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posted: 11/2/2012 5:49 AM

Malbecs continue to reach new heights

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By Dave McIntyre
Special to The Washington Post

Are we sick of malbec yet? This juicy red wine from Argentina has swept the United States. Hasn't it become cliched, jumped the shark, worn out its welcome, gotten just so ... 2011?

No. Every time I dive into Argentina's malbecs, I don't want to come up for air. With malbec's market success in the United States, my inner cynic would suspect that we've been flooded with mediocre malbec, but even the less-interesting ones I've found are better than average. At $10 or $30 or even $100, malbecs from Argentina offer extraordinary value. I can't say there aren't bad examples out there, but in my recent tastings I haven't found any, while many I tasted were terrific. Argentina's malbecs may very well be the best value in red wine available today.

What makes them so good? The Andes Mountains are the main factor. Argentina's wine regions are in the foothills of this majestic mountain range, irrigated by snow runoff and protected from Pacific Ocean rains. Whether in Mendoza, the country's most important wine region, further north in Salta or Patagonia to the south, the Andes lend their influence to the wine.

That influence is primarily altitude. Argentina's modern wine renaissance, which is only a couple of decades old, has led vintners to search for new, better vineyard sites. Like Icarus soaring closer to the sun, they have climbed higher into the Andes foothills and planted some of the highest-altitude vineyards in the world.

To put this in perspective, Napa Valley's Mount Veeder tops out at about 2,600 feet elevation, with vineyard lands mostly around 1,000 feet. The Tupungato region of the Uco Valley in Mendoza has vineyards from about 3,200 feet to as high as 5,000 feet elevation. Salta vineyards are even higher.

What does this do for the grapes? With every climb of about 328 feet, the average temperature decreases by 1 degree Celsius. That means grapes with higher acidity and softer tannins. But the intensity of the sunlight increases as well, allowing the grapes to achieve maximum ripeness while the cooler temperatures keep the sugars in check. The combination of low temperatures and high-intensity sun yields red wines of high extraction, soft if not imperceptible tannins, and impressive structure and balance. Carefully made, they do not have the excessive alcohol that mars so many modern international wines. The highest vineyards are typically reserved for grapes that prefer cool temperatures, such as whites and pinot noir. Argentina makes some thrilling chardonnay.

Finding the perfect site is not just a factor of altitude, however.

"Our wines are wines of the sun, but also of the soil," says Sebastian Zuccardi, third-generation winemaker at Familia Zuccardi in Mendoza. "To speak only of altitude is to oversimplify."

At a recent tasting in Washington, Zuccardi explained that Argentina's malbecs of today can trace their roots to the end of the Ice Age. As temperatures warmed and the glaciers sheared off the Andes, boulders, clay and silt tumbled down the hillsides and spread onto the valleys below.

Today's winemakers look for these "alluvial fans" of glacial deposits as the most promising sites for malbec. At lower altitudes, where the rocks are smaller and the soil has more sand and clay, the wines tend to be lush if a bit simple. Higher up, the rocks are larger, the soil has better drainage and the vines' roots can dig deeper. Wines from there are structured and energetic, with brighter fruit flavors.

By blending wines from various vineyards, Argentina's winemakers weave sky and soil together to create magic in a glass.

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