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: alain-dominique-perrin.com

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.

Malbec Masters 2016: results and analysis

For a long time, Malbec has been the preserve of Argentina, with producers there taking the French grape and making it their own. But while the country still reigns supreme, it faces stiff competition from its neighbour, Chile. By Patrick Schmitt MW

072-076-malbec-masters-2016-aals-1
BECAUSE YOU, our readers, want to know about the very best from each of db’s tastings, our reports on the Masters series tend to focus on the Gold medallists and above (we reserve the term Master for the very top wines of the day’s tasting; that is, if there are samples good enough to deserve this honour).

However, it is important, particularly with the results from this year’s Malbec Masters, to stress how good a wine must be to gain a Bronze or Silver medal. Chosen to judge the samples are Masters of Wine who hold a specialist knowledge of the grape or region being assessed, which means they understand the subject intimately, as well as, thanks to their qualification, its context in the diverse world of wine.

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, whether the style was oaked or unoaked, the blind-tasting 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 on 7 October at One Canada Square Restaurant and Bar in London. This report only features the medal winners. For more detail on the top-scoring wines, including tasting notes, see thedrinksbusiness.com

Furthermore, all of them have to agree that any particular wine is good enough to gain a medal – and MWs aren’t renowned for being flexible.

That means the following results do not reflect the tastes of one person who happens to love Malbec, but the consensus of an exacting panel, fully aware of how any single sample must perform relative to other wines at similar prices, whatever the grape. For that reason, those wines with a Bronze are better than average, not just in the world of Malbec, but compared with red wines in general, while those with a Silver medal are excellent, and it is only the exceptional that gain a Gold or more.

If you consider that almost every entry in this year’s Malbec Masters achieved a medal, you will be aware of how high the standard of wine is today from this grape. Not only that, but a remarkably high number received a Silver, even among the entries priced below £10, proving that Malbec is popular because it delivers a lot for the money.

To quote one of this year’s judges, Jonathan Pedley MW: “The tasting confirmed my view that Malbec can make lovely quaffable consumerfriendly wines.” Continuing, he said: “Malbec can offer joyous juicy drinking at everyday prices; I am sure that this explains a lot of the grape’s success.”

As for the style of wine that brings about this commercial achievement, he added: “A good Malbec delivers plenty of deep purple colour; attractive blackberry, blueberry and plum fruit; and a palate that is full and rich without being too tannic or acid.” Of course, the stylistic reference for the Malbec of today is Argentina, which has managed to adopt this French grape, craft its own distinctive expression, and sell it back to the Europeans.

And while Argentina dominates in terms of Malbec sales at present, other parts of the world are trying to cache in on this nation’s success with this single grape, particularly Chile – which has a longer history growing the variety than its neighbouring country.

CHILE REVELATION

As the results show, Argentina holds a significant lead in terms of medals, and dominates when it comes to Golds or Masters. Nevertheless, Chile is present at the top rung, with two Malbecs from Chile gaining Golds this year – one from Chilensis and another from Millamán. Such quality from Chile was a revelation for the judges, but for one in particular, it also served as a warning to Argentina not to become complacent.

Madeleine Stenwreth MW, who did her Master of Wine dissertation in 2007 on the effect of altitude on Malbec in Mendoza, said: “I was impressed with how fast the Chileans have improved the quality of their Malbec.” She said this has come at a time when “some Argentine producers are starting to take their success for granted… they been been too busy admiring their own success”.

072-076-malbec-masters-2016-aals-13Indeed, she observed how Chile is facing stiffer competition from Argentina when it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon, and, in return, Argentina is starting to see Chile produce stronger rivals with Malbec. However, the judges also noted that while Chile reached the high points, it also produced some disappointments.

“The few Chilean entries acquitted themselves reasonably well, but the country was less consistent than Argentina, and produced far fewer high scorers – but with far fewer entries,” said Neil Sommerfelt MW. Similarly, Pedley said: “The quality of the Chilean Malbecs was mixed: while there were a couple of very good wines there was a lot of average stuff.” Although relative to Argentina, the number of Chilean entries was small, it was not insignificant, prompting Pedley to add: “I was surprised by how many examples there were from Chile.

I guess that the Chileans have had a peek over the Andes and have seen the success of Argentinean Malbec and thought ‘Let’s have some of that action’.” Within Argentina, Sommerfelt noted the quality of Malbec from higher altitudes.

“The higher-altitude vineyards in Mendoza, such as Uco Valley and its subdistricts (Altamira/Gualtallary) contributed many of the higher-scoring wines, with more evident elegance and purity of fruit.” Stenwreth agreed but also recorded the success of other parts of Mendoza. “I was very happy to see that it was not only the much-hyped (and very worthy of the attention) Mendoza´s Uco Valley sites such as Gualtallary and Altamira that were stealing all the limelight.

There were some beautiful wines scoring Silver and Gold from the most historic vineyards of Mendoza´s Luján de Cuyo, Vistalba, Las Compuertas and Maipù. It is just too easy to forget the places where it all started when ‘the new kid on the block’ gets most of the attention.” Sources aside, what styles were getting the high scores? As noted after last year’s Malbec Masters, producers are moving towards a more restrained type of wine – one where the amount of new oak has been toned down to reveal the inherent characteristics of the fruit and the site on which it is grown.

Not only that, but vineyards are being managed to produce grapes that are ripe, but not overripe, while extraction procedures during fermentation appear to be getting gentler, ensuring that the wines end up juicy, not drying. Sommerfelt said: “Throughout the various price brackets there seemed to be less over-extraction and manipulation than might have been the case previously.

There were a good number of wines that offered attractive aromatic notes alongside the plump dark berry fruit. An element of freshness was noticeable in many wines too. As a category, the wines appeared to be less manufactured or contrived, and were more relaxed in profile and more appetising as a result.” This more refined approach was evident at the top end too.

“In the higher-price echelons the structure of the wines took a noticeable step up, with the best wines offering well sculpted, refined tannins as a framework to the beautifully aromatic, textured fruit.

072-076-malbec-masters-2016-aals-9There was much less evidence of the widespread overembellishment of the past,” he said. Nevertheless, the search for elegance may have caused some producers to go too far, and end up with unripe characters in their wines. Pedley explained: “In the search for more elegance and finesse I thought that a few of the premium wines had strayed into the ‘green and herbaceous’ aroma spectrum.

I can understand that at the top level there is a need to get away from the world of ‘jammy fruit and clunky oak’, but some of the wines have gone too far.”

Like Sommerfelt, Stenwreth recorded that: “There was less of the overextraction and heavy-handed oak management of the quite recent past.” However, she observed the challenge of striving for lighter fresher styles.

“Some wines showed how difficult it is to walk the very fine line of being slightly underripe to express the beauty of showing a slight herbal whiff of wild thyme and ruccola in the perfectly ripe cool-grown Malbec in Uco Valley. “Green character in wine is such a controversial issue among tasters, judges and critics, and should be much more openly discussed,” she said.

Continuing, she noted: “Still too many people expect Malbec to be the big and bold ‘macho-wine’ resulting in overripe fruit and loads of oak, especially at hefty price tags.” In essence, while the tasting showed that there is a drive to make less heavy Malbecs in Argentina specifically, some of the judges felt the pendulum may have swung too far the other way as the country tries to evolve its wine style.

Furthermore, as such changes occur, long-time Malbec consumers could end up disappointed, particularly if they buy a slightly herbaceous example when they are accustomed to a ripe, concentrated and oak-laden version.

ULTIMATE EXPERSSIONS

However, if you want to know which wines managed to deliver the complexity that comes from sensitive handling of grapes picked at optimum ripeness, as well as the juicy richness that has made South American Malbec so popular, then look no further than the top medallists in this year’s tasting.

Among those that impressed the most were the ultimate expressions from Pascual Toso, Trapiche and Doña Paula, particularly the latter two producers’ parcel series.

Such wineries are already adapting viticulture to the characteristics of their best, unique sites. And, as more take the same tack, the number of top-scoring Malbecs will increase, augmenting that strong base of good-value juicy wines, highly demanded for their sweet blue fruit and steak-friendly tannins.

But Argentina had better watch out – Chile is working hard with Malbec to create Master-quality wine. Indeed, we almost awarded the nation this ultimate accolade in this year’s tasting. For Stenwreth, however, such competition is what Argentina needs, because it will encourage producers to try harder. Afterall, she states, Mendoza is yet to realise its full potential with Malbec.

The judges (clockwise, from top right)

Patrick Schmitt MW,
Dee Blackstock MW,
Madeleine Stenwreth MW,
Patricia Stefanowicz MW,
Jonathan Pedley MW,
Neil Sommerfelt MW

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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.

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