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Malbec made for meat?

by Tom Cannavan, 06/07

  The quality of Argentine-raised beef is famed the world over, and anyone who has been lucky enough to visit the country will know that this is a land where meat in all its forms is celebrated, maybe even venerated. Getting through a full-on Argentine barbecue, or asado, is not for the faint-hearted: as you take your last mouthful of a plate piled high with wonderful sausages and achuras (sweetbreads and other offal), thinking you may never eat again, you realise this was the appetiser, and the real barbecue is about to begin. An endless succession of charry but meltingly soft prime cuts of beef will follow.

Argentine Malbec is a fine way to wash down these carnivorous feasts. There is something about the density and smooth, glossy fruit ripeness of the country's finest Malbecs that sits perfectly with a juicy steak or piece of char-grilled beef.

To promote this wine and food marriage, Wines of Argentina, the generic body that represents Argentine wines, is running a competition in the UK to find the best Malbecs for traditional British meat dishes.

Three heats are being held in Glasgow, Harrogate and Brighton, matching Malbec wines with roast beef, lamb and pork respectively, served up traditional British-style with all the trimmings. Each heat is judged by a small group of wine professionals, and two wines are selected to go forward to the grand final, to be held in London on September 12th 2007.

I was invited to join the Glasgow judging panel (right: hard at work), and so turned up at the city's Hotel du Vin to taste through 11 Malbec, or Malbec-dominant blends, in a double-blind tasting. In some ways the Glasgow panel drew the short straw, as our wines were drawn from the least expensive sector, sourced mainly from supermarkets. But of course from Argentina's point of view, this is also the most important sector for the wine industry. We tasted all wines blind, and had to rank them from 1 to 11. Then, all scores were totted up, and the six top-ranked wines overall were tasted again with a roast beef dinner.

The wines I ranked as #1 and #2 also happened to be the two most expensive wines in the selection by a considerable margin. Certainly this was a case of "quality will out," but the cheaper own-label and branded Malbecs were generally very simple wines, for sipping on their own, rather than with food.

Several had a dollop of residual sugar and lacked a bit of structure. An honourable mention for the cheapest wine in the tasting, the Co-op own label Argentine Malbec 2006, which at just £2.99, I ranked 5th out of the 11 wines. It ended up with an overall rank of 4th.

the wines

Asda Argentine Malbec 2006
(£3.78, Asda). bright, youthful colour and creamy nose of forward berry fruits. A hint of spice too, and quiet bold and juicy. Good black fruit on the palate too, though it is rather short and simple, with low acidity. Spicy, if a bit hot, but very drinkable. My rank: #4

Grafina Malbec 2004
(£4.99, Booths). Darker, slightly more depth to colour and nose with an earthy spice character and much more development. Must be an older wine. Sweet, perhaps slightly cloying fruit on the palate, and again rather short with not enough acidity. My rank: #8

Co-op Argentine Malbec 2006
(£2.99, Co-op). Bold, solid crimson colour. Strongly herbal nose at first, with not a lot of fruit, but plenty of meat and rich, gamy character. On the palate there's a nice orangy acidity freshening this, with a big, savoury, dark fruit and plummy character. A little more structured and all the better for it. My rank: #5

Tupungato Cabernet/Malbec 2006
(£6.49, Marks & Spencer). Vibrant crimson colour with a touch of sulphur, but blows off to reveal cherryish fruit that seems light, bright and focused. There's a brightness about the fruit on the palate too, with a high-toned quality to the fruit and acidity. Again, a wine that is a bit short and a bit too sweet for my taste. My rank: #9

Catena Malbec 2004
(£10.99 Bibendum, Majestic). Bright, bold crimson colour. Creamy, forward raspberry fruit that is pure and quiet plush, with floral nuances. Bold, fruity palate too, with hints of violet and real definition. A very attractive, commercially styled wine. My rank: #2

Morrisons Malbec/Tempranillo NV
(£4.59, Morrisons). Soft colour and an earthy, slightly herbal - even weedy - nose. A touch horsy, with a bit of Brettanomyces character. Dull and drying on the palate too, this is really pretty poor. My rank: #11

Masi Passo Doble Malbec/Corvina 2005
(£8.99, Oddbins). Good solid. dark crimson colour. Glimpses of violets and floral notes here, really bright and aromatic with a kirsch-like cherry fruit. Bold and assertive. On the palate the tannins are quite serious and chewy, but there is copious black fruit and some real structure here. Excellent stuff. My rank: #1

Sainsbury's 'So Organic' Malbec 2006
(£5.99, Sainsbury's). Light, purple/crimson colour. A suggestion of carbonic maceration with slightly soapy, bubblegummy character, but has a light and elegant appeal. Fairly lightweight palate too, though crisp and juicy enough with good fruit in a very commercial style. My rank: #7

Argento Malbec 2006
(£5.99, Tesco). Bolder, deep crimson/black colour. Ripe, forward, really quite jammy and creamy fruit. On the palate the juicy black fruit continues, with plenty of sweetness, and though it seems like ripe fruit sweetness, this does lack a bit of structure. My rank: #6

Trivento Shiraz/Malbec 2005
(£4.99, Thresher). Deep, vibrant crimson colour. Slightly bubblegummy black cherry fruit, with a background of creamy vanilla. Palate has plenty of fruit, which is again a touch too sweet perhaps, but then there is an edge of savoury acidity here that I like. My rank #3

Finca Flichman Reserve Malbec 2005
(£5.99, Waitrose). Sulphur dominates the nose, but this is a bit dirty too, with Brettanomyces or perhaps just bad wood. Quite solid fruit on the palate suggests there is some quality underneath, but a metallic edge reinforces the Bretty character. My rank: #10

the wines with the beef

Six wines went through to the next round of tasting with the beef. My brief comments and my 'with food' rankings:

Co-op Argentine Malbec 2006
Pretty good match, largely due to the sweetness of the fruit matching a rather sweet edge to the gravy served with the beef. Nothing clashing, but doesn't do much as a match really: My rank: #5

Catena Malbec 2004
A really lovely wine this and a very good food match too, with good sweetness but the earthy, structured depth of the fruit and fine tannins and acidity really enhancing the beef. My rank: #1

Trivento Shiraz/Malbec 2005
A good match and a decent wine this, but it is really cut short by the beef and particularly the sweetish gravy. Doesn't have staying power for this meaty dish. My rank: #6

Masi Passo Doble Malbec/Corvina 2005
The serious, structured quality of the wine is good at standing up to the beef, but something about the high-toned quality of the fruit and cherry brightness doesn't quite have the power. My rank: #3

Asda Argentine Malbec 2006
Works really well this, with a spicy and liquoricy depth to the fruit marrying nicely to the beef. My rank: #2

Grafina Malbec 2004
Rather confected sweetness to this wine, and lacks structure. My rank: #4

After all scores were totted up, the winning wine was Catena Malbec, which goes to the London final along with runners-up Masi Passo Doble, Asda Malbec and Co-op Malbec. Round two of Malbec made for Meat has just been held in Harrogate, and joing this wines in the London final will be: Familia Zuccardi Q Malbec 2004 (Alliance Wine, £9.99), Fincas Patagonicas, Tapiz Malbec 2005 (Hispa Merchants, £5.99), Bodega Mendel, Unus Malbec 2004 (Handford Wines, £19.99), Catena Alta Malbec 2004 (Bibendum, £29.99), Bodegas Salentein, Malbec 2004 (Tesco, £8.49) and Valentin Bianca, Malbec Particular 2003 (Liberty Wines, £9.99).