Someone used to drinking red Burgundy could be forgiven, upon tasting a Pinot Noir from California, if he didn’t know the two wines came from the same grape. The earth and climate are so different, and the vinification methods so often distinct, that saying “these are both Pinot Noir” is largely irrelevant.

We don’t think of Argentine Malbec the same way, but we should. What’s interesting is that unlike in the Burgundy/California analogy, all these wines are from a single (though vast) region. Mendoza, at the foothills of the Andes, is home to many of the highest vineyards in the world, some of them at 5,000 feet above sea level.

Altitude is one of the determining factors in any one Malbec personality, but it would be foolish to categorically equate higher elevations with better wine. Of course, vineyard management and harvesting methods matter, and the details of the wine’s treatment in oak are also crucial.

These variables matter so much that it’s not overreaching to say that any wine drinker at all can find Malbecs to love. Large, dusty and structured, or light, soft and fresh — and many places in between — Malbec’s tent is big. We just need to be specific and say what we’re talking about when we talk about Malbec.

Here’s one attempt.

Atilio Avena 2008, Lujan de Cuyo, $16 (Devenish): For a long time, I thought any wine that smacked of “jam” was inherently beneath me. Now I know better. This wine is unabashedly of jam, but it’s not “jammy” in a cloying way. Rather, it expresses the pure, ripe and coordinated fruit of a delicious jam.

To celebrate this and test its practicality, I took a big scoop of actual blackberry jam and reduced it in a saucepan with a thyme sprig and a half-cup of the wine. Seven minutes later, I had a sauce for poached Arctic char (like salmon), and its balance of tart and sweet went marvelously with both the fish and the wine.

There’s a strong mocha note to the Atilio Avena as well, along with vanilla aspects brought on by skilled oak treatment sustained by a buoyant acidity. It heals and tingles like a lozenge. All these aspects are exceptionally well-placed and in service to the whole of the wine. The Atilio Avena is just tremendously life-affirming: Hearty, jolly even, sure of itself and laughs easily.

Salentein Reserve 2010, Valle de Uco, $17 (Pine State): Like the Atilio, this unfiltered wine is luscious and ripe, but its attitude is more taut and less gregarious. The fruit consists of wild blueberries — tart, compact and potent — and floats on a raft of pure vanilla bean. The texture is creamy and elegant.

So yeah, think of a great blueberry pie with a dollop of whipped cream. Or think of a distinguished gentleman, the kind who only speaks when necessary, the kind who makes things happen without sending out press releases. Noble, decent, reliable, attentive, showing no need to be “entertaining.”

Hmmm: Blueberries and a restrained, balanced personality — sounds like a Mainer.

Carlos Basso Vina Amalia Reserva 2010, Valle de Uco, $14 (SoPo): This single-vineyard Malbec from one of the great high-altitude regions in Mendoza is simply amazing, and was the game-changer that convinced me to take Malbec seriously. Unlike the Atilio Avena, which impresses without referring to Europe, the Basso presents the complexity and some of the profile of a $20-plus Chianti Classico.

It’s just so distinctive, conveying all the particularities of terroir one expects (but is so often disappointed not to find) from a single-vineyard wine. It starts with violets and irises on their way out, giving up their last floral gasps as they turn to compost. Then, mid-palate, you find red-lollipop candy and piney zing, with mineral sparkle middle to end.

Despite those somewhat mischievous descriptive terms, overall, the Basso’s personality is quite restrained and mature. Firm, sturdy tannins make the wine stand up straight and command a room, and it will likely become much more interesting over the next few years. Buy multiple bottles.

Lamadrid 2008, Agrelo, $15 (Central): Another very old-world presentation, more in a Bordeaux vein than Italian, and another tribute to the value of single-vineyard wine from hand-harvested grapes, treated in the cellar without stabilization or filtration. The Lamadrid has some of the brightest acidity I’ve tasted in a Malbec, and very dusty tannins. Flashes of limestone surround strong rawhide and mulling-spices flavors, with deep plums at the end.

Cabrini 2010, Lujan de Cuyo, $12 (Mariner): One more leathery, Europhilic Malbec for you to consider. It adds a terrific smoky component midway, and its firm tannins will allow it to develop in the cellar or even in your glass as the evening wears on. The Cabrini is tarry, deep and unlit; brooding, even. Its dark fruit flavors are half-dried, and its attention is turned away from fruit altogether and into the night. The pleasant miracle is that this aim for profundity comes with less of a boozy cost than many other Malbecs: Alcohol is 13.5 percent.

Ave 2009, Lujan de Cuyo, $12 (Nappi): The famed Italian enologist and wine consultant Alberto Antonini helped bring this wine into being, and while Antonini is well-known for generating international attention for Argentine Malbec, the Ave presents like a southern Italian Nero D’Avola. It’s got that much bitter chocolate, that much black oil-cured olive, that angularity, that dusty-chaps ruggedness.

Fruit? Yes, blackberries — but like a coulis laced with balsamic, where the fruit is barely sweet and its presence is cleansing rather than sweetening. The wine has Malbec’s rubicund flush, but its elegant spiciness will match beautifully with salami and sausage, and with hard cheeses.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog,, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at:

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