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Originally published Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 7:06 PM

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Wine Adviser

The challenge to find a cheaper Argentinian malbec

Seattle Times wine columnist Paul Gregutt's theory is that the grape ripens especially well in Argentina due to the high-altitude vineyards. It's not uncommon to find vines at 3,500 feet, and the vineyards climb even higher, as much as 8,000 feet up into the Andes. Malbec takes a lot of sun and heat, and it gets plenty of both.

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week

Alberti 154 Malbec; $12

FROM SOUTHERN Wine Group Imports, this is on sale. The wine has a pleasing roundness, smooth tannins and is bursting with ripe berries. (Grape Expectations distributes)

WRITING RECENTLY on his blog (http://wineeconomist.com/), University of Puget Sound professor Mike Veseth posted a fascinating analysis of trends in retail wine sales. He titled it "Big versus Hot (Hot Hot)" and set out to find what wines are either bringing in the most dollars or showing the most rapid growth here in the U.S.

Part of the piece broke out sales figures by varietal, and part of it looked at sales by country of origin. In terms of big import countries, Veseth's ranking showed Italy and Australia in the lead by wide margins over the next four countries: Chile, France, Argentina and New Zealand. But in terms of who is hot, Argentina was No. 1, with sales increasing almost 28 percent over the past year.

I don't have specific numbers, but I would guarantee you that the majority of Argentina's growth is due to the popularity of the country's malbecs. Malbec is a rarely used Bordeaux blending grape, a principal grape (also called Côt) in Cahors, France, a rising star here in Washington, and a cash cow in Argentina.

Why Argentina? My theory is that the grape ripens especially well there due to the high-altitude vineyards. It's not uncommon to find vines at 3,500 feet, and the vineyards climb even higher, as much as 8,000 feet up into the Andes. Malbec takes a lot of sun and heat, and it gets plenty of both (especially ultraviolet) up that high, along with the cold nighttime mountain air that keeps acids sharp.

In recent years some major international players have set up partnerships in Argentina, and many small importers are specializing in the wines. Here in Washington, it's easy to find imported malbecs selling for less than $15, while the local bottlings start there and quickly rise in price.

I've done many previous columns that looked at the Argentine imports in all price ranges, and found that the sweet spot for both quality and value seems to be between $20 and $30. But this time around, I set the bar lower — tasting wines priced $20 and lower, hoping to find some gems in the bargain bin.

Not an easy task. I found plenty to choose from in the $8-to-$15 range, but I kissed a lot of frogs. Some are thin and watery; some suffer from bacterial problems; some are so dry and tannic that they lose all fruit character. Packaging can be cheap and cheesy, and the plonkiest wines seem to favor the hard rubber corks that are difficult to extract and, once extracted, impossible to reinsert.

The labels may confuse. Happily, they all say malbec, so you have one good leg to stand on. But some say "Oak" as if that were all the explanation required. What sort of oak, how much oak, neutral or new oak, is not divulged. One interesting label read "made with gravity flow." I know what they are getting at, but I doubt it will sell many bottles in the supermarket aisles. Old vine is another term you may encounter; I have no idea if it actually means anything.

Here are the wines that stood out in recent tastings (the distributor or importer is also named). I especially favor wines that have youthful, vibrant fruit (mostly fresh raspberry flavors), good balance, a fair amount of juicy acidity and moderate tannins. Any of these will deliver.

Martino 2009 Old Vine Malbec; $18 (Southern Wine Group)

Ricardo Santos 2008 Malbec; $18 (Cascade Trade)

Coiron 2009 Malbec; $11 (Mistica Wines)

Ruta 22 2009 Malbec; $10 (Young's-Columbia).

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt's "Washington Wines & Wineries" is now in print. His blog is www.paulgregutt.com. E-mail: paulgwine@me.com.

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About Wine Adviser

My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
paulgwine@me.com

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