A Guide to Pairing: Malbec

Happy World Malbec Day!

Today we’re celebrating this momentous occasion with another installment in our pairing series.  Without further ado…

A bit about Malbec:

  • While one of the notorious blenders of Bordeaux, Malbec’s fame actually came from its second home – a move to survive the phylloxera outbreak in Europe – Argentina, where it holds very high esteem both in country and internationally
  • Often thought of as the cheaper alternative to Cabernet (thanks to it’s introduction to the collective consciousness via the late-00s recession) Malbec in it’s best expressions can rival very expensive, high-end Cabs from regions like Napa Valley
  • High-altitude Reserva Malbec from Argentina have become the global standard by which all other Malbecs are judged against
  • Malbec is actually best served a touch cold.  Chilling it to cellar temp (around 58°F) actually allows the wine to open beautifully and show the depth of its full flavors – too warm, and you’ll lose all those wonderful qualities that skyrocketed this varietal wine to stardom

That said, let’s talk food (think like a chef):

Malbec can unfortunately be a bit of a chameleon in its own right.  While only a few regions produce Malbec currently, this could change over time, and quite rapidly depending on market demand.  That said, there are some signature qualities that show up regardless of growing region.  For this installment, we’ll focus on the more direct flavor profile of Argentinian Malbec as that’s what you’ll most likely find in the wild.

Best known for jammy fruit qualities swinging between blue and black fruit, Malbec has a signature – regardless of growing region – of black pepper, leather, chocolate and coffee beans.  Cooler areas achieve more cherry-like flavor profiles, and warmer regions more plum and blackberry.  Now it’s a bit clearer how this grape is considered Cab-like in flavor profile.  Another dead giveaway it’s Malbec and not a Cab is the finish; it’s much shorter and leaner than a Cab.  As we always say in this series, open a bottle before you begin pairing; it’s always best to know what style you’re bringing to the table if you’ve never had that bootle or vintage (remember, year-to-year climates change, so a bottle that looks the same year-over-year may taste dynamically different than you remember from one vintage to the next).

So safe to assume you have fruits spanning cherries to blackberries with hints of leather, coffee, chocolate, and black pepper.  Sounds pretty tasty to us!

Oh, and somehow Malbec got a bad wrap some time back as a basic “meat & potatoes” wine – which we’d highly, highly disagree with.  We strongly feel that assessment came from folks that may be a bit misconstrued by the Bordeaux origins not exactly knowing what to do with this wine’s profile.  No harm, no foul – just misunderstood.

Compare AND contrast:

Truth be told, comparable flavors can be a bit limited here.  The best you’ll do by your Malbec in cohesive flavor reaching will be a cherry-like flavored Malbec with a cherry reduction sauce over something like grilled chicken or pork. Or, a coffee rubbed chicken or pork with a Malbec exhibiting a solid coffee-like core.  We wouldn’t go as far as saying this is a boring set of flavor profiles (as it does make for excellent pairing in this manner) but it can be a bit limiting – which in all honesty, most comparable flavor pairing can become unidimensional.

Contrasting flavors are a hit however with Malbec.  For starters, Malbec is a bit-of-a-leaner big red with a medium finish, so you have a wine that is astringent enough to cut rich fats and be great by a fatty cut of steak (looking at you Wagyu…), but also not so lean to have a bigger profile against leaner red meats like Ox or Ostrich (more on the bird in a bit…).  Remember, Malbec is a bit of a chameleon.  Malbec’s terroir expressions can vary, but the core we mentioned before is a great flavor set against heartier or stalkier greens like brussel sprouts (specifically in bacon fat or roasted with bacon bits), squash, potatoes, broccoli (bacon addition applies here as well), or cauliflower.  Simple olive oil, salt and pepper preparation with baked, roasted, or or mashed (or riced) presentations makes for great food and wine fare.  Malbec also does very well against a series of South American red meat dishes, the best pairing examples being Argentinian Churrasco with chimichurri, or the (essentially) national Peruvian dish, Lomo Saltado.  Malbec also has the perfect profile for a wide array of Arepas or Empanadas.  Outside of the South American cuisine realm, lean red meat like lamb encrusted in herbs like mint and rosemary bring out the herbaceous side of the grape and make for an excellent pairing that also tames (or abates) the gamier side of the meats flavors.  And, while most folks associate pairing mushrooms with Pinot Noir (and, honestly, rightly so), Malbec actually does exceptionally well against mushrooms and mushroom-based sauces, especially when roasted.  Red bell peppers are another great roasting vegetable for Malbec pairings, bringing out the otherwise subtle pepper aspects of Malbec.

The notoriously hard-to-pair-with-reds cheese Blue cheese (or Gorgonzola cheese too), is actually very consistently harmonious with Malbec – a feat in it’s own right, and the original contender for our “Get weird” section of posts like these – utilizing the shorter wine finish to become harmonious the the shorter cheese finishes associated with these types of soft cheese.

Get weird:

Malbec and ostrich burgers.  Well, Malbec and ostrich anything really.  The leaner finish on Malbec works great against the leaner red meat of this gigantic bird, and the flavor profile of Malbec works brilliantly with the natural flavors of the meat.  But, if you’re going with the burgers, make sure to go for broke with blue cheese on your ostrich burger and Malbec pairing – or crumble some on your ostrich steak – however you please.

So there you have it, our guide for pairing Malbec.

How about you though? For our other guests, please feel free to share your pairing suggestions for Malbec in the comments below.

Cheers!

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