Hippo Manchester
October 27, 2005

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Old French grape in the New World

Meanwhile, Turkey’s grape-juice giant enters wine biz

By Tim Protzman   tprotzman@hotmail.com 

They say it looks just like Colorado: snow-topped mountains to the west, broad flat plains and that particular Western Light — that big sunny whitish light that bleaches the sky from deep blue to pale robin’s egg and seems to make everything shimmer and waver with mirages. This is Argentina. Mendoza to be exact, and it’s the heart of Malbec country.

About the same time Cortes was discovering Colorado, Spanish explorers came through the passes in the Andes from Santiago, Chile, and founded the city of Mendoza in a broad valley that was already under cultivation. But they didn’t find grapes. The native peoples grew potatoes and had a very sophisticated irrigation system to catch the spring runoff. This valley was perfect for growing grapes.

The Spanish brought grapes to South America and also found some native varieties, but the wine was extremely rustic until the 1850s when German and French immigrants brought some European varieties to the pampas. The settlers raised cattle and made big, brawny wines to go with their beef.

In the 1960s wine fever crossed the Andes and big commercial vineyards took hold in the flat irrigated plains. During the winter (our summer) the vineyards were flooded to prevent the scourge of the root louse, known by the technical name of Phylloxera. The viniculture money started coming in and the little family wineries that made wine for regional consumption took off or got acquired.

Argentina’s signature grape is Malbec, It thrives on the sunny, dry, silty, rocky, flinty soil that washes down from the mountains but it’s a French grape.

Malbec came from Bordeaux, where it was a blending grape occasionally bottled on its own. Today some of the lesser-known Bordeaux Appellations use it. In the south of France it’s in a wine called Cahors, from Languedoc. The English called it “the Black Wine” because it’s so dark and rustic. Today you can taste a tiny bit of Malbec in Ermitage Pic St Loup, $13.99, from Languedoc, and Chateau Bousquet Cotes du Bourg, $14.99, from Bordeaux.

These wines blend in to smooth out the bumps in the predominant grapes.

Great Malbec from Argentina is structured with sunny, spicy fruit tones and a tannic edge that’s not overwhelming.

I recently had a bottle from Dona Paula Estates. Dona Paula is a new winery built on traditional and new land outside of Mendoza. The winery capitalizes on the growing tourist trade, for destination wineries and the nearby Andes. Mount Anconcagua and Mount Tupungato draw hikers and climbing expeditions from all over the world. And since Mendoza is only 112 miles from Santiago, Chile, most vino tourists cross over from there. It’s a short trip, but it’s all uphill and through spectacular mountain passes.

Mendoza’s had five great vintages in a row and it’s hard to find a really bad Malbec.

Some top producers to look for are Achával Ferrer, Bodega Catena Zapata, Bodegas Salentein, Bodegas Trapiche, Bodegas Valentín-Bianchi, Tikal and Vińa Dońa Paula.

Most are owned by larger concerns. Dona Paula is owned by Chile’s Santa Rita Winery, but still uses semi-traditional production methods. The wine is delicious. Nutmeg, cinnamon, a touch of black pepper and cassis all present their flavors in a structured, evolving way. The price is nice too, $11.99 a bottle, and the wine is so vibrant and different from the usual French and Californian bottlings that I really took notice.

It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed Malbec, but with the quality and price I’m making it a mainstay. My one complaint is that a few years ago there seemed to be a flood of Malbec producers on the store shelves but now it seems the novelty has worn off and the selection has settled down to a few large vineyards that have managed to “brand” themselves. Please give me more boutique Malbec!

Halfway around the world another country is entering the wine game — the U.S. wine game. Turkey’s been producing wine for millennia, but not much ever left the country.

One wine shop I frequent is owned by four brothers from Izmir, Turkey and they turned me on to a bottle from huge wine producer Kavaklidere. This company actually makes more grape juice for Muslim consumers than wine, but with Turkey’s impending entry into the European Union they’re gearing up to export more wine.

The wine was called Yakut, which means gemstone in Turkish. It was red, dry and full of exotic flavors. It was Zinfandel, Nero d’Avola and even Malbec, totally speaking of the Anatolian Plateau where it was grown. The grapes were rare. I’d never heard of Öküzgözü or Boazkere. But it did have some Carignan, which while not a household name is in many Rhone and Californian vintages.

While not as stunning as the Dona Paula, Yakut was pleasantly spicy with an unexpected sophistication. I thought it would be rustic and mass-produced, but it had cherry and raisin fruit with an evolving structure. And Yakut isn’t even the premier wine of Kavaklidere. The lesson learned is it pays to be adventurous, especially for $8.99.