Making my predictions for the new year, I mentioned that Argentina's malbec grape was well placed to take a starring role in 2009 and nothing I have tasted since has changed that view. The improvements in winemaking since the great 2002 vintage have helped to make succulent, vibrant reds, but it's also thanks to warm, dry summers and perfectly controlled ripening conditions.
Malbec, the grape of Cahors, is one of the lesser grape varieties in the Bordeaux mix, but after more than a century in Argentina, it has developed a unique quality. At Mendoza's 1,000 or so metres of altitude, malbec thrives on sunshine, the irrigation water of the Andes judiciously applied for perfect ripening, and benefits from the effects of solar radiation. How come? In a nutshell, sunshine at altitude burns off bitter tannins and replaces them with the red and darker berry-fruit opulence that gives malbec its special appeal.
Until the 1990s, Argentinians were the biggest wine consumers per capita in the New World, but producers of mainly plonk. The quality revolution that began two decades ago has gathered pace with a real commitment in the past five years to finding the best locations for growing malbec.
A steep learning curve in the cellar has resulted in an impressive improvement in the quality, texture and personality of the wines. Argentina also suffers less from the big-brand ethos that affects choice in the rest of the New World (New Zealand apart). With less reliance on cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and a small smattering of other grapes, Argentina is building on malbec, malbec blends and its range of wine styles. Added to that, wineries are starting to discover the benefits of cooler areas such as Mendoza's Uco Valley, Patagonia and the peaks of Cafayate in the north for aromatic character, vivid freshness and elegance.
The 2006 Dominio del Plata Ben Marco Malbec, £11.99, buy 2 = £9.99, Majestic, shows the typical violet floral scents and ripe, dark berry-fleshed fruit and a twist of savoury acidity. From Fabre Montmayou, one of Mendoza's best producers, the 2007 Malbec Phebus Gran Reserva, £12.99, Waitrose Wine Direct, is vibrant, richly concentrated old-vine malbec whose luscious blackberry-fruit quality and light touch of spicy vanilla oak are nicely framed by a cleansing blade of acidity.
The 2006 Mendel Malbec, £10.95, The Wine Society, £13.99, or £11.19/case, Oddbins, vivid with a perfume of black fruits, is seductively silky and juicily textured with black cherry and blackberry fruit, all glossy textured and seductively approachable. And from Michel Rolland's baby in the Uco Valley, the 2007 Clos de los Siete, £11.49-£11.99, Waitrose, Oddbins, Majestic, a blend of mainly malbec with dollops of the other Bordeaux varieties in varying proportions, is a dark berry-fruited blend, for snug winter evenings. Take my word, and it's not the last you'll be hearing of malbec this year.