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10 best malbec wines: Reds that will add flair to any dinner party

From across Argentina and Chile to the southwest of France, these are the bottles to indulge in

Terry Kirby
Friday 12 November 2021 17:03
<p>When grown at altitude, the grape takes on a distinctive fresh flavour</p>

When grown at altitude, the grape takes on a distinctive fresh flavour

Argentinian malbec is one of the great wine success stories of the past 25 years. The wine is loved by consumers for its juicy, plush, slightly tannic, full-bodied black fruit flavours, as well as for its fresh drinkability and suitability for a wide variety of foods – particularly with steak and other red meats.

It is also generally reliable in quality from year to year and offers good value for money. This was not always the case, though: malbec was once one of the key French grapes, widely grown for use in Bordeaux blends, with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc.

But crops were devastated by frost in 1956 and claret producers never quite fell in love with malbec again, although it continues to be popular elsewhere in southwest France – where it is also known as Cot and can produce quite heavy, tannic wines.

In Argentina, where a slightly different variety of the grape was first introduced by European immigrants in the nineteenth century, malbec was never particularly celebrated until interest suddenly blossomed in the late twentieth entury when it was realised that the grape could make superior wines, particularly when grown at altitude, which gives a distinctive and appealing freshness to the flavours.

Although Argentinian malbec still dominates, great malbecs are now being made in Chile and New Zealand, and rose malbec is becoming increasingly popular.

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How we tested

We tried a range of malbecs from different producers and countries, and tasted them with a variety of food pairings – not only steak but also seasonal casseroles, rich vegetable dishes and cheeses.

We were looking for value for money and a range of distinctive flavours, including: plummy, brambly-with-perhaps-a-hint-of-chocolate, hints of cassis, spice, liquorice and pepper, together with a certain freshness and vibrancy on the palate. And we certainly found it…

The best malbec wines for 2021 are:

  • Best overall –Historic Rows “Catena Alta” malbec 2017: £33.99,
  • Best Chilean malbec – La Farma Winemakers Reserve malbec 2020: £11.99,
  • Best organic wine – Clos siguier Vieilles Vignes “Les Camilles” 2017: £17.79,
  • Best bargain buy – Pierre Jaurant French malbec: £4.49,
  • Best midweek bottle – Graffigna Reserve genuine collection malbec 2019: £9,
  • Best sustainable producer – Domaine Bousquet malbec premium Tupungato 2019: £12.50,
  • Best luxury buy – Adrianna Vineyard Fortuna Terrae malbec 2015: £90,
  • Best malbec rose – Beefsteak Club malbec rose 2020: £8.99,
  • Best New Zealand malbec – Left Field malbec 2019: £13.99,
  • Best blend – Perez Cruz Carmenere malbec 2020: £24.99,

Historic Rows 'Catena Alta’ malbec 2017

Best: Overall

Rating: 10/10

Nicolas Cantena Zapata, whose family first planted vines in Argentina in 1902, is the man credited with reviving the production of quality high altitude malbec. His daughter Laura now runs the business, making wines of exceptional quality; such as this wine made from five prestigious vineyard sites in the Mendoza region.

It has gorgeous, rich, blueberry and cassis flavours, a hint of spice and a long, satisfying, plummy finish: a level of sophistication and elegance that is often only found in wines twice the price. A great wine for a winter dinner party, particularly if red meat or a big casserole is the centrepiece.

La Farma Winemakers Reserve malbec 2020

Best: Chilean malbec

Rating: 9/10

Chile has followed its South American neighbour in making great altitude malbec and this is a very fine example of a wine from the Central Valley, made by experienced winemaker Hernan de la Barra. This has quite forward ripe plum and blackberry flavours, with robust tannins and a really big mouthfeel. It is vegan friendly and so is a great wine for substantial vegetable dishes, like a lentil shepherds pie, but also, of course, for meat dishes. Sadly, it’s currently out of stock, but be sure to check back in soon for more.

Clos siguier Vieilles Vignes ‘Les Camilles’ 2017

Best: Organic wine

Rating: 9/10

A sensational, elegant, Malbec from Cahors in the southwest of France, where the grape still thrives but is often associated with quite heavy tannic wines and needs many years in the bottle. This is very different.

Made organically, the grapes from 90-year-old vines are allowed to naturally ferment, resulting in wine that is simply wonderfully balanced: between concentration and purity of fruit, with vibrant, blueberry and damson flavours, that linger long on the palate. Serve with a rare organic steak or simple roast pork.

Pierre Jaurant French malbec

Best: Bargain buy

Rating: 7/10

This is an almost unbelievably good value little gem from Aldi. Very little malbec is now grown in France, but from the Cahors region of the southwest, this wine is a terrific example of how to keep malbec soft and juicy, with lovely brambly flavours.

At this price it’s an absolute steal to stock up on for Christmas parties and gatherings, and is ideal with a wide variety of foods, particularly any Mediterranean mezze or tapas-type dishes, as well as hard and blue cheeses. Keep an eye open for other wines from this brand.

Graffigna Reserve genuine collection malbec 2019

Best: Midweek bottle

Rating: 8/10

Santiago Graffigna, originally from Italy, planted his first vines in the Mendoza region in 1870, so there is a lot of history going into this terrific little bottle. It’s ideally priced for a midweek treat to accompany, say, some tapas, a bowl of pasta with tomato-based sauce or a takeaway pizza. It’s boldly fruity, packed with juicy flavours of plums and blackberries, some very peppery notes and a nice full mouthfeel. All with an elegance that belies its sub-£10 price.  

Domaine Bousquet malbec ‘premium’ Tupungato 2019

Best: Sustainable producer

Rating: 9/10

A long-established big name in malbec, with estates in the Tupungato area, Domaine Bousquet is organic but has gone one step further by becoming a founding member of the Sustainable Wine Roundtable – recently launched by the wine industry to fight climate change.

As part of that move it is now going to be bottling this wine, their biggest seller here in the UK, from this autumn, which will reduce carbon emissions on the wine by 70 per cent, as part of an aim to be carbon neutral by 2025.

Although that wine will not be available until the new year, this bottle is a great introduction to the excellent range: full of ripe fruit flavours, with notes of cassis and pepper and silkily luscious on the palate.

Adrianna Vineyard Fortuna Terrae malbec 2015

Best: Luxury buy

Rating: 9/10

At almost 5,000m above sea level, the Adrianna site planted by Nicolas Cantena is said to be the Grand Cru vineyard of Argentina. A unique combination of soils, altitude and cool climate delivers wines of incredible concentration, but also balanced with mouthwatering fresh acidity, and capable of decent ageing.

This is a remarkable special occasion bottle, which has layer upon layer of flavours of black fruits, with hints of chocolate and liquorice to linger over. Pair with your finest foods, but particularly an exceptional T-bone steak.

Beefsteak Club malbec rosé 2020

Best: Malbec rose

Rating: 7/10

Caught up in the worldwide rosé boom, “pink” made from malbec is becoming increasingly common and it showcases the diversity of the grape. Despite being named after the dining clubs of Argentina that celebrated eating beef – there is a companion normal red malbec that justifies the name and is well worth seeking out – this is a dry, crisp, red berry-fruit-flavoured rose that is well priced enough to be a great party wine for the coming festive season and is wonderful with seafoods like prawns and crab and lighter goats cheeses.

Left Field malbec 2019

Best: New Zealand malbec

Rating: 8/10

Can New Zealand do for malbec what it has done for those other European staples; pinot noir and sauvignon blanc? The answer here is definitely yes...

Leftfield is a good little label, run by the prestigious Te Awa winemaking concern, which produces distinctive varietal wines in the Hawkes Bay region. Its take on malbec here, drawn from vines grown in the famed Gimblett Gravels area, is an individual one – the mood here is dark and intense, with velvety flavours of black and brambly fruits and some serious dark chocolate and mocha notes. This is a warming wine for chill evenings and autumnal casseroles.

Perez Cruz Carmenere malbec 2020

Best: Blend

Rating: 9/10

While malbec is sometimes used as a minor blending grape – as it was traditionally in Bordeaux – here, in the hands of Chilean winemaker German Lyon and the redoubtable Perez Cruz concern, working with grapes from the excellent Maipo Valley, it is matched 50-50 with Chile’s own signature grape, carmenere. This grape has a similar flavour palette to malbec, with lighter fruit and nut chocolate notes, blueberry, damsons and a little spice in the mix. The result here is a really big mouthful of a wine that will age wonderfully, if you can resist drinking it now, ideally with robust winter foods.

The verdict: Malbec wines

The remarkable consistency of quality and value for money in malbec shines through in this selection of wines – and many others we tasted. There were very few duds.

While the top-level Argentine wines deservedly reign supreme, there are strong showings from Chile and New Zealand, as well as from the grapes’ original home in France. And while certainly malbec is mostly celebrated for perfectly accompanying steak and other red meats, these wines are suitable for a wide variety of foods: from rich vegetable dishes to cheese of all types.

This selection also offers diversity for different occasions – from the forthcoming Christmas parties to wines for very special occasions – but for all-round quality and a sensational choice for your winter dinner party or special occasion, the ‘Catena Alta’ Historic Rows malbec 2017 from the legendary Catena label is our best malbec for 2021.

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