Global Malbec Masters 2019: the results in full

All the medallists and extensive analysis from the latest Malbec-only tasting from the Global Masters, featuring the best samples from Argentina and Chile, and a surprising discovery from Spain.

The entries were judged on 7 November in The London Marriott Hotel, County Hall

The Malbec revival may be a recent phenomenon, but this single grape has already been through several phases. In fact, during the course of this century alone, it has swung to stylistic extremes, before settling into a happy medium, meaning that the development of Malbec has many similarities to Chardonnay’s changing character over the same period.

What’s the basis for such a statement? It’s an opinion formed from many years of Global Masters tastings for both grapes – and you can read more about Chardonnay’s style today on pages 68-73. As for Malbec, there was a point in the past decade when it seemed that being bigger was definitely better. This applied to fruit sugars, new oak percentages, alcohol levels and, it should be noted, bottle weights too. The result was something heavy in every sense, as well as deeply red, powerfully flavoured, tannic, sometimes slightly raisined, and definitely sweet to taste, mainly due to the amount of vanillin extracted from the brand new barrels. Like it or not, one couldn’t fail to remember it, and Malbec on a label became a shorthand for juicy, rich red wine. Ally that style to marbled steak, and you had a highly successful partnership that catapulted Malbec on to the global stage, but particularly in major wine-importing markets where red meat is consumed widely – so the UK and US.

As for the source of such a memorable wine style, that was Argentina, specifically Mendoza, and its sub-region Luján de Cuyo. This warm region on the outskirts of the city of Mendoza, home to the country’s oldest plantings of Malbec, was ideally suited to producing concentrated reds.

However, with time, the style and sourcing of Malbec changed. Indeed, a few years ago, our Global Malbec Masters was seeing a new type of Argentine red. This was a lighter style, sometimes with peppery flavours similar to Syrah from the Northern Rhône, or a hint of celery and spicy salad leaves, like rocket, suggestive of fruit that hadn’t reached full ripeness. This was partly a result of cooler Argentine climes, primarily a widespread move into the high-altitude Uco Valley, and partly due to the winemaker, who was intent on finding a fresher, tighter, sharper style of Malbec by picking earlier. A less structured red was also evident, achieved by reducing the influence of barriques and handling the grapes in a gentler manner during fermentations – less pumping and pushing of the must will lower the tannin extraction.

The shift in our tastings notes was marked. While common descriptors had included ripe, fleshy black fruit, creamy coconut, dense tannins, warming alcohols, and glass-staining colours only a few years ago, a scan over the judges’ tasting notes more recently would see words appearing regularly such as red cherry and plum, medium-weight, green pepper, and celery leaf. In a fairly short period of time the Argentine Malbec style had shifted from forceful red to restrained wine, and division among the judges was evident as some welcomed the brighter style, others saw the more herbaceous elements as a weakness.

So what about now? Following a day spent tasting mostly Argentine Malbecs from a range of sources within this country, and across all price bands, it appears that this grape has found a middle-ground. Yes extremes in style are still evident, but for the most part, the Malbec making its way on to the market today has ripe, juicy red fruit, firm tannins, a touch of toasty oak, and a pleasant hint of spice. It is neither too sweet, nor too lean. And it is identifiably Malbec, with its deep colour, and firm structure.

From my own perspective, I’m pleased to see Malbec has found a sweet-spot. Although I could understand the urge to experiment with a light, even slightly green style of wine, there are plenty of reds that deliver such delicacy, particularly with the fast-development of cooler-climate Syrahs from the New World. In my view, Malbec’s strength, particularly when sourced from Argentina, is its ability to create a concentrated, structured red, and one that can happily carry high-toast new oak. It is also this type of wine that made Malbec identifiable, and successful. In the same way that most consumers won’t choose a Chardonnay when they want a delicate white, few would opt for a Malbec when they desire a light red.

As for backing away from extremes in ripeness and oak-influence, that is a healthy evolution for the top end examples, where it would be a shame to lose the fresh fruit flavours from high quality grapes, either by leaving the bunches on the vine so long that the inherent berry characters get baked, or through burying their appeal beneath a wave of barrel-sourced scents and tannins.

With such an extended stylistic analysis concluded, what were the sources of Malbec greatness in our 2019 tasting? While this tasting was primarily a health-check on the state of the grape in Argentina, there were some other countries that surprised the tasters for the quality of their Malbec. With the grape’s popularity assured, more places have been trying their hand with Malbec, while its native home, Cahors in South West France, has seen producers work to create a richer style of red from the grape – one that’s more in line with the character achieved with ease in Argentina. By way of example, last year’s Malbec Master was from Château Lagrezette – a historic Cahors property with Michel Rolland as consultant. But this year, although not a Master, the judges were amazed to find a Malbec from Spain rubbing shoulders with respected Argentine names from Norton to Colomé and Salentein. Gaining a Gold in the £20-£30 price band was Bodegas Clunia in Castilla y León, which had crafted a ripe, dense, toasty, juicy and structured red to rival the finest in South America. It was also the highest scoring sample from outside Argentina.

As for those that weren’t from this Latin nation, there were some good Malbecs from Chile – with medals awarded to Viñedos Puertas, Via Wines, Viña Indomita, Concha y Toro, Viña Cremashi, Viu Manent, Viña San Esteban and Morandé. There was also a delicious example from Wakefield Estate in Australia’s Clare Valley, which picked up a Silver, as did, much to the surprise of the judges, an example from Burgenland in Austria, made by Kraft aus Rust, and loaded with plum and cherry fruit, along with a peppery spice, not unlike the wines from this nation’s flagship red grape, Blaufränkisch.

Within Argentina, it was notable to see the breadth of Malbec styles, with this year, the competition’s first ever white Malbec – a fascinating arrival to the category with an oily texture, and peachy fruit.

Among the Malbec Masters for 2019, it was impressive to see Bodega Aleanna pick up this ultimate accolade for its El Enemigo Malbec sub £20, with the rest of this year’s Masters all awarded to wines over this price point, and mostly over £30.

The tasting proved a particular endorsement for the quality of Malbecs being made by Bodega Norton, but also Colomé, Atamisque and Salentein, along with Trapiche and Doña Paula. Interestingly, the latter two producers, who specialise in isolating special sites and bottling single vineyard Malbecs, gained strong Golds for their expressive wines. However, the Masters went to Malbecs that blended grapes from across a broader area, lending the wines a touch more complexity perhaps?

Having said that, among such stars of the day, was the single vineyard biodynamic Alpamanta Estate, which wowed for its fleshy cherry and blackberry frut, as well as tobacco and chocolate notes.

Another Master was awarded to Fincas Patagonicas, whose Black Tears Malbec is soft, dense and just plain delicious. While for me, the ultimate expression of the day turned out to be the famous Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino. The wine, which hailed from the 2017 vintage, was very much in its youth, with masses of taught tannins, but also intense pure blue, red and black berry fruit, and lingering characters of roasted coffee, pepper and plums. Certainly a great Malbec, but also a fine wine that’s capable of standing alongside the most celebrated reds of the world.

Over the following pages you can see all the medallists from this year’s competition, as well as comments from the judges (who are pictured below), and more information about the Global Sparkling Masters, including how to enter.

The judges (left to right): Patrick Schmitt MW, Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Andrea Bricarello, Jonathan Pedley MW, Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, David Round MW

The results in full from the Malbec Masters 2018

If you want to know who’s making delicious Malbec right across the price spectrum, then read on – our results will surprise you, especially this year’s top scorer…

Malbec is one of this century’s most notable and lasting vinous phenomena. And, as with any success story, it’s natural to ask why the performance has been so positive. With Malbec, the explanations tend to focus on its close association with one nation – Argentina – and its equally strong link with one ingredient – beef, especially steak. But such reasons aren’t enough if one wants to understand the sustained demand for Malbec from major wine importing countries around the world. For that, one needs to closely analyse the taste profile of this grape, which is something we’ve done over the course of several years with our Global Malbec Masters, which see us quality-assess samples from this grape from a broad range of sources, with only a knowledge of the basic style and price band.

Having chaired such a tasting now on a number of occasions, it’s clear that one fundamental cause of Malbec’s widespread take-up, in both retailers and restaurants, is the quality of red wine it manages to yield even at low prices. This is a grape, particularly when grown in South America, that can produce reliably juicy, fruity, generous and balanced results sub £10 – something that we can’t say is true of other noble grapes, such as Pinot Noir (based on our Masters tastings that consider the character and quality of all noble grapes).

Not only that, but if one wants to spend a little more, and surpass the psychological barrier of £10 for a bottle of wine in the UK off-trade, there is a lot of high-quality Malbec to choose from, with the offer between £10 and £20 notably strong in terms of excellence for your outlay. However, it’s over £20 that the truly outstanding results can be found, while there are some fine wines from Malbec being made today over £50 that can happily sit alongside some of the world’s greats, from any grape.

Indeed, this aspect to Malbec, it’s ability, even when the sole grape in a red, to create complex, age-worthy, and concentrated wines, is something that deserves greater recognition. While it can make lovely, albeit fairly simple, reds at low prices, it is also a source of fine wine. The areas yielding such greatness, however, are not myriad – although with the development of new places in Argentina, they are becoming increasingly numerate.

But, if there was one notable learning from this year’s Malbec Masters, it was this: the crown for the world’s greatest expression of Malbec has been passed back to Cahors. This region in France, the native home of Malbec, has been, relative to Mendoza at least, almost forgotten about in the modern life of this grape – although not without good reason. Sadly, despite the suitability of this variety for Cahors, with its dry climate, and varied terroirs based on clay and limestone soils, the viticulture and winemaking in the last century for the most part, wasn’t conducive to great wines. But, our winning Malbec in this year’s competition was from an estate that was pioneering in the region’s turnaround. Called Château Lagrezette, owned by the powerful and well-financed former CEO of Cartier, Alain Perrin, this Cahors property has been dedicated to making fine wine from Malbec grown in this appellation. And, instrumental in realising this ambition has been famous consultant Michel Rolland, who has just celebrated 30 years of working in Cahors with Lagrezette.

Indeed, speaking to db following this year’s blind tasting, and not aware that his wine had been our highest-scoring Malbec in the competition, he said that Cahors had “been in the Middle Ages, but now makes beautiful wine”.

Château Lagrezette in Cahors was the source of this year’s top-scoring Malbec. Picture credit:

Rolland is, however, best known for his work with Malbec from Argentina – where he crafts and part-owns the Clos de los Siete brand – and sees both Cahors and the south American nation as sources of first-rate Malbec at a range of price levels. While he says that the limestone soils and slightly cooler climate of Cahors brings a Malbec with more freshness, key to this grape’s performance in southwest France and across the full length of Argentina, is the dry nature of the climate. Malbec is very sensitive to moisture during both flowering, and the end of the ripening season, and both Cahors and Argentina have continental conditions, ensuring that precipitation during the growing season is very low.

There are of course other places where Malbec can produce lovely results, including parts of Chile, Colchagua in particular, along with California, especially Napa, and Australia – we even awarded a top accolade of Malbec Master to Wakefield/Taylors for its example from Clare Valley. More of a surprise in this year’s results was a delicious example from the Aegeon, where Turkey’s Kavaklidere is behind a varietal Malbec of note.

Within Argentina, the quality of the Malbec is well recognised from the historic area of Lujan de Cuyo, where old vines and great winemakers are combined to great effect (particularly in the Las Compuertas sub-region, home to producers such as Terrazas de los Andes). But relatively new to the Argentine Malbec story is the Uco Valley, and within it, the emerging sub-regions of Alta Mira and Gualtallary, where high-elevations and particular soil profiles are creating Malbecs of extraordinary balance and concentration. Not only that, but as the vines age, there is more to come.

Maybe not reaching quite the same level of quality and intensity, but coming close, are the top wines from Argentina’s San Juan – a region best-known for big volume production, but within it, in the higher attitude Pedernal Valley, a source of fine wines too (proven by the Gold medal for the Pyros Single Vineyard Malbec in this year’s Masters).

But the other change in Malbec making, particularly within Argentina, is connected less to altitude, soil, and vine age, but the winemaker, in terms of their handling of the grapes, from earlier picking times to gentler extraction regimes and shorter barrel-maturation times. In general, the top names in the country are becoming more confident in the inherent quality of the Malbec being produced today, and are happier to intervene less in the cellar, but also pick a bit sooner to create a fresher less jammy style of wine.

In short, Argentine Malbec is still a powerful style of wine, but today’s top examples are less likely to smell and taste so strongly of barrel-sourced characters, and more likely to showcase pure fruit flavours, from raspberry to blueberry, than something more raisined.

Cahors, on the other hand, which was producing rather hard wines with some unripe fruit characters is, as yields are reduced, and average temperatures increase, producing richer Malbecs. So, while French Malbecs are bulking up, Argentine equivalents are slimming down. The key in either case is balance.

And, the top examples over the following pages are wines where there is fruit concentration and ripeness, without too much sweetness and warmth from high alcohols. Furthermore, while we embrace some of the more fresh, floral and red berry characters of well-made Malbec from cooler sites, where early-picking produces greener flavours, we were less likely to award top-scores. Of course a touch of spicy pepper, akin to Syrah from the Northern Rhône in a cooler vintage, can be a complexing element to sharper, fresher Malbec styles, but our belief is that this grape should not yield wines with crunchy green characters, even in small doses, and particularly at the top end – where consumers are looking for ripe, concentrated wines.

While Malbec from traditional sources such as Cahors, and new higher parts of the Uco, still has potential for improvement, our feeling is that the next stage in the stylistic development of wines from this grape, will come by blending Malbec with other grapes. On its own, the grape can certainly deliver plenty of fruit and texture, but other varieties could be successfully used to add a bit of seasoning to Malbec, a touch more complexity and persistence, as well as stylistic diversity.

For now, however, if you want to know who’s making delicious Malbec right across the price spectrum, look at the medallists from this year’s competition – featured in full, below.

The Malbec Masters 2017: results and analysis

Argentina may have single-handedly tranformed the fortunes of the once-ignored Malbec grape, creating a global star, but other countries are getting in on the act, with expressions that impressed our judges, writes Patrick Schmitt MW.

The modern history of wine has witnessed many phenomena, but no grape has risen as quickly from obscurity to mainstream popularity as Malbec. Despite the variety’s global presence, just one country should be credited for this turnaround: Argentina. This single nation has reinvented Malbec, elevating it from a French rustic rarity to the sumptuous Latin blockbuster it is today.

But like the formation of new landscapes, change occurs beneath the surface, and Argentine Malbec makers are still busy behind the scenes tweaking styles while seeking new expressions. At the same time, other parts of the world are waking up to the power of Malbec, crafting their own examples in the hope that they too can win some share of this successful red wine trend.

About the competition

In a crowded wine-competition arena, the drinks business Global Malbec masters stands out for its assessment of wines purely by grape variety rather than by region. Divided only by price bracket and, for ease of judging, style too, the blindtasting format allowed wines to be assessed without prejudice about their country of origin. The best wines were awarded medals that ranged from Bronze through to Gold, as well as Master, the ultimate accolade, given only to exceptional wines in the tasting. The wines were judged by a cherrypicked group of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers on 7 September at Bumpkin in London’s South Kensington.

Whether it is the stylistic evolution in Argentina, or new products from elsewhere, our Malbec Masters serves to identify the overriding winemaking developments concerning this single grape and, at the same time, the best producers at a range of price levels.

In line with the market, the competition is dominated by samples from Argentina, although we did see a growing number from Chile, while Cahors in France – the native home of Malbec – also featured. But it was the consistent quality of Argentine Malbec, particularly at entry level prices, that really impressed the judges, and explained why this grape and-country combination has become so popular.

Nevertheless, if there were a sweet spot, it was among those samples priced between £10-£20, where the wines were not only concentrated and complex but also relatively good value, coming close in quality to examples priced much higher – where, to draw on a cliché, bigger wasn’t necessarily better.

So what did the judges like? Certainly a combination of Malbec’s juicy, fleshy, ripe dark fruits combined with its plummy freshness, and firm but fine tannins. Malbec complements ageing in barriques, and the best wines had found a pleasing balance between fruit concentration and barrel-sourced flavours and tannins.

Where wines were marked down, however, it was usually because there was some jammy, or baked character to the fruit, or, conversely, too much greenness, with some wines containing pyrazines, evident in a whiff of bell pepper (although in small doses this character was favoured by some of the judges). Restrained styles, however, were rewarded by the judges, including those Malbecs with overt peppery aromas, reminiscent of Syrah from the Northern Rhône. While their aromatic complexity excited the panel, we did wonder whether the consumer of Malbec, who is, for the most part, used to ripe and rich expressions, would be so enamoured.