This Experimental Malbec Style Is Becoming a Hot Trend in Argentina

Doña_Paula_winery_harvest
Doña Paula winery harvest / Photo by Credit_Gustavo Sabez Mico

Argentine Malbec is evolving. Lighter, leaner, unoaked Malbec wines with fresh red- and black-fruit aromas, higher acidity and mineral characteristics are increasingly popular. The style shift is a result of some winemakers’ search for the true expression of the grape and terroir.

To achieve this new style of Malbec, Argentine winemakers focus on the time of harvest, climate and soil type, among other factors, with a tendency toward a low-intervention approach overall.

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In the Vineyards

“We know that a good wine is born in the vineyards,” says Raúl Dávalos Rubio, CEO at Bodega Tacuil.

The winery is in the Calchaquí Valleys, Argentina’s northern wine region, located at 7,874–8,858 feet above sea level. Since the 1980s, Rubio’s father has advocated for producing wines without oak contact to allow the fruit to express itself. He is considered a pioneer in this movement, and Raúl continues his legacy.

Managing a vineyard at that elevation, with high sunlight exposure and wide daily thermal amplitude, or diurnal temperature swings, is not easy.

Los Indios vineyard at Dona Paula
Los Indios vineyard / Photo by Gustavo Sabez Mico

“It is important for us to harvest when the grapes reach the right level of ripeness,” says Rubio. “Since we don’t use oak barrels, we need the tannins to be matured enough.”

Overripening is something that every winemaker wants to avoid. At the same time, it is crucial to evaluate the maturity of the skin and seeds.

Underripe grapes can also be a problem. As Martín Kaiser, viticulturist and winemaker at Mendoza-based Doña Paula winery puts it, “I like fresh wines, but I don’t like green wines!”

Kaiser’s work explores soil types and the influence that terroir has on a wine’s flavor profile.

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“To achieve fresher wines, we need to focus on the evolution of the grape’s acidity,” says Kaiser. “If harvesting is done too soon, then we might obtain a wine that would be very light-bodied and has astringent tannins.”

The Place of Origin

Where grapes are grown plays a fundamental role in producing a fresher style of Malbec. To achieve a good balance, some producers consider higher elevations.

“By getting closer to the mountains, we can grow vines at higher altitudes in cooler climates but with sunlight,” says Sebastián Zuccardi.

Zuccardi is the winemaker at his Mendoza-based family estate, Zuccardi Valle de Uco, and one of the leaders in this style movement. The winery’s portfolio includes Malbec from the most lionized subregions in the Uco Valley, such as Paraje Altamira, Gualtallary, San Pablo and Los Chacayes.

amphora room
Zuccardi amphora room / Photo by Federico Garcia

When discussing place of origin for grapes, soil type is an important component. Zuccardi says a combination of granite and calcareous soils from those subregions helps him achieve “wines with texture.” He looks for “balanced and vibrant wines” whose flavors are influenced by their place of origin.

An adaptable variety, Malbec readily expresses its terroir. Zuccardi explains that the French grape arrived in Argentina in 1853, and since then, many generations of producers have improved winegrowing techniques for the variety.

Kaiser adds that, when talking about adaptability at an international level, Malbec is not as versatile as varieties such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. However, at a national level, the opposite is true.

“We find excellent Malbec in places like the Alto Valle del Río Negro, Patagonia, at 820 feet or higher up on the Calchaquí Valleys over 8,200 feet,” says Kaiser.

winery grapes from Doña Paula
Malbec grapes at Doña Paula

In a study for Doña Paula and other wineries titled Characterization of Argentinian Wines, Kaiser discovered that the intensity of floral aromas increases from north to south through Argentina’s wine regions. Also, spice aromas are more likely to be present in Malbec-based wines from warmer climates. He learned that although the type of soil influences the aromas of wine, it mainly affects the texture of the tannins.

Studies such as this and the work that producers do independently in their vineyards, many of whom are shifting to organic and biodynamic grape-growing practices, prove the desire of Argentine winemakers to show the world the diversity of the country’s wine regions and their potential for stylistic variety and unique terroir-driven expression.

Published on December 23, 2021
Topics: Wine Regions