Malbec: from bit player to star of the show

The Malbec grape reminds me of a young Clint Eastwood when the actor tried to break into Hollywood as an action star but got lost in the crowded field of cinematic romantic male stars of the era. Instead of struggling for his place in the tinsel-town sun, he went to Italy where an American leading man could stand out and be counted, and made a series of “spaghetti westerns.” He became the movie star he always wanted to be by leaving his home and making his mark elsewhere.
Here’s the link between Eastwood and Malbec. This luscious grape is from Bordeaux, France. There it was just a bit player in a cast of heavyweights like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc and many more. Winemakers who chose to develop vineyards in the new world of Argentina’s only productive appellation of Mendoza were on the lookout for something that would put them on the map, and it was this minor French player, Malbec. The grape loves the higher attitudes of the nearby Andes. Most vineyards are at 2,500 feet and above, with January temperatures at 75 degrees (due to opposite seasons). This condition unlocks the extraordinary flavor.
The explosion of Malbec in the U.S. can be compared to the fast ascension of Merlot in the ‘90s. Argentina is now the fourth-largest importer of wines to America by volume, just behind Italy, France and Australia, rising 800 percent since 2000. This is a $10 to $20 bottle of wine — a bargain!
The 2006 Catena Zapata Malbec is a product of the Catena family of Mendoza, a richly endowed region in Argentina, best suited for Malbec.
Very little rain falls on their vineyards, but when it does, it is close to the critical harvest from January to April. The soil is alluvial, or highly mineralized. The high temperatures at this altitude make for softer tannins. High alcohol is an issue for the Catenas, so they ferment their wines in outside, open tanks so that the morning air forces out and dilutes the alcohol content down to the desired 14 percent.
“We are dedicated to unlocking the secrets of our land,” said Nicolas Catena, the present owner. His forefather, Nicola Catena, sailed from Italy to Argentina in 1898, to find the promised land in Mendoza. He planted his first Malbec in 1902, believing that this bit player French blending grape could thrive in the new world environment. Nicolas, a chemist and University of California graduate, with experience in the Napa Valley, took control of the vineyards in the 1980s and turned the operation from bulk producer to fine wines, concentrating on Malbec and Chardonnay. He explained that “the only way we would make a leap in quality would be by pushing the limits of vine cultivation and taking risks.” Nicolas and daughter Laura have unlocked a Malbec that stands tall with the Andes and the Tango, as Argentina’s gift to the world.
What to do with
boring wine
I never purposely look for a mediocre tasting wine, but as you and I know, they are out there and in the most unlikely wines. You can always buy a jug wine or “Two-Buck-You-Know-What” and know that it’s going to be just-picked grapes fermented in high alcohol. But at times, a wine that has the pedigree, turns out wrong.
The next time this happens to you, don’t dump it into the sink, use it to flavor food. We all know that for years, a kitchen cook could buy what was (and still is) known as “cooking wine,” a terrible brew of the worst grapes known to man. Resolve never to buy any of that again, but instead, keep that red or white wine that disappointed when you opened it, and use it to transform fish, pastas, soups, lamb, even desserts, into a wonderfully savory dish.
I have been observing an increasing number of restaurants using a wine ingredient as a sauce to raise the level of flavor in their creations, to the point where they are “calling out” what types of wine are added to the entrees. That is a true wine-food pairing. Add wine to taste in your next dinner and your creative juices will really flow.
Wine Bytes
— Vino 100 in San Marcos presents Zinfandels from Around the World from 5 to 9 p.m. Oct. 9. Cost is $15 per person. Details are available by calling (760) 591-9113.
— WineSellar and Brasserie in San Diego’s Sorrento Valley is planning a Family-Style Italian Wine Tasting and Lunch Sat. Oct. 10 from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Lots of value wines are being released from Italy, so try six here for $18 plus $12.50 for optional lunch. Call (858) 450-9557 for more information.
— The Prado Restaurant in Balboa Park San Diego hosts the 10th annual Food & Wine Harvest Celebration Oct. 15 from 5 to 9 p.m. There will be cooking demos from area chefs, local winemakers with tastings, rustic cheeses, chocolate and champagne as well as live music. Cost is $59.95 each. Call (619) 557-9441, ext. 203 for tickets.
— San Diego State College of Extended Studies offers Wine Making Behind the Scenes from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at South Coast Winery Resort & Spa in Temecula. Learn the insights and secrets of making wines in the winery. Operational processes will be taught. Class fee is $195. For details, call (619) 594-6924, or e-mail
— Paso Robles Wine Country celebrates its Harvest Wine Weekend from Oct. 16 through Oct. 18. There will be crush and harvest activities, grape stomping and barrel tasting from more than 130 wineries throughout Paso. For more information, visit www.


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