Malbec makes for flavoursome blend

Last updated 14:35 19/06/2014

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For those who love Bordeaux-blend reds, Hawke's Bay is the darling among New Zealand's grape-growing regions.

Our second largest wine region, Hawke's Bay has a long history (for New Zealand) of producing high-quality red wines. We recently wrote of the Marist missionaries who first planted vines there as early as 1851.

In recent times, the name Gimblett Gravels has become highly regarded by wine enthusiasts and grape growers for its ability to produce stunning wines. This Hawke's Bay sub-region at the base of Roy's Hill near Hastings has free-draining soils, low fertility and high summer temperatures. As a result grape vines have reduced vigour and produce light crops of fruit with ripe, concentrated flavours.

Saint Clair is one of many producers that has expanded its estate-owned properties to include a vineyard in this highly acclaimed spot. Neal and Judy Ibbotson say that they have been sourcing fruit from Gimblett Gravels for a number of years and when a vineyard came up for sale, "it was an opportunity too good to miss".

It's a great place for growing cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and syrah. While syrah is not a variety associated with classic Bordeaux blends, it certainly grows well in the Gimblett Gravels environment.

This week we review Saint Clair's Gimblett Gravels Malbec - and make the observation that it's yet another varietal New Zealand can run with. Recent statistics tell us 140 hectares nationally are planted in malbec with the greatest concentration of plantings being in Hawke's Bay and Auckland. Marlborough producer Fromm also grows what the company describes as its "eccentric grape". In fact, they can lay claim to owning New Zealand's oldest malbec vines.

The French were the first to cotton on to the fact that malbec is a great blending variety; when added to merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc it adds deep colour and rich, sweet fruit flavours. A native to southern France, and more particularly the area around Cahors, it has become known as "the black grape of Cahors". There it must constitute a minimum of 70 per cent of any AOC (Appellation Controlee) Cahors wine, the remainder of the blend being merlot and tannat.

A good blender it may be, but it is also a wonderful variety in its own right and has become Argentina's flagship variety; the country is now home to the largest malbec plantings in the world. Malbec was initially successful in the vineyards of Mendoza, so much so that it soon became internationally famous and made Argentina an internationally respected wine-producing nation.

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South American malbec has come into its own for several reasons not least because, susceptible to frost in its homeland, it has done well in the high, dry climate Argentina offers.

Malbec grapes are black skinned, small and intensely coloured, and in ideal conditions they ripen midway through the growing season. The ripeness that can be achieved has a marked effect on the style of the wine. Here we borrow from past observations: French malbec tends to be plummy, meaty, rustic and tannic while Argentinian styles are big, bold, ripe, muscular, and full of jammy fruitiness.

In the United States malbec is used in a Meritage blend (wines made exclusively from cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, petit verdot and produced in quantities of no more than 25,0000 cases per annum). Meritage is a trademarked name and can only be used by companies belonging to the Meritage Association. As you can imagine, the wines are expensive.

Both here and in Australia, malbec is often blended with soft, less tannic merlot. The result is a lively fruit-driven wine often with plenty of plum, currant, oak and spice flavours.

And so we return to today's featured wine.

Saint Clair Premium Hawke's Bay Malbec 2013 ($24.99)

Opaque, ruby with flashes of purple.

The smoky, plum and chocolate aroma is slightly earthy, deep and very satisfying.

This young, lively wine is drinking well. Lots of lovely sweet plummy flavour supported by mocha and smoky oak. Firm tannins and acid spine tell us this wine will develop nicely over the next year or two.

Fresh rather than chewy, medium-bodied and very enjoyable.

Saint Clair Vicar's Choice Sauvignon Blanc Bright Light 2013 ($19.50)

Just 9.5 per cent alcohol with a lively gooseberry and capsicum aroma, crisp and herbaceous, this one presses all the right buttons.

A light wash of flavour with crisp acidity on the palate. This is a light version of Marlborough's classic sauvignon blanc, is ripe and juicy with melon, currant and tropical/passionfruit flavours. There's a slightly sweet citrus finish and we are left with the opinion that this wine meets label expectations - it is light and bright.

As with all the "lower alcohol" wines coming onto the market there will be some compromise in terms of depth of flavour and palate weight or texture - you need more alcohol to deliver these.

This said, here we have a good example of what can be achieved.

- The Marlborough Express

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