You know summer's over when you start thinking seriously about Malbec. This is the French native grape largely responsible for the wines of Cahors. Those wines have changed greatly in recent years, from a classic style so dense and chewy, it's often called "black wine" to a more modern, fruity proposition. And the change has been prompted, in part, by the challenge of Argentina. The grape has taken to Argentina's varied soils and climates like a six-year-old to a bouncy castle.

You know summer's over when you start thinking seriously about Malbec. This is the French native grape largely responsible for the wines of Cahors. Those wines have changed greatly in recent years, from a classic style so dense and chewy, it's often called "black wine" to a more modern, fruity proposition. And the change has been prompted, in part, by the challenge of Argentina. The grape has taken to Argentina's varied soils and climates like a six-year-old to a bouncy castle.

Argentina has been doing well of late, selling its wine to the UK in record quantities - some 12 million bottles in the year ending last June; an increase of 31 per cent over the preceding 12 months. And there's a reason for it: the level of wine-making skill has risen greatly over five and even two years. What they can't do a thing about is their weather. While some people think the New World is immune to vicious vintage variations, they actually get more than their share of weather from hell.

Or from El Niño, to be more precise, in the case of the 1998 vintage. The dreaded currents carried in rain by the tanker-load and dumped it on grapevines all over Argentina. The result was a lot of dilute and uninteresting wines.

Things could only get better, and they did in 1999. This was the vintage Argentina had been praying for. Then nature turned nasty again in 2000. Not as nasty as in 1998, but hail damaged vineyards in some areas, and cool weather delayed ripening by about two weeks.

The result: 2000 is somewhat more variable than 1999, and production was lower. Which makes the 1999s worth buying while stocks last. This was one of the messages arising from a recent tasting in London, where limited time led me to concentrate on the long table featuring Malbec. There was hardly a stinker in the lot, and a number of attractive wines with some stand-out, knock-down stars.

One thing I loved was the variety of flavours and styles. The standard fruit-descriptor for Malbec is plums, but all sorts of fruity themes were played here, including a strawberry/raspberry freshness in some unoaked versions.

There are a few producers in Argentina who always seem to make good wine, so it's not surprising that their Malbecs are also good. Nicolas Catena would be at or near the top of anyone's list, and their entry-level wines, Argento Malbec 1999 (£4.99, widely available) and Alamos Ridge Malbec 1999 (£5.99, Tesco and Majestic) are among the best introductions. In a different league is Catena Alta Malbec 1997, a wine that has everything: big, ripe, multi-dimensional fruit flavours, well-knitted oak. And a price to make you gulp: £24.95 from the Wine Society and Noel Young (01223 844744).

Wines from La Agricola, a large producer with several labels, were also stars. Their Santa Julia division is widely available under its own name, but also produces own-label basic Malbec for both Tesco and Asda (called Picajuan Peak and Far Flung respectively), which are solid buys for less than £4. Getting much more serious in quality, Asda sells Familiar Zuccardi "Q" Malbec 1998, with a full charge of oak and sweet black fruit balanced by ripe tannins and good acidity, for £8.99. When the 1999 comes over, it should be even better.

Other good names to look for include Finca el Retiro, Cavas Weinert and the Vista Andes range from Viña Morandé. But the important names are Malbec and Argentina. The grape is often said to be the country's trump card. And it appears, increasingly, that's exactly the case.

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