselves -- it's always good to hear a second opinion.

Yesterday I tasted 8 Argentine Malbecs imported by Vine Connections. This is not a noteworthy event on a wine writer's schedule -- last week alone I had about 15 similar comparative tastings. What made this unusual was an Internet and telephone conference with Mendel winemaker Roberto de la Mota and Vine Connections co-founder Ed Lehrman joining from Mendoza, Argentina.

While fun, the tasting showed me a flaw in the format: nobody offered an opinion on the wines other than Roberto and Ed, even though we all had chat capability. What's the point of tasting together if you're not talking about the wines?

I think the reason is that even slightly negative opinions look much more harsh when written in a chat. I invited a friend over to taste the wines with me, and he winced at the tone of the questions I did ask, none of which would have sounded tough in person. Looking at Roberto and Ed trapped in a tiny window on our computer screens made us feel responsible for their happiness or discomfort. What worked best were softball questions, like "Isn't it great to work with Malbec?"

The teleconference must have saved a fortune, though: To get 15 wine writers/bloggers/radio hosts together with these guys ordinarily requires renting a restaurant or other space, paying for Roberto's airfare and hotel rooms, and other incidental event expenses. Instead, they just had to send us all free bottles of the wine (There's my FTC disclosure! Happy, Mr. President?) and buy a conference on WebEx. So maybe it's the wave of the future.

If so, I encourage people to be more brutally honest, even at the risk of discomforting the faces on the screen. My friend and I, with the phone on mute, freely shared our opinions on the wines, and that was much more informative to me than the conference itself.

I have great respect for Vine Connections -- they have good taste in sake, their other main product besides Argentine Malbec. I don't doubt that their Malbec portfolio is as good as it gets.

So here's a brutally honest opinion. This tasting solidified for me a feeling I've had for a while about Argentine Malbec -- it's a big-bodied but often one-dimensional wine that best serves as a lower-cost replacement for enormous New World-style Cabernet Sauvignons. Plus, the cheaper Malbecs are often better than the really expensive ones because tarting it up -- literally, as both guys dodged repeated questions about added acid -- doesn't give it anything but more oak flavor and even less complexity.

I know this opinion makes me an outlier. Argentine Malbec is one of the trendiest red wines in the world, and this tasting explained why. If you like big black fruit, beefy mouthfeel and soft tannins -- so many people do -- you'll love these. I'm a freak; I want something more out of wine: balance and complexity. Only one of the 8 wines we tasted gave me that, and ironically it was the cheapest of all.

I should really have shared this opinion on the closed-circuit live chat so we could have debated it, but I was afraid of hurting Ed's and Roberto's feelings. Instead, I'm posting out here on the open-water Internet. Surely that won't bother them at all.

Tasting notes

La Posta Angel Paulucci Vineyard Lujan de Cuyo Malbec 2007 ($18)
Black plum flavors with some earthiness in the aroma. Plenty of acidity on the short finish, but it tastes acidified. Very soft tannins. A little hot. 87

Mendel Lujan de Cuyo Malbec 2007 ($27)
Made from 80-year-old vines on ungrafted rootstock, this is an easy wine to like. It delivers blackberry and black plum fruit, some pretty rose petal notes on the nose and a bit of sandy minerality. Medium body, soft tannins. Good value as a Cab alternative. 89

Susana Balboa Lujan de Cuyo Malbec 2007 ($27)
Black raspberry and black plum flavors covered up by oak, particularly on the finish. 87

La Posta Pizzella Vineyard Uco Valley Malbec ($18)
I saved these bottles for dinner (lamb chops) and, while this wasn't my very favorite wine at the time of the tasting, it turned out to be the only one I actually wanted to drink with food. Very different from the others: it's spicy, with more red fruit character -- red and black plums and plenty of cinnamon. The Pizzellas, who own the vineyard, are both physical education teachers who must be pleased by the restrained 13.5% alcohol. Both La Posta wines had much less new oak than the others, and I think that's an advantage. 89

Mendel Finca Remota Uco Valley Malbec 2006 ($115)
This wine is brought to you by the worship of extremes. De la Mota let the grapes hang 20 days longer than all of his other grapes. He aged the wine for 12 months in new oak barrels, then transferred it to different new oak barrels for another 6 months -- 200% new oak. What does it taste like? What do you think it tastes like? Ripe blackberry licked off a brand-new oak board. Perhaps the oak will settle one day, but that day is not soon. While I could never identify it blind as Malbec or Argentine, I must acknowledge that it does have good fruit and a pretty floral note on the nose. 88

Luca Uco Valley Malbec ($36)
Laura Catena named this wine after her son. It's fairly tannic with cherry flavor, a note of milk chocolate, and a hint of violet in the aroma. 88

Tikal Amorio Uco Valley Malbec ($33)
Ernesto Catena named this wine after his son. Seeing a pattern? I like the blueberry fruit, the note of milk chocolate and the decent acidity from the midpalate on. But it's a little hot, and there may be major-league baseball bats that weigh less than this bottle. 87

Mendel Unus Lujan de Cuyo 2006 ($50)
Without food, this blend of 70% Malbec and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon was quite good: Ripe blackberry flavors with strong structure and interesting violet notes, though it is oaky on the finish (16 months in 100% new oak will do that). It's big-bodied and fleshy, but the nose is pretty. I tried it with lamb chops, though, and it was just too overbearing. This is a good wine to use as a cocktail, and probably will be at its best 3-5 years from now. It's also better the second day it's open than the first. 89


Anonymous said...

Here's my fav. Vale LaPena for $16 at Fines Wines in Stockton. I've tried others and have found I like the lower priced ones better.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks for the tip. That has been my experience as well -- not the super-cheapies, but the Malbecs in the $15 to $25 range are the most interesting.

Unknown said...

Blake, thanks for these Malbec suggestions. I'm a fan of this variety and your list will help me expand my horizons. I'll be on the lookout at my local shop (Ed's Fine Wines in Safety Harbor, Fla.).