The success story of Argentine malbec is well documented. A once important part of Bordeaux blends, contributing firm tannins and dark, brambly fruit flavours, it fell out of favour after a terrible frost in 1956 wiped out most of the crop. But it was reinvented in Argentina, which began to produce good value, richly fruited, velvety malbec, shot through with appealing acidity and lightness of touch on the palate: ideal with steak and other red meats and a winning combination with UK consumers.
Some of the best malbecs are now being produced in high-altitude vineyards in the Andes, where a combination of long hours of intense, UV-heavy sunlight, balanced by cooler air at night and a long growing period, can produce some remarkable wines, with vibrant, alive flavours.
For more on the detail of why high-altitudes vineyards can produce great wines – and not just malbec – read here, but try for yourself just how fine some of the wines are.
Firstly, from grapes grown at 1700m in the Cafayate region of Argentina, the Piattelli Premium Reserve Malbec 2017 (£16.29 haywines.co.uk; £12.49 strictlywine.co.uk, minimum order six bottles) is just quite astonishingly good, with vibrant flavours of blackberries and blueberries simply bursting out, with slight notes of spicy smokiness.
Equally stunning is the Familia Zuccardi Malbec Q (£14.95 winesdirect.co.uk; £15.99 virginwines.co.uk) from the Uco Valley in Mendoza, where some judicious oak adds notes of coffee and chocolate to the blueberry/blackberry mix.
- Read more
While one of the great things about malbec is that it is normally possible to find excellent wines at relatively decent prices – I would happily serve both the previous two at dinner parties – there are also more premium, single-vineyard, high-altitude wines around for special occasions.
So, if it’s a porterhouse steak for two type of meal, then you might splash out on the Cantana alta Malbec 2015 (£29.99 waitrose.com; £33.00 or £29.70 if bought as part of a mixed six-bottle purchase, majestic.co.uk). It is made by the company that has pioneered high-altitude winemaking in Mendoza and is taken from selected rows in four vineyards at between 920m and 1450m, the latter being one of the highest in the world. It is a full-bodied, firmly structured wine, with layers of fruit and spice lingering on the palate. And if you can refrain from drinking it, the flavour will improve for years.
On the other side of the Andes, Chile is now also producing reds of real quality from another once-neglected European varietal, such as the Viña Falernia Carmenere Gran Reserva, 2015 (£14.95 greatwesternwine.co.uk). From high-altitude vineyards in the Elqui Valley, this features voluptuous brambly fruits, the hints of chocolate and green pepper so characteristic of carménère, and is given extra complexity and heft from partially sun-drying some of the grapes, the same process as used in Italian amarone.
But it’s not just about big reds for red meat, high-altitude vineyards can give thrilling freshness and intensity to white wines. Back in Argentina, in the Tupungato region of the Uco Valley, the Andeluna 1300 2018 (£11.86 corkingwines.co.uk; £12.60 winepoole.co.uk) is another wine where the flavours of tropical fruits, peaches and aromas of jasmine and fresh flowers are stunning in their immediacy and vibrancy. A brilliant aperitif or for simple grilled white fish.
And, moving continents, from South Africa, comes a sauvignon blanc with intense, grassy, citrus and green herbal flavours: the Cederberg Sauvignon Blanc 2018 (£13.99 virginwines.co.uk) comes from organic vineyards in a remote region 1000m high in the Western Cape. If you like Marlborough sauvignon, but want something a little more rounded and fulsome, this is for you.
Here in Europe, there are also great high-altitude wines to be found. While many are made in Switzerland, few find their way to these shores, so seek out wines from the Alto Adige, Italy’s German-speaking bit of the Alps on the border with Austria, which is developing a reputation for excellent wines, made from grapes grown on sun-drenched slopes. In the case of the Tramin Alto Adige 2018 Gewürztraminer (£16.40 winepoole.co.uk; £16.95 hic-winemerchants.com), it’s from slopes up to 850m and from a village said to be the original home of the grape.
Quite simply one of the most exquisite GWs I’ve tasted, with extraordinarily aromatic, intense, complex flavours of tangerine peel, tropical fruits, lychees, ginger and real spice, shot through with fresh acidity. A great wine for quite serious foods, such as veal escalopes in mustard sauce or Chinese pork belly.
Finally to the Troodos mountains in Cyprus where the local xynisteri grape is grown in vineyards at 1400m – said to be the highest in Europe – to make the Kyperounda Petritis 2017 (£12.80 thedrinkshop.com; £14.99 novelwines.co.uk). It is packed with citrus, lychee and gooseberry flavours, all nicely rounded and mouth-filling, made distinctive with touches of vanilla; ideal with all fish and lighter shellfish dishes and, of course, feta cheese. And more high-quality flavour from high-altitude wines.