The magic of malbec

On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, it seems inconceivable that while The Sun was gloating 'Gotcha!', few souls in Argentina gave the malbec grape so much as a second look.

It was known as the uva francesa, the French grape, and mostly used for blending into above-average plonk. Robert Mondavi-inspired visionaries like Nicolás Catena had cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay on the brain, while the overseas investors who today populate the Argentinian wine industry only piled in during the late 1980s. So downtrodden was poor old malbec, in fact, that it was mostly pulled up to make way for apples and other more cash crops.

How things have changed. Malbec today is universally recognised as Argentina's signature grape variety. The potential was always there, but its secret was locked into the high, semi-desert soils of the Andes. It took a handful of outsiders, treating it with respect in the vineyard and cellar, to reveal malbec's potential for greatness.

One outsider to make a difference was Paul Hobbs. In 1992, the Californian winemaker employed by Nicolás Catena to make chardonnay, started modifying existing malbec vineyards with viticulturalist Pedro Marchevsky. Today his winery, Viña Cobos, puts out richly concentrated reds that walk a tightrope act, balancing the opulent dark-hearted malbec at its sweetest with the required freshness. The floral-scented 2009 Branare Malbec, Lujá* de Cujo, £21.59,, Reigate, Surrey (01932 853466), is just such a wine, perfumed, spicy, yet balanced.

Inspired by the likes of Nicolás Catena's planting at altitude, many wine producers started from scratch in the cooler, higher Uco Valley. Harnessing melted snow and sunlight, they've brought a new dimension to the malbec grape. Finca Sophenia for instance, makes a beguiling 2009 Finca Sophenia Reserve Malbec, at £11.45, down from £12.95, at Chilean-owned Doña Paula, has moved its source of grapes entirely to the Uco Valley for its succulently savoury 2010 Doña Paula Estate Malbec, around £11.95,,

It would be a shame if the fashionable focus on the Uco Valley were to obscure the increasing quality of malbec grown in its traditional heartland of Lujá* de Cuyo. At the Swiss-owned Finca Decero, the 2009 Decero Remolinos Malbec, around £13.50, D Bryne & Co Clitheroe (01200 423 1522), Flagship Wines, St Albans (01727 865309), is a joy, all vivid summer pudding fruit, a nip of tannin and vibrant freshness. Even before scaling the peaks of Catena's ultra-premium range, the 2009 Catena Malbec, £11.99, Waitrose, itself is a plummy red with excellent grip for roast meats. Achaval Ferrer's 2010 Malbec too, £115/ case, Corney & Barrow,, is a wine of impressive aromatic quality and red-berry purity.

While these are delightfully approachable examples of the malbec grape, one exciting development is a move towards great wines whose personality is derived from balanced, old vines grown in special locations. Achaval Ferrer's achievement lies in its three superb single vineyard wines, one in particular, the 2009 Finca Bella Vista, £240/6 bottles, Corney & Barrow, an exceptional red, whose intense fragrance and polished oak frame an intense, yet delicately flavoured, supple-textured red with an elegant loganberryish bite. Argentinian wine has come a long way in its brief modern incarnation, and the very highest peaks remain to be scaled.