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Malbec blooms in Argentina

I wish to report, modestly, that I wrote a wine column in May 1997 that started like this:

"You read it here first: Malbec, given time, will be the finest wine to come from Argentina. It will put that country's arid, isolated wine country on the world map."

Today I submit that it has happened, in spades.

Malbec came to Miami first because of our cultural connections to South America. Today it's all over the wine world, by far Argentina's most popular export wine. And amazingly, you will find tasting notes here for two malbecs that still cost only $6 each.

What we've learned since 1997 is that malbec is malleable. It can be turned into a pretty good $6 wine -- nothing you'd cellar for decades, but a rich, fruity, user-friendly everyday wine. And it can be turned into a $55 stunner that's little short of majestic.

Centuries ago, malbec was a minor grape used along with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot and cabernet in the blending of France's vaunted Bordeaux reds. It was inky black and hard as nails in France's maritime climate, and was used to add color and structure to the wines.

In Argentina, on the sunny eastern slopes of the Andes around Mendoza, with its hot days and cold nights, high altitudes, near total lack of rainfall and poor soils, malbec was transformed. In a blind tasting, I would identify it as tasting just like those Brach's candies: black cherries and dark chocolate, sweet, rich and creamy.

At Trapiche, Argentina's biggest winery with 2,500 acres divided into dozens of vineyards under dozens of growers, all malbec winemaking is concentrated under a single winemaker, Daniel Pi.

Each year Trapiche chooses three of its top growers and bottles their wines exclusively for distribution. One of them this year is the "Icons" single-vineyard malbec by grower Adolfo Ahumada, from 3,000 feet up the Andes at Valle de Uco.

Another top winery, Michel Torino Estate, makes malbec with organic grapes, fertilizing with sheep manure (Aren't you glad to know?), cutting weeds with machetes, adding less sulfur as a preservative in the final product.

So enjoy. Just don't tell the Argentines how good their wines are. I'm afraid they'll jack up their prices.

> Highly recommended:

2010 Michel Torino Malbec, Cafayate Valley, Argentina: black cherry and dark chocolate flavors, full-bodied, big, ripe tannins; $13.

2007 Trapiche "Icons" Malbec Single Vineyard Vina Adolfo Ahumada, Mendoza, Argentina: aromas of cedar and smoke, concentrated mulberry and mocha flavors, big, ripe tannins, smooth, long finish; $55.

> Recommended:

2008 Trapiche Broquel Malbec, Mendoza: soft and rich, with flavors of black plums and mocha, ripe tannins, very smooth; $15.

2009 Falling Star Malbec, Cuyo, Argentina: soft, sweet and ripe, with black plum and cinnamon flavors; $6.

2010 Astica Malbec, Cuyo, Argentina: soft and sweet, with black cherry and milk chocolate flavors; $6.

2009 Trapiche Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina: black cherry and coffee flavors, big, ripe tannins, very smooth; $7.

2008 Michel Toreno Malbec "Don David" Malbec, Cafayate Valley, Argentina: hint of oak, flavors of black currants and coffee, with firm tannins; $16.

2010 Michel Torino Estate "Cuma" Malbec, Cafayate Valley, Argentina: flavors of black plums and prunes and cinnamon, rich and soft; $13.

2008 Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina: hint of vanilla from oak aging, flavors of black cherries and black pepper, concentrated; $10.