The Malbec Masters 2017: results and analysis

Judges comments: Madeleine Stenwreth MW

“To look at the results by country, firstly, within France, a pleasant surprise in the below £10 category was the Rigal, where juicy charm and bright fruit shone through for a convincing silver score. There were unfortunately serious hygiene issues in a few other SW France offerings in our flight (even some top names).

Having said that, I find it very exciting that some of the top people having consulted in Argentina for decades are active in joint ventures with a few Cahors producers. This has resulted in wines reflecting their amazing terroir with extreme focus on maintaining the purity of fruit all the way through the sensitive stages of ageing through adapting a healthy approach to what should be part of a true terroir expression.

In Chile, at the lower end of the price spectrum, the offerings often became green and edgy, lacking fruit and charm which is probably a sign of the high yielding Cot-clone pushed for volumes in very young vineyards. Herbal qualities could be lovely but there is a huge gap between this quality attribute and the edgy, unripe greenness.

There were hints of floral notes as dried roses and violets in some wines where fruit quality was substantial enough to deliver this lovely character. It was especially Interesting to see Colchagua deliver so well this year again, bringing “flesh to the bones” in a more richly textured style without losing the refreshing red fruit and this fragile, floral fragrance (especially in the sample from Luis Felipe Edwards). The opposite side of the spectrum was when the blackcurrant ‘Ribena’ and mint pungency drove the wine into a corner, making it impossible to dig out something more of interest. I think that the contrasting climate effect (higher diurnal shift in temperatures) in Curico shows through in an attractive way where the herbal notes and firmness of tannins were nicely balanced by enough fruit density, which was a repetition from last year in the Curico examples. Are we starting to see some style consistency with Malbec styles in Chile despite the relatively few examples available/tasted in the last two editions of Malbec Masters?

As for Argentina, there are still some wines which are seriously powered by oak, everything from showing off top quality expensive new barrels to the other side of the spectrum revealing coffee-toasty oak chips-bombs. Oak is much better handled in just the last couple of years, possibly, as a result of the cooler vintages giving way to more elegant wines which are not built to handle the previously simple recipe of using high toasted oak chips for flavor addition. This necessary change came quicker to Argentina due to the challenges pre-/harvest time brought by the weather gods; for good and bad depending on the producers’ situation.

The greatness of green…  The lovely herbal quality attributes (as in wild thyme, lavender and peppery ruccola notes) from cooler sites (and vintages) are further pronounced as there is, where relevant, a push for more and more whole bunches going into the fermentation vats. It is important to note that there is one thing to become impressed by this in a tasting where the winemaker explains his cool and trendy ‘whole bunch fermentation philosophy’ and when a wine driven by this character is tasted blind. It demands your attention to separate the great green from the bad green, and its role in the overall quality and charismatic profile of the wine.

I was happy to see Calchaquies Valley showing off with their Malbecs this year, with lovely examples in Piatelli and El Esteco, proving that the region is not only worthy of becoming famous for their beautiful Cabs. They might have a tiny production compared to Mendoza, but seriously this area is worthy of much more attention.

Also, I was highly impressed by Pyros and the Sagrado Pedernal, showing the greatness of the yet relatively unknown world class terroir of Pedernal Valley in San Juan.

The pure, bright and energetic cherry-strawberry fruited expression of the Trapiche Pure was also a revelation as it ended up in the lineup among other wines; such an honest expression of Malbec without make-up.

The higher the price, the more it seemed to still be a need to impress by the power of oak and extraction, not mentioning the macho heavy weight bottles. Many £50+ were too much a caricature than a wine that communicates the desire to be drunk. The most pleasant surprise was the £10-15 category where the best showed pride and beauty in place and variety rather than boosting the makeup.

Overall, alcohol levels seem better managed, also an effect of cooler past vintages and in the best wines, an energizing freshness as a natural part of its vibrant fruit expression.

And, while there were still some unnecessary oak chip-dominated wines made with the aim to trying to charm the socks off the consumers looking for a smack in the face-effect… overall, and across all origins, there were also some very positive signs of improvements in the application of oak make-up.”

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