Malbec is sort of the Diego Maradona of wine. Two decades after the soccer god's glory days, he pretty much remains the universal answer to the challenge: "Name an athlete from Argentina." If you can name one grape grown in Argentina, I'll bet your first thought is malbec.
The robust red variety, transplanted from Bordeaux to find its higher calling amid the dry heat of Mendoza, may be the captain of Argentina's wine lineup, but there are other interesting players. Many of the best, in fact, are mostly or entirely malbec-free.
They include cabernet sauvignons, merlots, chardonnays and sangioveses. In a more offbeat and usually more affordable vein are Argentina's two other signature grapes, the floral-grapey torrontes and crisp, red bonarda.
It came as little surprise, then, that my top selection in today's release of Argentine spotlight wines at Ontario Vintages stores turned out to be a white, Luca Chardonnay 2008 ($28.95, product No. 167338).
Here's a big, creamy-textured chardonnay that delivers cartloads of sweet, peachy fruit but manages to stay light and remarkably crisp on the finish.
It's impressively balanced, with nicely integrated oak (unlike the more conspicuous oaky taste of the Catena Chardonnay in today's release).
I'd serve the Luca with boiled or grilled lobster or an oily, meaty fish such as salmon, orange rough or even trout with a butter-based sauce. (For the record, I was not - repeat not - very fond of this wine's sister red, Luca Malbec 2008, $31.95.)
Torrontes is an acquired taste, having a bold bouquet that elicits the same kind of response you tend to get from muscat or gewurztraminer - you love it or hate it. Vinecol Torrontes 2009 ($13.95, No. 32748), also from today's Vintages rollout, shows the tamer side of torrontes. Light-bodied, it offers up that classic white-table-grape note in harmony with other flavours, such as grapefruit and lemon zest.
There's good acidity in this dry wine, which would make a nice aperitif for an outdoor gathering and pairs well with spicy or highly aromatic Indian food.
One of the best-buy reds from the release contains just 30 per cent malbec. The rest of Bodega Poesia Pasodoble 2007 ($14.95, No. 166405) is built from syrah (30 per cent), bonarda (20 per cent) and cabernet sauvignon. Full-bodied and smooth, it's a compelling if unconventional blend, with a polished texture, blueberry-like fruit and a bitter, dry finish.
The best Argentine red of the release is, alas, a malbec, Luigi Bosca Reserva Malbec 2007 ($17.95, No. 79293). It's full-bodied and smooth, with an almost-sweet, fruit-forward blast followed by notes of coffee and vanilla. It would be at home glugged on its own or with a variety of grilled red meats.
I also liked Calathus Malbec 2007 ($19.95, No. 168435). If you like smooth, well-made California merlot, you will appreciate this. Notes of sweet blackberry, mocha and vanilla are carried on a creamy, crowd-pleasing texture.
Turning away from Argentina, I'd like to point out two nice pink French wines and a great Canadian "grey."
Mas Belles Eaux Rosé Collection Languedoc 2009 ($13.95, No. 117358) is delicately tinted, with a round core of strawberry-like fruit and zippy acidity. Also good and seductively pale in colour is Chateau Val Joanis Tradition Syrah Rosé 2009 ($14.95, 707281). The word austere, which generally I consider flattering in a rosé, comes to mind here. Think light strawberry flavour, lean body and a crisp, dry finish, too.
Most people think of pinot gris as a white grape because it almost always makes a white wine. But the grape's skin has a grey tinge to it. When the skin is left in contact with the juice during fermentation (a practice used in making red wine but not white), some of that colour leaches into the finished wine. I love the seductive, pale-peach hue of Nichol Vineyard September Ranch Pinot Gris 2009, available only in British Columbia at the moment, direct from the winery ($19.90 through www.nicholvineyard.com).
Domestic-wine geeks may recognize the name Nichol because its 2006 syrah garnered the highest praise from the respected British wine writer Jancis Robinson during a recent visit to the Okanagan Valley. I like the syrah too, but might actually prefer this pinot gris. Medium-bodied and bone-dry, it shows hints of strawberry, citrus and minerals. Sexy wine.
Picks of the week
Luca Chardonnay 2008 ($28.95, product No. 167338) is a big, creamy-textured chardonnay that delivers cartloads of sweet, peachy fruit but manages to stay light and remarkably crisp on the finish.
Delicately tinted Mas Belles Eaux Rosé Collection Languedoc 2009 ($13.95, No. 117358) boasts a round core of strawberry-like fruit and zippy acidity.
Available only in B.C., Nichol Vineyard September Ranch Pinot Gris 2009 ($19.90 through www.nicholvineyard.com) has a seductive, pale-peach hue and hints of strawberry, citrus and minerals.