A late winter storm was pounding San Francisco as we got together to pour Mendoza Malbecs from Argentina. The setting was North Beach’s swank new wine bar, The Vin Club (www.thevinclub.com). For the tasting, I was joined by The Vin Club’s co-owner, Dario Zucchoni, Curt Clingman, a local chef and restaurateur, and Keith Mercier, a good friend with an equally fine palate.
The idea was simple. There are enough wine reviews and blogs to last forever. Or at least until the next Wall Street tycoon kicks without drinking 99% of his cellar, leaving it to Zachy’s (www.zachys.com) or Wine Spectator (www.WineSpectator.com) to dish it at auction to collectors not yet dead or smart enough to drink it while they’re still alive. No. This column is going to be a little different. This column is for those of you who can remember when wine tasting was a Demonstration Sport at the Olympics. Or could have been, considering how you trained for it. You know who you are. Flying up and down Napa’s Route 29 or the Old Silverado Trail determined to hit as many wineries as possible before pulling into V. Sattui’s (www.vsattui.com) for one last tasting and a picnic dinner and a nap under the black walnut trees.
Okay, so maybe it’s good those daze are gone for now. The world is probably a safer, if not better place.
The ostensible reason for the tasting was to taste a pair of new, single-vineyard wines from Urraca Vineyards (www.urracawines.com) in the Mendoza region of Argentina; a 2008 Agrelo Vineyard Malbec, and a 2008 Agrelo Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Urraca Vineyards, a new, high profile Argentinean winery has an interesting, celebrity back-story. In 2008, it was founded by John Langley, the executive producer of the pioneering, and long-running reality TV hit show, COPS.
To add a little extra zing to the experience, I picked up a pair of additional Mendoza Malbecs from the very tasty Plumpjack Wine Shop (firstname.lastname@example.org) in San Francisco’s beautiful Noe Valley neighborhood; a 2006 Finca Abril “Rapsodia,” (www.fincaabril.com) and a 2008 Argento (www.argentowine.com). Adding the same bit of bling to the Cab tasting, Dario threw in one of his own wines, which he makes under the boutique, Vin Nostro Cellars (www.vinnostro.com) label, a 2006 Oakville (Napa Valley) Cab, and a 2003 Saddleback Cellars (www.saddlebackcellars.com) Napa Valley Cab made by the great Nils Venge.
We decided to start with the Malbec’s, and as we started, Curt posed the question that would come to dominate the night, “Why Malbec?” The question is a good one to chew on, especially while drinking your way through a few delicious ones, because Malbec is basically the bastard, redheaded Irish stepchild of the wine world. For centuries, Henny Youngman got more respect, as for most of its history, the grape was known primarily as a minor blending grape in Bordeaux.
What led anyone to think that Malbec would be more than this? That was the question, and to find at least part of the answer, you must leave Bordeaux for the Cahors wine region in southwestern France. There you find the story of this grape to be considerably different. Since at least the Middle Ages, and even well before Bordeaux established its own wine exporting business, Malbec was the dominant grape of the region. But then and now, the grape was never known as Malbec, but instead, by the names Cot, or Auxerrois.
So, we have part of the answer, at least. But still, in regards to its coming to Argentina, it remains a fascinating mystery, and one that is not unique to this grape alone. It could also be asked about other grapes considered minor in one region for centuries, but which later became quite popular and extraordinary in their own right when transplanted to the soils of a different country. The Grenache grape is another good example. Known for its key role in creating the classic Rhone wine blend, it is writing a completely different history as the dominant varietal grape in the great Priorato wines of Catalan Spain.
As we sniffed and swirled the Malbecs first, we were impressed that none of them ripped our heads off. All showed a nice stability, and even reminded Curt in a random way of a 1985 Barolo he had tasted recently that had lost its leather and tobacco and had turned into what he considered the most beautiful fruit-forward wine. Keith loved the brooding dark color of the Urraca Malbec from the moment he held it to the light. Mysterious and dark, like the heart of the woman Dylan sang about it in his spooky, oracular One More Cup of Coffee on the great Desire album. By contrast, the older Finca offered an equally lovely, but more ruby color.
On the nose, the Urraca offered a little blood, caramel, crème brulee, stem and leaf, and a slightly funky, barnyard quality to the nose that we decided might be characteristic of young Mendoza Malbecs in general. The Finca offered a more subtle and polished introduction. We detected a little pork sausage, plum, dark fruits and a slight floral fantasia going to work.
At first sip, the Urraca offered the more complex attack. The juice was really sweet. Big, fat, and fruit juicy, the Urraca took an immediate bow as a real crowd pleaser. Curt said that as a chef, I’m thinking what am I going to eat with this wine? I’m thinking Argentina, big juicy beef, big juicy food. Keith and Dario meanwhile, fell hard for the Finca. Nice and tight, with good acidity. Both wines offered nice weight on the mid-palate, but the more complex, younger fruit of the Urraca lingered longer at the finish. Keith said it best when he mentioned that he liked the way the Finca started and the way the Urraca finished. Turning to the Argento, at $11.99 retail, we all agreed it was a great wine to bring to a party. It shared the same flavor profile with the Urraca, at less than half the cost. Talking about the Argento, Dario pointed out that a straight out comparison with the Urraca or other high-end Malbecs was unfair. He said it was like the wine-tasting equivalent of comparing a BMW with a Toyota. Good cars both, but not exactly apples to apples under the hood. At its sweet price-point, Dario thought the Argento would make a great wine for any bar or restaurant.
The Urraca Cab, a 100% Cab varietal was steely and missing a little body and depth. On the nose, there was a little menthol, wintergreen, and even, yellow mustard, and reminded us of a classic Alexander Valley Cab. The mid-palate exhibited good, Cab-like flavors, but fell apart sharply at the finish. Dario laughed and said what it needs most is a little splash of its Malbec vineyard companion to fill it out. He then added some Malbec to the Cab and proved his own point. The additional juice made a world of difference. The Urraca now tasted spectacular.
The two remaining Cabs, the ’03 Saddleback and ’06 Vin Nostro, were straight out rock stars. The Saddleback was softening rapidly, and just enveloped the mouth in sweet velvety fruit. No hard edges, no sharp tannins. Just beautiful, mouth-watering Napa Cab juice. The Vin Nostro was phenomenally expressive. Younger, with huge blackberry fruit and dark tannins laying on the palette. It too blew us away.
A true terroir-driven wine, the Oakville Vin Nostro Cab reminded us of the difference between a Burgundy from the Cote de Nuits and so many identically tasting California Pinots being released today. One theory we kicked around is that in the rush to take advantage of Pinot’s post-Sideways cachet, far too many California Pinots are being boosted by the addition of small amounts of Syrah. The result is a more fruit-forward, and seemingly bigger Pinot, but not true, terroir-driven and therefore unique, Pinot Noir. We concluded that homogenous Pinot, even good homogenous Pinot, could only be that, and, unfortunately, nothing more.
Wrapping up, someone said that the poorest showing wine was probably the Urraca Cab, and even that we all agreed was a beautiful wine for the money. Keith disagreed, saying that the worst wine was easily the Saddleback, because we didn’t have any more of it. And on that less-than-sobering note, we all laughed, agreed, and stepped back out into the dark, wet night. Till next time. Drink your great wine now. You won’t be around for your estate sale later. Cheers!