I think of Malbec the way I think of Impressionism, which began with a brief épater le bourgeoisie phase before settling into such widespread acceptance and unthreatening wall-decor banality that its true distinctiveness and radicalism were forgotten or ignored.

There are people who hang Monet waterlilies posters on walls, people who mock those people, and people who used to mock those people but now find profundity and endless intrigue in the paintings those posters reproduce.

I’m starting to edge into the third-group, Malbec-analogy-wise. For too long my attention to this Argentinian wine juggernaut has been either scant or condescending, a categorical consignment to the too-soft/too-fruity/too-boring bin. In my defense, that large bin remains full. But call it Malbec 1.0.

The Malbec 2.0 bin contains more wines these days, with an increasing number of noteworthy Mendoza winemakers who export to the U.S. shifting the style of the wines while maintaining a quality-to-price ratio that remains the envy of the wine world.

“Back in the mid- and late-1990s,” Jeff Mausbach told me, “we were making deep, rich, concentrated wines, but soft and supple to drink, with that sweetness in the middle palate. That was something new for wines on the international market.”

Mausbach is an Omaha, Neb., native whose love for wine began as he worked in Italian-leaning restaurants as server and sommelier. After spending an increasing amount of time in Argentina with the Argentine woman who would become his wife, he permanently relocated to the country in 1996, and spent the next 14 years working for the benchmark Mendoza wine legend Nicolas Catena. He “traveled the globe and preached the gospel of Malbec and of high-altitude vineyards.”


In 2010 Mausbach and his partner, Alejandro Sejanovich, a friend from the Catena days, started their own winery, Tintonegro. He still preaches the gospel, though with a revised script.

“We have evolved since the 1990s,” he said. “That flavor profile kind of ran its course. The pendulum in the middle 2000s swung too far to the side of richness, sweetness, softness. Malbecs began to feel a little heavy, over-ripe and over-extracted.”

The pendulum is swinging back at Tintonegro, with a sharper presentation of freshness and minerality, wider textural variation and more complex floral aromas, the fruit flavors dialed back.

I called Tintonegro’s wines “Malbec but playing in a different octave” and Mausbach agreed, but said this has been “both blessing and curse. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they couldn’t sell our wines because it would be too hard to convince customers they were Malbecs, I’d be rich.”

The irony is that Tintonegro Malbecs are more truly Malbec-y than “Malbec” the brand. For Mausbach and Sejanovich, the key to a full expression of the grape’s potential is emphasizing the unique viticultural feature of Mendoza: altitude. Most Malbec vineyards rise 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level; much of Tintonegro’s fruit comes from vineyards at elevations between 3,000 and 5,000 feet.

The higher the elevation, the cooler the temperatures and the greater the intensity of sunlight exposure. Cooler temps encourage later starts to the growing season and harvest so that ripening finishes more gradually, leading to more acidity in the grapes and more freshness in the wine. Greater sunlight intensity creates greater concentration of flavors, which collaborates with the higher acidity levels from the cool climate to give a more complex, layered wine. Changes in soil composition as altitude rises augment and extend these effects.


“At Catena,” Mausbach said, “I was often asked about how Malbec expresses differently in different areas of Mendoza. So, when we left Catena it seemed interesting to build a portfolio based on the notion that Malbec tastes different when it’s grown in different places.”

That notion is well established in the traditional winemaking regions of Europe, but continues to face opposition or ignorance on this side of the Atlantic. Still, Mausbach and Sejanovich are excited to be part of a group of Argentine winemakers working to further develop the country’s appellation designations, which would help distinguish the vast winemaking areas’ elevations and soils.

Tintonegro makes five different Malbec-based wines, three of them currently available in Maine (distributed by Nappi). Each reflects a different side of Malbec in Mendoza, and records the distinctive conversation that takes place in any real wine among grape, climate and soil.

The Tintonegro Mendoza 2012 ($10) sources fruit from 2,300- to 3,300-foot vineyards in the relatively warm “primera zona,” comprising the western part of Maipú and Luján de Cuyo. It’s a super friendly wine, with copious red fruit flavors, some almost candied in the way they pop. Juicy but not jammy, the wine avoids that cheap-Malbec heavy-handedness, with plenty of acidity to stay agile and fresh in the mouth. Fun, friendly and perfect for a burger but not a steak.

Those vineyards are in an alluvial valley, comprised mostly of deep clay soils.

For the Tintonegro Uco Valley Reserve 2012 ($14), the grapes come from vineyards 3,500 to 5,000 feet above sea level, where the soils are sandier, rockier, and lower in organic material. Hence, lower grape yields, leading to higher flavor concentration; and a decidedly subtler textural palette, more grip and tannin.


Stronger sunlight exposure in those higher vineyards leads to fruit expression of darker varieties, moving out of the red zone into indigo, blue and green. For me the wine is incredibly cool and refreshing, herbal, twiggy and purple-flowered.

To return to the earlier painting analogy, the Uco Valley Reserve is somehow an impressionistic wine: fast brushstrokes, lots going on, diverse sensations at once, only loosely held together, in tune with the light.

Compare it to the Tintonegro Co-Ferment 2010 ($19), which is terrifically well integrated, like a finely braided rope, long and all of a piece. The wine’s name, like the integrity and wholeness evident as one tastes, reflects how it’s made: 90 percent Malbec, fermented together with 7 percent Cabernet Franc and 3 percent Petit Verdot. (Most blends are performed after separate fermentations.)

From vineyards especially close to the Andes, high in limestone content, this is the most mineral of the three wines, with a squid-inky saline darkness. And it’s the biggest wine as well: Malbec altered by fervid-floral notes from the Cab Franc and the distinctly unabashed grapey jamminess of the Petit Verdot. That powerful grape (“We have to be careful with it,” says Mausbach), even in such nearly homeopathic quantity, also adds to a modernist painterly quality: not just forms, but a sort of window into the very process of a wine taking shape.

It’s a fitting profile for wines, and winemakers, helping to move Argentinian Malbec into a realm that is at once more settled and more radically transparent.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:[email protected]

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