Who besides Argentines pays attention to Argentine wine? A country with vast and unique (and nearly phylloxera-free) wine growing regions that have been cultivated to vitis vinifera for almost 500 years has been reduced, abroad at least, to a single word: Malbec.

Malbec is a gift to wine sellers. The word is easy to pronounce and most of the wine made from it is easy to drink. It has been easy to market. But the crazy secret of Malbec is that it expresses best when it is blended with other grapes. We could have guessed this from the fact that Malbec enjoys a role in much great Bordeaux, while in Cahors where it is vinified on its own, it plays so rough that the mark is often missed.

I’m never sure what an Argentine wine made with only Malbec is going to do. Usually the flavors call up associations of copious sweet berry fruits, chocolate and nutmeg, but forests and fungi sometimes enter the picture. Body can be thick and untutored, disjointedly nowheresville or surprisingly light. Structurally, lower-priced Malbecs are soft and supple, round if somewhat weak, but as prices rise much more prominent tannins enter the picture and one encounters impressively elegant, long-living wines.

Malbec befits the colonized history of both the country and its wine culture. Malbec is from the French, Bonarda from the Italians, Cabernet Sauvignon from everyone. When these and other grapes are brought together, the results are far likelier to be not just interesting but also correct and, most significantly, a delightful and even moving experience to drink.

The wine that first exposed me to the potential of Argentine blends was the Weinert Carrascal 2007 ($14, Easterly), imported by the impeccable Bartholomew Broadbent, with Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from various Mendoza sites blended and then aged for more than two years in French oak casks.

The wine, especially in its aromas, recalls for me the traits of successful Bordeaux that sell for $20 to $25. Rich cherry fruit, black pepper and spice mingle at first, carried by sustaining mild tannins into secondary flavors of bark, humidor, subtle smoke and something I can only call mammal. The finish is long and narrative, ultimately splintering into shards of glass.

That wine is mere prelude to the Cavas de Weinert Gran Vino 2004. Weinert’s best grapes are harvested for this wine, before vinification and then aging in French oak for three years. Available here in only limited quantities for $28, it will be overlooked by almost everyone. But whoever reaches out to it will be amply rewarded, captivated by its grandeur.

The Gran Vino distills and exalts the essence of this old-world-within-the-new quality at which Argentine blends based on Bordeaux varietals excel. It is richer than the French wines, more brash and less restrained. Its elegance comes from something that feels harder won, less contained. Not silver-spoon-bred, it is a self-made man.

One tastes smoke, mocha, cassis, pomegranate and Chinese five-spice. After decanting or several hours with the bottle open, its gown becomes tremendously voluptuous. The tannins are exceptionally fine, like moon sand.

For something very different, look to the Alma Negra Misterio 2007 ($21, Pine State). I’m not sure of the blend, and that’s by design. The winery, overseen by the legendary Malbec Master of Argentina, Ernesto Catena, markets this wine (translated as “black soul”) as that which cannot be known. They keep the cuvee and even the wine makers semi-secret.

(They can’t resist, however, painting the home page of their website with the latest scores from Robert Parker and Jay Miller. Mystery has its limits, I guess.)

So, yes, there’s Malbec here. But also prominent Cabernet Franc, another minority Bordeaux varietal, and probably Bonarda. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were Syrah as well. The black-peppery, mineral qualities of the Cab Franc are refreshing and bold, while the Malbec’s milk chocolate and fresh tobacco aspects seduce. Black licorice comes in, too. I drank it with shrimp mole one night, black beans the next, and these were excellent pairings.

The wine is immaculately balanced, although following the you-can’t-know-me-theme, it really does fade in and out of view. You’ll never get ahead of it. Many wines have an interesting finish. Alma Negra has multiple “false finishes” or to claim a mountaineering analogy, “false peaks.” This is good, just keep hiking.


Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]