I bought a bottle of Coppola Diamond Series Malbec on my way home last night. I don't usually drink the varietal, but I had malbec on my mind, so I figured I'd pick up a bottle.

  Ten or fifteen years ago, everybody was drinking merlot. It was easy to pronounce, and it was widely produced in a fruit-forward style. Then, the hot thing was Australian shiraz, for similar reasons. Then some movie came out and the wine of the times was pinot noir. So what's the next big thing?

  While we were in California in August, that was one of the questions we asked Jim Collins, the senior director of coastal wine growing for Gallo. His answer? Malbec. He says growers in California are tearing up other varietals to make space for new malbec plantings.


Malbec's Roots

  The story is that malbec originally came from France, where it was grown as one of a few varietals blended in Bordeaux, and also from the region of Cahors in the Southwest of France, where the wines are composed of at least 70% malbec. The grape didn't really come to mass appeal until relatively recently, and from a perhaps unexpected area: South America. Chile and Argentina are quickly becoming known for this signature grape. As of now, malbec is grown in California, but mostly in small quantities for use in Bordeaux-styled blends.

  Here's the part where I lose friends: I'm just not that big of a fan. It seems to me that there's always something missing, that flair of elegance that makes a wine truly world-class. Then again, every time I tell a colleague this, I get a dirty look. People who like their malbec can get a little fanatical about it. With a flavor profile somewhere between cabernet and merlot, malbec tends to have plush fruit, backed with light tannins. As with all wine, I try to keep an open mind:


Some Tasting Notes

  As I said, last night I picked up a bottle of Coppola Diamond Series Malbec (I had the 2006). Even the label pays tribute to the grape's South American nature its Celestial Blue references Argentina's flag. The wine is decent, I suppose. A nose of plum and blueberry and hints of vanilla and wood lead to a somewhat hard and acidic red that shows a fair amount of plum fruit. The finish is a bit austere but not too tannic. I didn't finish the bottle, so I have more to look forward to tonight.

  A more austere malbec is the 2007 Clos la Coutale Cahors. This is just about as rustic as malbec gets, but in a good way. The nose is dusty with dried herbs and cedar. There is more fruit on the palate than the nose lets on, a thin, dry, tart cherry fruit, balanced with rustic, dusty tannins. Surprisingly, the thing reminds me of some young top-notch 2005 Bordeaux I tasted recently, if less complex aromatically. This is a great value if you like malbec, be sure to check out Cahors for a more old-world style.

  Then there's the other world of malbec, the ultra-modern. I've tasted a lot of South American malbec lately, and it seems that the best are plush, jammy, modern wines that pack a punch for the price:

  At $7.99, the 2008 Maipe Malbec is a huge value. Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate gives it 90 points, using the phrase gobs of fruit, which I totally agree with. But not only fruit, the Maipe has a pudding-like amount of vanilla and cocoa. It isn't super-complex, but I could drink it all day.

  For a little more money, the 2007 Marchiori & Barraud Malbec is a knockout, with big cassis and raspberry fruit, plus a more restrained use of oak, and enough tannic structure to hint at balance and elegance. Good stuff. Also, keep your eye out for the 2006 Benegas Malbec Libertad Vineyards, which just arrived at Binny's. It's another plush Argentinian Malbec combining deep berry fruit with plush cocoa and vanilla (Binny's currently carries the less expensive Juan Benegas Malbec, another good value, but when tasted side by side, the Libertad Vineyards really shows as the better wine).


Malbec: The Future?

  So what do you think? Do you have some favorite Malbec? Where is it from? Will malbec really be the next big thing from California? I think it might be, but I guess that in the end, it's up to you.