Let the conversation begin

Jeni Port
Mendoza men: The Jed Boys take a breather from the vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina. From left: Rob Bates-Smith, Tom Egan ...
Mendoza men: The Jed Boys take a breather from the vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina. From left: Rob Bates-Smith, Tom Egan and Blair Poynton. 

If malbec were human it would be the misunderstood middle child with feelings of shyness, low self-esteem and inferiority.

With so little attention, it might even consider itself unworthy of being loved.

Malbec, the ''Polyfilla'' of the Australian wine industry, ideal for plugging the cracks in cabernet sauvignon and softening its sharp edges, but little else. How sad.

It can play a handy role in a traditional Bordeaux red blend, sandwiched between cabernet sauvignon and merlot, cabernet franc and even petit verdot, but who really sees the strength of the individual grape, the redeeming qualities behind its quiet exterior? Who even knew there were redeeming qualities?

Kim Horton didn't, but he does now. In 2001, as a young winemaker new to Ferngrove, a vineyard in deepest Frankland River, he was blissfully oblivious. Following senior winemaker John Griffiths to look over the malbec fruit at harvest time that year, the scene, he recalls, was disappointing: shrivelled, over-ripe fruit.

Six months later in barrel, it was tasted and what a turnaround. The wine was so good it was bottled as a straight varietal. More than a decade later, Ferngrove continues to support malbec as a solo performer.

"A strong characteristic of malbec is not only its fleshy nature but also the colour of it," says Horton. Black as night, malbec always makes a big statement in the glass right away. This can be misleading, a little vinous trick. Is it a big wine? No, it is not. Or it shouldn't be.

Navneet ''Nav'' Singh was a winemaker working for Skillogalee in the Clare Valley when he first came across malbec. The valley is one of the few places in the country with any significant history of growing the grape. He hit the motherlode, sourcing fruit from 90-year-old vines on a vineyard block "behind" Wendouree. "I wanted to make something aromatic," he says. "Deliciousness was the baseline for me."

It's a fine ambition to have for a wine. He succeeded brilliantly, releasing his first malbec, from the 2012 vintage, under his own label, the Matchbox Wine Co. For his second release he went for a joven style, to use the Spanish designation, a wine made and released soon after. He had tapas in mind when he made it.


Sharing winemaking similarities to a Beaujolais (carbonic maceration, whole bunches, stalks and all) the 2013 bounces with a super fresh juiciness. "The concentration of fruit is so good," he says of the grape, "you don't have to tinker with anything."

Horton and Singh are young enough to be without prejudice when it comes to malbec and are reaching out to their peers. It might just be the making of the grape as a stand-alone wine in this country.

That - and Argentina. If you want to learn about just how good malbec can be by itself, sans cabernet and friends, look to South America.

In 2010, Melbourne sommeliers-turned-wine marketers, Dan Sims and his buddy Ben Edwards did just that, travelling to the country's biggest wine region and rising wine star, Mendoza. Two Men In Mendoza 2012 malbec rose and a straight 100 per cent malbec are the result.

There were trials aplenty during their sourcing of the grapes in Mendoza's Uco Valley and the making of the wines, something that will play out in a mini-series on their website in the coming year (thewineguide.com.au). "We wanted to create a conversation about style," says Sims. Diversity was the counterpoint with malbec offering a contrast, a possible respite in a rigid modern wine diet dominated by just a few grape varieties.

Another group of Australian makers travelling down Argentina's malbec wine road go under the collective title Jed Wine Merchants. The three young winemakers/importers - Blair Poynton, Rob Bates-Smith and Tom Egan - have also chosen the Uco Valley in Mendoza, a place where the vineyards are some of the highest in the world, including one at an astonishing 2300 metres. They offer yet another conversation about malbec, using biodynamic winemaking, or is it simply that in a country with 450 years of wine history this less-is-more kind of approach is the norm?

Malbec seems to have been around for so long, a veritable piece of the furniture on the Australian wine scene, but here, at this time we are privy to a sort of reawakening, a revival at the very least, which carries with it some racy, damson plums and earthy, blackberry, peppery, gamey, savoury distractions.

The middle child breaks out.

Malbec: From here and there . . .

Ferngrove 2010 King Malbec, $32
Malbec as a sophisticated young wine, beautifully balanced and plush with blackberry fruits, chocolate, red licorice strap intensity and spice. Dry and savoury.

Matchbox Wine Co. 2012 Malbec Joven, $30
A picture of vibrant colour and energy, with the scent of dusty beetroot, herbal leafiness and blue fruits slipping into an utterly exuberant fruit-fuelled drink. Velvety texture.

Two Men In Mendoza 2012 Malbec, $25
Fruit led and some lively, racy fruit it is, too, led by the rich scent of spiced-soaked black fruits and blueberries with the lift of fresh violets. Generous but still nicely medium-bodied, it slips across the tongue.

Tahuan Malbec 2011, $30
One of the more savoury, meaty, gamey, earthy expressions of malbec about, lifted by a whole lot of aniseed spice and toasty oak. Not shy. Imported by Jed Wine Merchants.