Cruz Andina, Mendoza (Argentina) Malbec 2006 (Huneeus Vintners LLC, $20): When I prepared to taste this wine, I had mixed expectations. I wanted to like it, and expected to like it, because I have so much admiration for the Huneeus family, which owns the Quintessa estate in Napa Valley and the Veramonte winery in Chile. But how much can you expect these days from a $20 wine? And does the world need really another Argentine Malbec?
It turns out that this is not just another Argentine Malbec. Besides the Huneeus imprimatur it carries the pedigree of Carlos Pulenta, who is nearly royalty within the Argentine wine industry. The Pulenta family founded Argentina’s largest wine operation, Peñaflor, of which the Trapiche winery is a part. When Peñaflor was sold, Carlos ran the start-up Bodegas Salentein, an ambitious new wine estate in the Uco Valley district southwest of the city of Mendoza. He segued into his own, smaller winery, Finca & Bodega Carlos Pulenta, in the Lujan de Cuyo district north of Uco Valley. He and his family own hundreds of acres of prime vineyard land. Most of the grapes for Cruz Andina come from Pulenta vineyards, 3200 feet in altitude in the Lujan de Cuyo district and dating back to 1948. The remaining grapes come from 25-year-old vines at 4000 feet altitude in the Uco Valley.
A third partner in the Cruz Andina venture is consultant winemaker Alvaro Espinosa. One of the most respected and successful red wine specialists in Chile, and a consultant on the Veramonte team, he oversees site selection, vineyard canopy management, and winemaking practices for Cruz Andina through to the final blend.
The blend for this inaugural vintage is composed 85% of Malbec, 10.5% of Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% of Merlot and 1.5% of Bonarda. The wine is a dark, powerful, dense red with a considerable amount of oak influence when you first open the bottle. These descriptors suggest a wine that I would normally not recommend; the difference between this wine and most dark, powerful, dense reds, however, is the fact that winemaking technique does not overpower the wine’s very good raw material. Despite the obvious ripeness of fruit that endows the wine with its 14.5% alcohol, the aromas and flavors suggest fresh fruit -- blackberry and plum -- rather than baked fruit. Mint and mineral notes complement and complex the fruitiness. The wine’s texture is supple and rich, with soft, ripe grape tannins along with firm oak tannins from 16 months of French oak aging (but only 30% of the oak was new). The wine is very engaging and genuinely good.
I found that this wine improves quite a lot with air; its oakiness diminishes, its texture softens and its fruit character takes center stage. How it responds to aeration and the wine’s concentration of fruit character both suggest that it can age nicely for a few years. In the meantime, consider decanting it or using large glasses.
The Huneeus family is entrenched in both California and Chile, but until now, has never produced a wine from across the Andes, in Argentina. Cruz Andina is an auspicious addition to their repertoire.