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Our Search for the Best Malbec Under $20

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[Photo: Maggie Hoffman]

They say all good things come in threes—The Three Musketeers, Three Blind Mice, Three-Minute Egg. I would give you a fourth example, but that just seems like poor judgment. Instead, I'll tell you about three brave grapes, that many years ago made the long and trying journey from a faraway land called "France" to an also faraway land called "South America".

The names of these grapes are Carmenere, Tannat, and Malbec. Each had its earliest plantings in its own particular region of southwest France—Carmenere in Bordeaux, Tannat in Madiran, and Malbec in Cahors. However, natural adversities (for example, the root louse phylloxera in the case of Carmenere) and receptivity to the wine produced (for example, some people find Tannat from Madiran to be astringent if it's not blended) has diminished their roles in the French winemaking scene. Fortunately, Carmenere has found a new home in Chile, Tannat in Uruguay, and, as I'm sure you know, Malbec in Argentina.

Our lovely Drinks editor was lucky enough to travel to a particularly famous region in Argentina for Malbec, Mendoza, and discover all the goodies beyond Malbec, but for today, we'll hone in on this single grape. Are you a fan of Malbec? Curious about trying some? Right this way...

What to Expect

Malbec is a purple, thin-skinned grape that produces a red wine often very deep and dark in color. From Cahors, the wine tends to be tannic, acidic, and occasionally smoky. But we'll be focusing on New World options today. In the New World, Malbec often offers soft texture and prominent dark fruit flavors, supported by a bit of spice. In either place, you can expect a medium to full bodied and rich wine.

In addition to Argentina, you may see some Malbec grown in Chile and California, although these are still a bit harder to come by than Mendoza or other regions in Argentina.

How to Serve Malbec

To enjoy this South American treat, serve around (or just under) room temperature. Although pop-and-pour should be fine with most bottles, the more tannic and alcoholic bottles would be best if you open them (and pour into a pitcher or decanter if you have one) about 20 minutes before serving. And as far as food goes, some might say beef, beef, and more beef (channel your inner Argentinian), but there are definitely Malbecs that would be good with pork, salmon, or even just some cheese and crackers.

We tried a whopping 22 bottles of New World Malbec (it's been a busy couple of weeks) and picked out our favorites. Here our our top recommendations for tasty Malbec to buy and enjoy.

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[Photo: Seema Gunda]

Our Favorite Malbecs Under $20

The scent of Valentin Bianchi Malbec Mendoza 2010 ($17) reminded us of a juicy blackberry pie, but the wine had a solid structure—with firm tannins and cherry-like acidity—that was quite welcome. This wine offered spicy, peppery flavors balanced by a chocolaty sweetness. This bottle is a safe bet to bring to a dinner party.

Interestingly, the Decero Malbec Remolinos Vineyard Agrelo 2010 ($17) started out with meaty scents, like beef jerky, but opens up to reveal warm baking spices. Plummy, fruity flavors were supplemented by hints of sage and spice. It's great with Manchego.

For $12 a bottle, Graffigna Centenario Estate Bottled Reserve 2010 is a steal. The scent was a little savory, like soy-marinated steak. (Try it with a soy-marinated steak!) The ripe cherry and raspberry flavors (and a hint of sweet black cherry cola) were well balanced by an earthy backbone and a very smooth texture. Easy to drink on its own, even better with steak or lamb.

Two well known producers, Domaines Barons de Rothschild and Nicolas Catena, came together in Bodegas Caro, and we enjoyed their Aruma Malbec, which sells for around $15. Swirl it a bit to get ripe cherry and mocha aromas. This wine offers firm tannins, and a little red licorice and earth came through before heading into the long finish. A very pretty wine!

Pour a glass of High Note Elevated Malbec Uco Valley Mendoza ($11) and let it get a little air—with a little time, it comes together with bright acidity, hints of tobacco, and earth wrapped around a sweet fruity cola core. This smooth wine would be best with meaty food like short ribs.

The Trivento Reserve Malbec 2009 ($9) really was a great value (we actually enjoyed this bottle more than a pricier option from the same winery—the Trivento Golden Reserve 2008). This wine offered up scents of red raspberry, which was echoed by the bright berry acidity on the palate. Underlying this fruit, was a little spice, oaky vanilla sweetness, leading into toffee on the finish. And sufficient tannins gave this wine a solid structure to match up against a slew of different dishes.

The Killka Espacio Salentein Malbec 2010 ($13) opened up with scents of vanilla and ripe red cherry, so we weren't surprised by the sweetness in the glass. An interesting grape jelly flavor came through with bits of caramel, but fortunately a tiny bit of red chili spice and underlying acidity was enough to balance out the sweetness.

Some Lighter Options

To give a bit of contrast to some of the fuller bodied options above, we also wanted to highlight bottles that were more toward medium bodied, with brighter, more refreshing flavors.

With a scent of tobacco mixed with herbs, Tilia Malbec 2011 ($8) started with an initial acidic bite that gave way to sweet vanilla, molasses, and red berries. This wine was smooth with mild tannins and a minimal finish—good on its own but consider some charcuterie or other salty snacks.

The Concha y Toro Xplorador Malbec 2010 ($7) tasted like juicy strawberries and had a bit of anise-like spice. This wine would be delicious with salmon (and roasted fennel, perhaps.) Put this bottle in the fridge for 20 minutes or so before serving during the warm-weather months.

We also enjoyed the Salentein Reserve Estate Bottled Malbec 2010 ($20) from Uco Valley, Mendoza. The first whiff gives red fruits (and a little smoke) that come through on the palate as bing cherry and red plum. At 14.5% alcohol, we could feel a tinge of alcohol on this finish, so I would have some food around.

Recommended With Reservations

The Desierto 25/5 Malbec La Pampa 2007 ($15) had a sweetness that reminded us of cola. The ripe blackberry flavors played against a bit of spice...think black pepper mixed with citrus zest. Sopressata or pepper-studded salami would be a nice snack option.

Our lone boxed wine, the Yellow and Blue Malbec 2011 from Mendoza ($11 for 1L) was a nice deep purple color in the glass. Despite a sweet, grapey scent, this wine is quite dry. Mild tannins made for a smooth wine which still had the deep flavor of black cherries and dark chocolate, with a tinge of bitterness on the finish that complemented soft cheese.

Add Your Favorites

Do you like Malbec? Tried any bottles—delicious or disappointing—recently? Do you have favorite Malbecs to recommend? Let us know!


Disclosure: All wines were received as press samples for review consideration. Only top scorers in the tastings were included here.

About the author: Seema Gunda is an avid wine traveler, collector, and student with a background in chemistry and a day job in consulting.

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