Thursday, December 31, 2015

Head-to-head wine tasting, Argentinian Malbec: Bodegas Caro's "Aruma" v. Susana Balbo's "Crios"

So yes, it's true, 2015 turned out to be one of the most challenging years of my entire adult life; I not only attended and graduated a computer programming bootcamp, which alone turned out to be one of the most difficult things I've ever done, I unwisely decided to try to keep my arts center up and running while in the middle of it, which among other things resulted in two anxiety attacks, a re-injury of my broken hip, a complete and total case of psychological burnout this November, and a bunch of pissed-off authors who didn't deserve to be pissed off. But things did at least end on a happy note this year -- I've lost 26 pounds in the last six weeks, am just finishing up a month-long "staycation" that has done wonders as far as recharging my system, have a plan in place for 2016 that will absolutely result in me getting a 9-to-5 job next year, and have a cute new haircut from a brand new salon to boot -- so I've decided to choose to celebrate 2015 simply for the fact that I survived it, instead of feeling discouraged by all the setbacks along the way.

Since I'm not going out for New Year's this year, I decided to celebrate instead by indulging in some gourmet cheeses and olives, something I rarely do; and I also decided to do my next head-to-head wine tasting tonight, as part of my New Year's resolution to become better educated about wine in 2016, and also as part of my resolution to start doing more creative and intellectual things just for the sake of being creative and intellectual. Since I have so few experiences at this point with really trying and understanding wine, I'm starting this process simply by making a run up and down the scale from very heavy to very light, concentrating on only the most famous grapes out there (so in other words, a series over the next few months that will likely consist of reds from heaviest to lightest, starting last week with Shiraz, then Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Gamay; then into the whites from heaviest to lightest, starting with Gewurtztraminer, then Chardonnay, Viognier, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riseling, Muscat, and finally Pinot Grigio), each time buying two bottles from competing wineries in a particularly well-known region of the world for that type of grape, so that I can try them both at once and see if I can tell any difference. As part of the Mediterranean eating plan that I've been maintaining for several years, I basically drink two glasses of wine each night; and with the average bottle of wine containing four glasses, and with me buying two of them each time, that means four days total that each new grape type will last me, meaning that it should take me about 80 days to make it through the "rainbow" of 20 grape types listed above, although let's just call that three months under the assumption that I will skip some of those days. So that should last me until the beginning of next April; then at that point I'm thinking of doing a special two- or three-month series of just French wines, because that is such a complicated system they have over there, but you can't really call yourself educated about wine until you have a grasp over the complexities and long history of what's widely considered the oldest tradition of "fine" winemaking in human existence*.

(*France of course didn't invent winemaking -- there's recorded evidence of the activity that goes all the way back to Mesopotamia in 7,000 BC, and it's been a celebrated daily part of life even back since the ancient Egyptians -- but most agree that the wine ancient people drank is what we in modern times would charitably call "crap" (barely better than vinegar, in other words), with it not being until the pagans who eventually settled France [under the horticultural influence of Greeks and Romans] that humans finally figured out around 600 BC how to properly grow, harvest and ferment grapes in a way that produces the "modern" wine we still know today.)

Tonight -- Argentinian Malbecs! Here's the story, for those like me who need the history lesson...

Malbec is essentially another type of tough, dark grape much like Syrah/Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon, and in fact certain areas of France have a history of growing it that goes all the way back to the birth of that region as wine producers; but in a temperate area like Europe these grapes have never done very well, susceptible to disease and rot that sometimes ruins entire vineyards just days before the grapes were supposed to be harvested. And similarly, Argentina doesn't exactly have a new history of winemaking either -- there have been wineries there since the 1500s, but for most of the Medieval Age this wine was used only as a cheap way to get local peasants drunk, and wasn't considered good enough to even make it worth crating up and exporting to other countries. But in the mid-1800s, though, the Argentinian government decided to up its game, and started the process by hiring a French expat to come up with a plan for the country to start making world-class wines; and the first thing he did was bring in a bunch of vine cuttings from France, including Malbec apparently on just a whim.

What everyone quickly discovered, though, was that in the mountainous area where most of Argentina's vineyards are located -- where the days are extraordinarily hot but the nights are extraordinarily cold -- this not only eliminated the mushy root rot of mushy European weather, but also encouraged higher acidity because of the cold nights, resulting in grapes that were both a lot healthier and a lot bolder in flavor. Even with this, though, Malbec for much of its Argentinian history has been just a local secret, considered for a long time by the rest of the world to be a "second-tier" grape because of European bias (the French can't grow them, after all, so the French said "how good could the grape be?," back when everyone else took all their cues off France); but it's literally only been since 9/11 that this particular type of wine has become famous worldwide, as the resulting economic crises that happened after September 11th profoundly affected the price of luxury goods like high-end wine, at which point it was dilettante drinkers like me and not the sommeliers or magazine columnists that started turning to Malbec, where they discovered that this is actually just as good as European Cabernet Sauvignon but for a fraction of the price. In fact, many consider it even better than such other heavy reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, fruiter and "crisper" (wine-speak for "higher acidity," which is sort of the difference between drinking lemonade and drinking cream); you see a lot of people describe it as "crowd-pleasing," which is a polite way of saying, "The kind of extremely dry red wine for those who profess to hate extremely dry red wine." And as a result, 75 percent of the entire planet's Malbec is now made from Argentina, and Argentina is now the world's fifth biggest seller of wine; add those together, and it gives you a good idea of just how many Americans now suddenly seem to be switching over to Argentinian Malbecs themselves, easily the hottest and trendiest wine in the US these days.

This tasting constituted my first-ever trip to the locally revered Binny's fine-wine superstore in Chicago, which was overwhelming in the most delightful way possible; they had over 50 brands of Argentinian Malbec alone, so I ended up just randomly picking two that both had tags showing off high tasting scores among the staff (91 and 88 respectively, out of 100), Bodegas Caro and Susana Balbo. (In proud "New World" tradition, both have brand names for their wines that are cuter and more easy to advertise than simply using their company name; Bodegas Caro's Malbec is called "Aruma," apparently the indigenous locals' word for "night," considered the most important aspect of Argentinian Malbec [in the cold nights of Argentina's mountains, fermentation slows to a crawl, resulting in finished wines with a lot more acid, which is what gives wine its bold, fruity flavor], while Susana Balbo's Malbec is called "Crios" which means "children," an entire line of wines at their company that are deliberately meant to be opened and drank within 24 hours of you buying it. And both companies have fascinating histories, which deserved to be remarked on in this write-up; Bodegas Caro is actually the result of one of France's most famous wineries, Barons von Rothschild (owners of the storied and historic Lafite vineyards since the 1860s), deciding to run a collaborative new winery with the famed Argentinian vintner family the Catenas (whose patriarch was the first one in Argentina to think of planting grape vineyards up in the mountains to begin with); the idea is that the Catenas bring a local expert's knowledge of Malbec grapes to the table, while the Rothschilds bring literally centuries of training and perfectionism, combining to produce what they hope is the best Argentinian wine in the country's history. And Susana Balbo (still alive and only in her sixties) comes from a winemaking family, but actually wanted to be a nuclear physicist for a living, and even got accepted to college to study the subject; but her traditionally conservative parents forbid her from doing it, so she once again defied the natural order and declared that she would in that case become one of Argentina's very first female vintners in its history, eventually becoming a high-priced local expert for a series of other wineries, then eventually in 1999 finally opening her own. 

Aruma” Malbec, 2013
Mendoza, Argentina
13.8% ABV
Binny's Rating: 91
Look: A dark purple that catches the light well, with a plain-to-see bright magenta glint on the wine's surface, a defining trait of Malbec wine.

Smell: Profoundly strong (I could literally smell the wine with the glass on the other side of the table), with a distinct odor of the less sweet types of fruit (blackcurrant, perhaps, or blackberries).

Taste: As strong and sour as the Shirazes I tried in my last tasting, but with a smoother finish. Like the Shirazes, this is a very heavy wine, and coats the mouth much like cough syrup does. I'm surprised by how incredibly similar this is to the Shirazes in both taste and texture.

After a Full Glass: See below.

Susana Balbo Wines
Crios” Malbec, 2014
Mendoza, Argentina
13.9% ABV
Binny's Rating: 88

Look: Nearly identical to the Aruma – a dark purple that shines brightly under light, with a distinct magenta glint on the wine's surface – but with more bubbles and stronger legs when poured.

Smell: Again, nearly identical to the Aruma – a profoundly strong odor I could detect all the way across the room, both of these much more than the Shirazes, with the not-quite-sweet fruity echoes of something like blackberries or blackcurrants.

Taste: Once again, nearly identical to the Aruma – strong and sour like the Shirazes, but with a smoother finish once it passes the sides of my tongue and down into my throat, with an extremely heavy texture that coats the mouth like syrup.

After a Full Glass (both): Exactly like the Shirazes, both of these Malbecs mellowed in intensity quite a bit once I poured a full glass and started drinking it with food (in this case, strong cheeses and imported olives). Paying attention like this for the first time, it's now easy to see why so many might be turned off by deep dark red wines, even though I in particular love them; because I love them for the same reason I love black coffee, because it's such an excellently overwhelming experience just on its own, while many others find that just too intense an experience, and end up not liking any of these things until it's finally been toned down by mixing it with food. It'll be interesting to move into lighter wines as the weather gets warmer in 2016, and see if this newfound attention to all the sensations of wine-drinking might result in me too now preferring the lighter and less intense wines as my occasions for drinking them become more social and in a more spring-like setting.

- x -

Conclusion: With the grapes coming from literally the same valley in Argentina, from two companies of the same scope, selling for the same price and with the same general scores from wine professionals, these naturally ended up tasting nearly identical too; which might seem to be a disappointment at first, but with me being such a beginner like I am, it's actually an instructive experience, because it shows that I can at least trust all these external factors that come saddled to each brand of wine out there in question. Later in the year I'll be mixing up tastings much more, so that there will be a world of difference between two or three or four different types of wines that might be tried in one evening (and will be doing this a lot more often with a whole group of people by later in the year too, here in my apartment in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood on Friday nights; if you want to come to one of these tastings/dinners yourself, just drop me a line at and let me know, because the more interesting strangers the better); but for now when I hardly know anything about the subject, I don't really mind two wines in one night from similar regions being similar in taste, because if nothing else it provides this really strong and memorable lesson about what the wines from that region are like.

Next time: Missouri Cabernet Sauvignons!

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