Earlier this year, Argentina staged a significant coup. When the country's top reds made from malbec, their signature grape, were tasted by the American magazine, The Wine Advocate, over 100 wines scored 90 points plus. 13 achieved whopping scores of 96 or more. Such ratings are normally reserved for the very finest wines of France. Cue collective Argentinian euphoria. Not surprising then that Wines of Argentina in this country should decide to put on a tasting of its 'icon' reds in London too. 'The UK rarely likes to be told what to do by our Atlantic cousins', they said, 'but it is fair to say that the Americans have got the jump on us when it comes to discovering the super reserve and limited edition bottlings that Argentina has to offer'. This is what's known as a no-brainer: the results go to their heads and bypass their brains.
Why does my heart so often sink when the I-word is used? Something to do perhaps with the fact that great wines are not marketing constructs but earn their icon stripes over time. So it was with some trepidation that I approached the 'icon' tasting of Argentina's top malbecs and malbec blends put on at the new Gaucho Restaurant at the Dome, now re-named O2, earlier this month. I was even more awestruck when faced with a dance of elephants and hippos. The array of the kilo-plus bottle variety was like a group of those Arnie-shouldered, chicken legged blokes who strut their stuff in the weights section of the gym. One winery makes a success of Charles Atlas, everyone else jumps on the carbon-emitting bandwagon, and in making an effort to copy the script, loses the plot.
Leaving form aside for one moment and giving content its due, the depressing reality was that too many wines were caricatures. A wine called Cobos made by the much-heralded California winemaker Paul Hobbs had scored big points in The Wine Advocate. To my taste it was overoaked, jammy, sweet and alcoholic: the antithesis of what elegant malbec should be about. Drinkable with half a cow perhaps, another travesty of fine Argentinian malbec was the wine of Cuvelier Los Andes wines, with which the global superstar wine consultant, Michel Rolland, is involved. The irony is that the Cuvelier family own Château Léoville-Poyferré in Bordeaux, a model of stylish claret. Another, Bodega Benegas Lynch, presumably linked to Pauillac's Lynch Bages, punched you in the mouth with its desiccating oak and tannins. In varying degrees, a score of reds showed an equally misguided tendency to tart themselves up in the name of adding value.
A certain American predilection for coca-cola sweetness, jam, oak splinters and whopping alcohol levels in wine leaves me cold. I shudder to think what these wines will look like in five to 10 years time when their French high scoring counterparts will just be coming into their own. Overreaching itself in every department, the 'icon' also overdoes price: a bank-busting $150 for the Cobos, £65 for a Luigo Bosca 'Icono', £51.50 for a Lagarde Henry Cabernet Franc, £34.99 for the Benegas Lynch, and price mercifully 'not available' for a Cobos 'uNico' and Cuvelier Los Andes. If this is starting to sound like sour grapes, as an admirer of Argentinian malbec, I'm also one of its toughest critics. The fact is that there were many wines that didn't conform to the false gods of machismo and silly prices.
The 2005 Pulenta Estate Gran Malbec, £13.95, is a seductive mouthful of supple, dark cherry fruitiness, its sibling, the 2005 Pulenta Estate Gran Corte, around £17.95, BBR, Green & Blue (0208 693 9250), Hoults Wine Merchants (01484 510700), Wineaux (01435 874444 or www.wineaux.co.uk), Woodwinters (01786 834894), a poised malbec blend, aromatic in its intense blackberry fruit and spice characters. The 2006 Achaval Ferrer 'Quimera', £21.49, Corney & Barrow, displays elegantly crafted liquorice spice and dark berry fruits, the 2006 Finca Sophenia Synthesis Malbec, £15.95, www.winehound.co.uk, black cherry fruit from the Uco Valley, is suave as silk. Masi's 2005 Corbec Tupungato, around £22.99, Oddbins, Hailsham Cellars (01323 441212), Luvians, Fife (01334 477752) is a distinctive damsony blend of amarone della valpilicella's corvina and Argentina's malbec. One of my favourite reds was the approachable, richly flavoured mulberry and cassis-centred blend, 2004 Bressia Profundo, £14.25, Stone, Vine & Sun (01962 712351, www.stonevine.co.uk), which goes to show that Argentinian red can be still be profound without taking the Michael.