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Malbec from the mountains

Ernesto "Nesti" Bajda's idea is this: Halfway up the Andes Mountains the ozone layer is thinner and the sun is more intense, so the grape skins grow thicker, making darker, more flavorful wines.

"There's less filtration from the atmosphere, which triggers mechanisms that thicken the skins and create more phenolics and antioxidants," he says.

It's a well-grounded theory. He presented it at the First International High Altitude Winemaking Symposium in California in 2007.

Bajda, winemaker at Don Miguel Gascon winery in Mendoza, Argentina, has a degree from Mendoza's Universidad Nacional de Cuyo in agricultural engineering, viticulture and oenology. He uses infrared aerial photography and GPS positioning equipment to map his vineyards on the mountainside.

It's a far cry from 20 years ago, when Argentina's malbecs were difficult to export because they were dulled by lack of modern equipment and expertise. The first vineyards were planted and the first winery built in 1884, when Miguel Escorihuela Gascon came from Aragon, Spain, to Mendoza. For nearly a century, family heirs ran the winery, and in the 1940s they bottled the first 100 percent malbec.

In 1993 it was sold to a group headed by Nicolas Catena, another pioneer of Argentine malbec. Today Catena's son, Ernesto, is president.

Gascon has 350 acres of its own grapes and long-term relationships with 150 growers. It allows Bajda to vinify hundreds of lots separately. He tastes them often as they develop, making the final selection of which goes into which wine just before bottling. "Over a long time you form in your mind which lots are going to be good," he says.

At 32, Bajda says he's had 10 years of practice in making such judgments.

Winery president Ernesto Catena, a big polo fan, built a polo field beside his vineyard, and takes teams to world competitions. Gascon is official sponsor of the Polo Life Tour, which is holding its eighth annual staging of polo on the sand at the Miami Beach Polo Cup VIII April 25-29.

Bajda jokes that when he applied to be winemaker in 2008, he tried to impress his prospective bosses by taking a shot at polo. But he's 220 pounds and, being left-handed, tended to hit the horses' flanks with his mallet. "The ponies didn't like that very much," he says.

Argentina's high-altitude connection began in 1852, when French agricultural engineer Michel Pouget, hired by the Argentine government to improve the country's grapes, devised the theory that planting grapes part way up the Andes gave them powerful sun, mountain snow melt and cool nights to preserve their refreshing acids.

Gascon's grapes are planted at 3,000 to 5,000 feet in a high desert on the eastern slope of the Andes, 700 miles from Buenos Aires on the Atlantic Ocean.

Argentina, isolated near the bottom of the world, never suffered an attack by the root louse phylloxera that devastated vineyards in France and California, so it has vines that are 150 years old. Most agree older vines make better wine.

The result: The malbec grape, which in its native France is hard as nails and is blended in small amounts into Bordeaux reds to add color, in Argentina produces wines that are deep violet in color with rich and mellow aromas and flavors of black cherries, mulberries and mocha.

Bajda's reserve malbec is blended with small amounts of petite verdot for floral aromas and cabernet franc for its spicy flavors.

"We still have a long way to go with malbec," he says. "We used to drink them within two years of bottling; today we make them to age 10 or 12 years. As we get more experience, the wines get better."

> Highly recommended:

2009 Don Miguel Gascon Reserve Malbec, Agrelo and Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina: intense aromas and flavors of blackberries and licorice, powerful and concentrated but soft in tannin, smooth and creamy, long finish; $25.

> Recommended:

2010 Don Miguel Gascon Malbec, Lujan de Cuyo and Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina: deep violet hue, intense aromas and flavors of blueberries and chocolate, very smooth body, long finish; $15.