Malbec Beckons

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south america has been one of the rising stars in the wine world for the last two decades. unlike australia, however, the prices of most south american wines have not risen significantly. chilean merlots began showing up in north american wine stores decades ago and they remain bargains, while ultra-expensive wines like australia's "australis" are becoming more and more common.

even more of a mecca for bargain vino than chile, however, is argentina. many international grapes, like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, thrive there, especially on the sunny, fertile plateau of the mendoza area. these grapes, which were originally grown to produce "california style" wines, are now coming into their own, and an argentinian chardonnay now tastes like, well, an argentinian chardonnay. softer and riper with telltale tropical fruit flavors, the white wines from argentina are a surefire bet when you need something refreshing and inexpensive.

as far as reds are concerned, however, one grape rises above them all in argentina: malbec. it has traveled a long way to get to where it is now considered king, however. a hundred years ago, malbec was used much more prominently in the blending of red bordeaux wines. while it is still legal to use small amounts of malbec in bordeaux, it is very rarely done. at the same time, south of bordeaux in the cahors region, malbec was being blended with the rustic tannat grape to make the namesake "black wine" of that area. once it traveled across the atlantic to argentina, however, the grape took on a softer, less tannic and riper flavor profile.

the typical argentinian malbec can be anywhere from medium- to full-bodied, but it will always have dark fruit up front and a little spice on the finish. not as jammy as a warm climate syrah or shiraz, spicier than merlot and less tannic than cabernet sauvignon, malbec has a character all its own.

if you're a first timer with malbec, a great place to start is simple and inexpensive. enrique foster ique malbec 2008 ($8.33 @ cabrini wines, 831 w. 181st st. @ cabrini blvd., 212-568-3226) is a fantastic basic malbec that won't throw your palate or

pocketbook for a loop. on the lighter side of the grape, it starts with ripe cherry and plum fruit. the finish balances out the fruitiness with notes of cinnamon and pipe tobacco. it's great all by itself, but it's even better with a chicken empanada.

the malbec grape has a dark side to it, as i mentioned before, even in sunny argentina. when allowed to ripen to its fullest and spend time in oak to mature, you can wind up with a serious wine that has bigger and bolder flavors. the punto final malbec 2008 ($10.95 @ sherry-lehman, 505 park avenue betw. 59th and 60th streets, 212-838-7500) is darker and more muscular than the ique. with baked fruit flavors of black currant and blueberry, the intensity follows through the middle with smoky notes and finishes with a hefty dollop of black pepper and vanilla. while there's a lot of fruit up front on this wine, it definitely fares better with food. preferably something grilled that was, at one point, attached to a mooing animal.

if you're entertaining and you want to share your south american find with your friends and family, the astica malbec 2008 ($10.99 @ grapes the wine company, comes in a party-friendly magnum. remarkably full of flavor for the low price point, this malbec has the signature dark berry-driven fruit up front and zing of spice on the finish, but with a little less smoky oak.

for a grape that once played second fiddle in bordeaux, this storied berry needs absolutely no help being delicious and inexpensive south of the equator.">

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