This issue of

The Life of Wine

Although Malbec originates from France, let’s hop in a boat, fit the oars to the rowlocks, pull out a sextant, read a book explaining longitude and head off for South America. We are doing this because in wine terms, Malbec and Argentina have become virtually synonymous and nowhere on the planet does it better.

Although Malbec has been grown in South America for well over a century, the astonishing rise of the grape began just a couple of decades ago when the Argentine growers decided they had had quite enough of making execrable, thin wines which even they couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to uncork.

A bit of replanting during the 1990s, a few improvements to the wineries, a reduction of yields in the vineyards and a couple of phone calls to some French and Italian winemakers for some top tips and everything was back on track for the Malbec grape to become big, really big.

A huge amount is now imported into countries like the US and it continues to be a moot point as to why the variety has become so popular in such a relatively short space of time. Personally I like the argument that it is a wine which was enthusiastically touted by word of mouth rather than in wine magazines or through sommeliers wary that such an inexpensive drink from a country not exactly famous for wine excellence could actually be any good.

But it is good, really good. And it is simple. Unlike Pinot or Chardonnay, a bottle of Malbec is unlikely to throw up too many surprises. It is deep purple in colour with violet hints and red and black fruits on the nose. It is ripe and juicy in the mouth with soft tannins, often with some sweet spiciness and a touch of chocolate. But my favourite bit is the velvetiness. Malbec is full bodied, fruity velvet in a glass.

It is also not a particularly difficult grape to rear in Argentina where the poor soils, hot days and cool nights seem to suit it better than anywhere else in the world. The high-altitude and heat of Mendoza is particularly enjoyed by this late ripener. It has been allowed to flourish in South America because the strict laws which apply to wine making in Europe are not a hindrance here. This means winemakers have been free to fiddle with blends, irrigation, new ideas and a whole heap of creativity; the sort of stuff which, if you tried it in France, would have you put in the stocks.

It is also a good blender and mixes well with other big reds such as Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon – a grape which just doesn’t seem to have taken to Argentina in the way that its French cousin has.

And I’ve saved the best until last: Argentine Malbec, other than from a few of the top producers, is far from expensive. In most countries – which don’t have a rather bonkers system of wine taxation – a cracking bottle shouldn’t cost any more than the equivalent of $10-$15.

My intention is not to make this fabulous drink sound boring or predictable – I’m going for reliable – which is not a bad thing when it comes to wine in Chiang Mai.

Malbec’s star in Argentina is still very much on the rise at the moment – notwithstanding the unpredictable state of the economy or the dangers of over production – and as winemaking continues to become more refined, and the vines continue to mature, the bottles coming out on Mendoza are going to have to try hard not to simply get better and better.

Lagarde Malbec 2010
, Mendoza, 14% – 850 Baht – Wine Connection

Deep red colour. Red fruits and jam on the nose. Full bodied, persistent, with good balance and ripe tannins giving that all important velvetiness. Some soft smokiness with chocolate and vanilla. Pair with red meat, chicken, pasta.

Trivento Mixtus Merlot/Malbec 2011
, Mendoza, 13.5% – 490 Baht – Wine Connection

Red berries and a hint of roses. Fresh, well-balanced and velvety. Soft tannins and good acidity. Serve with juicy red meat and a decent trip-hop album.

La Consulta Malbec 2011
, Mendoza 12.5% – 3 for 1,000 baht (ex-Oddbins) – Rimping

Deep red with shades of violet. Red fruits. Fleshy tannins with a hint of oak. Velvety, with a generous finish. An excellent accompaniment to an early Jack Nicholson film.