Malbec is a wine for recessionary times. This red, found in the South American aisle of wine shops, is affordable, with plenty of pleasing offerings in the $10 to $18 range. And the "luxury" end of the malbec line usually lands in the $20 to $30 area, leagues below other high-end wines.
Almost all malbecs are pleasant, easy-to-drink wines. "For people who like full-bodied reds, they are a great substitute for cabernet or merlot," says Vicki Schassler, co-owner of the Spirits of Mt. Vernon wine shop in downtown Baltimore.
Few pack the fireworks that vintage French or California reds deliver. But on wintry nights, with meals of root vegetables or roasted meats, they provide pleasant, affordable company.
In France, malbec has been used primarily as a blending agent. It came into its own as a stand-alone varietal when South American vintners began growing it on the mountainsides of Argentina and Chile. Malbec grapes grown at higher altitudes have less yield but more developed flavors than those grown in the valleys, said Matt Wood, a wine specialist at the Wine Source in Hampden.
As for taste, Wood's colleague, Ian Stalfort, describes malbec as "rich, but smooth, supple and soft." Unlike other inexpensive reds, malbecs have enough substance to keep you interested, he said.
For my tasting, I sampled malbecs in three price ranges: $11 and under, $12 to $19 and more than $19. I picked my favorites in each tier.
$11 and under
Dona Paula 2007 Los Cardos Malbec:
Mendoza, Argentina, $10.99. 14 percent alcohol by volume. Maryland distributor: Bacchus Importers
My favorite in the bargain tier, this is a lush wine filled with ripe fruit flavors that border on sweetness, but pull back at the right moment. An excellent weeknight sipper.
Antonietti 2004 Malbec :
Mendoza, Argentina, $9.99. 14 percent alcohol by volume. Maryland distributor: Bacchus Importers
This malbec has distinct tannins, which make it a good companion for roasted meats.
$12 to $19
Andeluna 2005 Winemakers Selection Malbec:
Mendoza, Argentina, $13. 13.4 percent alcohol by volume. Maryland distributor: Country Vintners
This wine, my favorite in its category, had terrific black-cherry flavor and a touch of acidity.
Viu Manent 2007 Reserva:
Colchagua, Chile, $13.99. 14.5 percent alcohol by volume. Maryland distributor: Mondo Vino
Firm tannins give structure to this malbec from Chile, but also an acidity that tends to override the fruit.
Broquel 2006 Malbec:
Mendoza, Argentina, $15.99. 14 percent alcohol by volume. Maryland distributor: F.P. Winner
A pleasant wine aged in oak, this strikes a nice balance between fruit and acid.
More than $19
Angelica Zapata 2004 Malbec Alta:
Mendoza, Argentina, $29.99. 13.9 percent alcohol by volume. Maryland distributor: Reliable Churchill
This was a remarkably smooth, almost purple wine, my favorite in this upper-crust tier. A rich and well-balanced red.
Mapema 2006 Malbec:
Mendoza, Argentina, $19.99. Maryland distributor: Bacchus Importers
Cherry flavors with a hint of chocolate could be found in this well-behaved but slightly shy red.