Putting the Magic in Malbec – the Art of Microclimatic Blending

Putting the Magic in Malbec - The Art of Microclimatic Blending

Fresh from a recent trip to Mendoza, Andrew Catchpole looks at the innovative Argentine art of microclimatic blending.

An amusing and revealing tweet recently did the rounds from a satirical would-be-sommelier tweeter. Hashtagged #LessonsInService, the twittersphere was advised: “When writing wine descriptions on a menu: You can write “crisp, crispy or Malbec” on anything and it will sell.”

Now before any wine producers out there have fits of apoplexy thinking I’m suggesting that Malbec has become some sort of red counterpart to the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio, let me hastily explain. What’s interesting from this doubtless on-the-hoof tweet is the suggestion that Malbec has achieved the kind of popularity that means wine savvy people hone in on the name on a wine list. And, if you check out the list of any decent restaurant, bar or pub these days, you’ll typically find Malbec as a ‘must list’ among the medley of wines.

Argento Winemaker Silvia Corti blending MalbecArgento Winemaker Silvia Corti
Photo by James Kibbey

All good and well, but the reality is that Argentina’s Malbecs are really a diverse bag of delights, not least because the incredible array of altitudes, climates and soils up and down this huge country deliver endless individual twists to the wines. There’s no one-size-fits-all. And, understandably, Argentina’s winemakers are keen to shout about this diversity and how it can add a wonderful complexity to their wines.

The Buzz About Microclimatic Blending

The buzz in Argentina, especially among those making the better Malbecs and red blends, is something dubbed ‘microclimatic blending’. I recently caught up with Argento’s winemaker Silvia Corti at a seminar she gave in Mendoza where she explained what it all means.

Essentially it all comes down to pinpointing the best, most expressive characteristics from vineyards in the various sub-regions, and then skilfully crafting a blend to balance the best of each.

“We are looking for complexity in our wines and by blending Malbecs from different regions in Mendoza we reflect the regional diversity in the wines,” she explained.

Distinct Sub-Regions Around Mendoza

Corti has been working since the beginning with grapes not just from Mendoza’s three main regions, namely the higher-altitude Uco Valley and the Central and warmer Eastern Regions, but also from the very distinct sub-regions, such as Tupungato, Agrelo and San Martín, to source fruit that has its own distinct aromatic and flavour profile.

High-altitude Malbec vineyard in AltamiraA high-altitude Malbec vineyard in the Altamira district of the Uco Valley
Photo by James Kibbey

“We have just 250mm of rain a year here, with irrigation from pure Andean water, and 300 days of sun, so altitude really is the key, along with the differing local soils, to defining the aromas and flavours of our Malbecs,” she says. “The challenge for us to balance the ripeness of red fruit from warmer Eastern area, the complexity of old vines in the Central Region and the violet aromatics and intensity from vineyards in the coolest, highest vineyards in Uco.”

Winemakers are becoming increasingly adept at this microclimatic blending as understanding of the complexity of each sub-region, and the terroir of individually sited vineyards within, grows. And you can taste it in the wines.

You Can Taste It In The Wines

“We look for more weight and concentration from the older, most traditional vineyard areas in the Central Region, and more of that classic Malbec violet aroma, along with black cherry fruit and great intensity, from the higher Uco vineyards where the thermal amplitude – the difference between hot day and cold night temperature – is greatest.”

Corti then encouraged us to taste her wines. A 2011 Argento Malbec, with fruit from the warmer Maipú region, plus Agrelo and Tupungato grapes, was full of broad, easy-going red fruit flavours. Shift the balance, and the 2011 Selección Malbec, leading on higher altitude Agrelo and Tupungato grapes, proved more aromatic, with greater complexity and structure. A 2009 Reserva Malbec topped the bill, with yet more uplifted violet aromas, at once fresh, more intense and concentrated, and yet refined with the heart of its blend from older vines in Luján de Cuyo.

A short while in Silvia’s company certainly dispels any notion that Mendoza is one blanket region. Or that Malbec comes in a ‘one size fits all’ style.

Without question we will continue to see some great single vineyard expression of Malbec and other noble varieties emerging from Argentina. But what Corti calls “a synthesis of components” from these individual terroirs is clearly making some of Argentina’s most satisfyingly complex wines, whether from Malbec or the similarly excellent Cabernet-driven blends. Proof that the sum can enhance the parts of a multifaceted wine without losing the focus on terroir. It’s a strong suit to play and one that definitely shows great results in the wines.

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Andrew Catchpole
Following an English Degree, a Diploma in publishing and a formative stint at the popular wine merchant Oddbins, Andrew joined Harpers Wine & Spirit Weekly, later launching and editing HOT (Harpers on Trade) restaurant and bar magazine. This was followed by several years as Wine Correspondent at the Daily Telegraph. Based in Brighton, Andrew now writes on wines, spirits, restaurants and travel for numerous trade and consumer publications including Harpers Wine & Spirit, Decanter, The Guardian, Slowfood, Imbibe, Square Meal, Drinks Business, Wine Business International, Drinks International, OLN and The Times.

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