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You can’t tell from a quick glance at the shelves of most local wine stores that Argentina is the fifth-largest producer of wine in the world. While this may be partly due to the Argentines’ thirst — they drink over 90 percent of their country’s production — it may also have to do with the fact that most Americans think of Evita and tango more than wine when they think of Argentina. But the fine wines and great values coming from Argentina are going to change that. If you aren’t familiar with Argentine wines, you may have never heard of their signature grape, malbec. A red-grape variety, malbec was traditionally a blending grape used in the Bordeaux region of France to add color and tannin to wine. Though the grape has fallen out of favor with the Bordelais in recent years, it has risen to pre-eminence in Argentina, where the climate and conditions result in a fruity and soft yet full-bodied wine. And the region thought to provide the finest expression of the grape is the one around the city of Mendoza. To get a sense of what Argentina has to offer right now, I recently gathered a dozen currently available examples of Mendoza malbec. While Mendoza malbecs can range in cost from more than $100 a bottle to less than $100 a case, I focused on the sweet spot of $10 to $20 per bottle. The array of styles and quality available in this range is dizzying and only roughly correlated to price. Four wines clearly rose to the top. Taking the top spot, the 2003 Luigi Bosca Reserva ($15) shows exceptional balance and elegance. Dusty, dry earth and dark fruit aromas give way to mellow ripe fruit flavors, good acidity, silky tannins, and a long, smooth finish. Although not quite a “fruit bomb,” the wine certainly showcases fruit, with its other attributes playing supporting roles. On the other side of the spectrum, but just as good, the 2004 Susana Balbo ($20) smells like a box of baking spices with a hint of ripe plum and dark chocolate. Bright fruit and sweet oak complement the spices on the palate, resulting in a well-rounded wine. Just off the pace, the 2004 Catena from Bodega Catena Zapata and the 2004 Ben Marco from Dominio del Plata (both $18) are excellent examples of the varietal. The Catena opens with a big whiff of new oak and sweet fruit on the nose and finishes with flavors of cinnamon, chocolate, and blackberries. Although it needs a few more years to develop, the Ben Marco is full of flavor even now. Aromas of vanilla mix with intense, if somewhat jumbled, fruit flavors, resulting in an extracted low-acid hedonistic wine. Another four wines falling into the “pretty good but not great” category had some small problems that detracted from their overall enjoyment. Expressing no obvious flaws, the 2004 Bodegas Salentein ($13) and 2004 Felipe Rutini ($16) are pleasant, but lack any real “oomph” and come off as a little thin. The 2005 Altos Las Hormigas ($11) seems slightly out of balance, with otherwise pleasant notes of spice and eucalyptus overwhelming tangy, barely ripe fruit flavors. Similarly, the 2003 Kaiken Ultra ($18, made by the Montes winery of Chile) lacks balance. Aromas and flavors of tart, stewed fruit, and too much oak result in a disjointed wine. Bringing up the rear were a couple of big names and a couple of value-priced wines. The unpleasant 2005 Achaval Ferrer ($20) looks cloudy, smells funky, and tastes sour (two bottles were tasted with similar results). Bodega Norton’s 2004 Reserve ($15) displays straightforward aromas of strawberries, but peters out once in the mouth. The lowest level of Bodega Catena Zapata — the 2005 Alamos ($10) — lacks any real structure and provides only slightly sweet candied fruit flavors. And the lowest level of Bodegas Escorihuela Gascon — Don Miguel Gascon 2005 ($10) — smells like slightly putrid mulch. Although the tasting showed how these fresh wines stack up, one question it didn’t address was, “Can these wines age?” But a recent trip to Argentina gave me the opportunity to taste a number of malbecs with a few years under their belts. Most of the 2000s and 2001s I tasted there maintained their fruity natures while also having developed some pleasant secondary flavors and aromas that come with bottle age. Even older, a 1996 Luigi Bosca malbec/petit verdot blend (consumed with the finest Argentine beef) was sublime. Displaying dark fruit and wet earth aromas and flavors, the wine, which should continue to evolve and improve for the next few years, shows that Mendoza malbecs can age like other fine wines. But while you wait, there are plenty of great malbecs to enjoy now.
Phillip Dub� is an attorney and freelance writer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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