Celebrating Malbec World Day with Phil Crozier

April 17th is Malbec World Day and to celebrate I thought I would catch up with the Malbec Man himself, Phil Crozier. He is the European Brand Ambassador for Wines of Argentina and former Director of Wine for the Gaucho Restaurants Group.

Like many of us, Phil just fell into the wine industry. Starting at Gaucho restaurants as a Manager in 1994, it was in 1999 that he was asked to look over the wine list and make it better. Phil felt strongly that an Argentinian Steakhouse should have an Argentinian wine list, and so he went in search of the best wines of Argentina. After calling every supplier, he found out there were only 13 wineries in the whole of the UK, an almost laughable figure given the state of play now (with around 150 reaching our shores annually). Even more shocking, he recalls there being just 2 or 3 Malbecs available. By 2015 Phil had a wine list of 250 Argentinian wines, was visiting the vineyards and their winemakers twice a year and introducing small wineries into the UK market through his current suppliers who didn’t previously have representation. We could say that Phil was rather instrumental in raising the numbers of Malbec offerings we see in this country. Phil, we salute you for this

As we chatted over a glass of Malbec, I began to learn that we are only at the beginning of Malbec’s journey of discovery. Phil tells me that he brought a bottle of Zuccardi Poligonos ‘Paraje Altamira’ Malbec 2016. Why I ask? Because it’s a great example of where Argentina is going.

Paraje Altamira is the first IG (Geographical Indication) based not on a political boundary but as a geological boundary (based entirely on understanding the composition of the soil) “There are new IG’s coming on board almost every week. I can’t wait for that to be done, so we can see these on the labels. The grape varieties will take more of a back seat and it will be about the regions, like the old world.” Phil explains. Paraje Altamira is in The Uco Valley, Mendoza. Gone are the days of just ordering a simple Argentinian Malbec. Now more than ever, it is worth knowing the subregions within each area. What makes Altamira special is its amount of chalk. This comes out into the wine and adds purity.

Just trying to understand the complexity of Uco Valley in Mendoza.

In the last few years, the talk has always been on high altitude Malbec and to demonstrate this fact Phil explains to me how in Uco Valley alone, the temperature ranges from that of Burgundy to that of Tuscany. Their plantings start at 1080 metres above sea level and finish at 1900 metres. The calculation to remember is every 155 metres you rise you lose 1 degree Celsius. So we’re talking a big difference in temperature.

However, no matter the differences that brings to the grape, Phil informs me that the biggest change for Argentinian wine is actually understanding the soils. And that’s exactly what Argentina is doing. To be able to understand the soil is to be able to make different wines.

He tells me this focus on sense of place and understanding of terroir, is not just happening in Mendoza but the whole of Argentina. “It is unprecedented what Argentina has done to wine. I take my hat off to them. 20 years ago, the winemakers hardly ever travelled, making wines that nobody took seriously. They were mostly over-ripe, over-oaked and over-extracted, but now there is a generation of winemakers that want to make their own wines and not copy the rest of the world. There is a real purity to the wines. And everyone, with a few exceptions, is discovering their own terroir.” What this has all accumulated to in Argentina is a deep understanding of where to plant, how high to plant, how much to water, and when to harvest.

Phil explains that, in the past, flood irrigation was the popular choice to irrigate the vines. They are aware of their rockier soils now, such as in Paraje Altamira. Equally, because rocks lose the water too quickly, the irrigation methods have been changed. In terms of altitude, they now know that above 1500 metres above sea level, the vines undergo very different types of stress. Abscisic acid (a plant hormone) is found in much greater levels at these heights and this regulates the ripeness of the grapes and affects the length of time that the winemakers are choosing to mature the fruit. Of course this, alongside cooler temperatures at altitude, means higher acidity and lower alcohol. The lower yields give more concentration. They are using this knowledge of how the plant is stressed out at different altitudes to make decisions on the use of leaf canopy and the position in which they plant the vines. 20 years ago, it was believed that Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec wouldn’t ripen as they wouldn’t reach phenolic ripeness. The man that changed all that was Nicolas Catena. He started in the late 80s planting at higher altitude. “Catena Zapata has an old vineyard in Lunlunta in a very old part of Mendoza. It straddles Luján de Cujo and Maipú. He took 100’s of cuttings of Malbec from around Mendoza and grew them in this vineyard. He weeded out the best ones and they came down to 15 clones. You will find most of these plantings now in Gualtallary, Vista Flores, Paraje Altamira (all in Uco Valley – the high-altitude area) are from Lunlunta.”

Phil adds: “As a grape variety, Malbec is very moody.” Explaining further, I discover that Malbec is quite a sensitive variety.  Very often people talk about the thickness of Malbec’s skins but I learn it is very easy to break. “It’s not as tough as everyone says it is.” Additionally, Malbec likes to cling to the wire when growing, so it requires a skilled workforce. For that, the pickers get paid double the price to pick Malbec than any other grape variety in Argentina.  With the subject directly on Malbec, I asked Phil a few quick fire questions on this beautiful grape:

How do you describe Malbec to people?

“It’s a great variety that originated from France that was brought across in 1853 with all the other Bordeaux varietals, and that has found its home. Argentina is its home. It is a grape variety that gives you opulence, richness, complexity. It has a melted chocolate feel that is very satisfying. It has complete ease of drinking; If you buy an £8 Malbec from the retailer or a £200 Malbec from the restaurant – It delivers. What I find interesting about Malbec, no matter what region or price point the softness of tannins is guaranteed. They deliver complexity and drinkability at a price level that for me is unmatched anywhere else in the world.

What’s the perfect pairing other than steak?

“It is not simply that steak is a perfect pairing: It’s cultural: Beef goes with Argentina. All Winemakers eat Beef. This must influence their palates.

A great pairing is chocolate! Think about the palate, the residual sugar is low, but it always has a sweetness. The sweetness is in the tannins. The texture is soft and round and never too harsh. I used to go around doing Malbec and Chocolate masterclasses and they always sold out.”

Why do you think Malbec is so popular in the UK?

“Number one, you can pronounce it. And number two, although it is in danger of becoming a brand, which is a shame, let’s celebrate the fact that we have something successful that we can build on. Number three, Malbec is always satisfying.”

Sipping throughout our chat on the Beautiful bottle of Zuccardi Poligonos ‘Paraje Altamira’ Malbec 2016 was almost as much a treat as getting inside the brain of the man that knows so much and has done so much for the Wines of Argentina.

My tasting note:

Spicy raspberries intermingled with some plums and black cherries. There’s a beautiful purity of fruit. The chalkiness is there, and it’s floral with hints of sage. The nose is very pretty.

It is very elegant on the palate, medium to full bodied with a real freshness of fruit. The finish is quite savoury and herbaceous.

You can buy this for £19.99 from Majestic Wine Warehouse

Click here to learn about Malbec in more detail. This video is looking at the differences between Malbec and Côt. The same grape but stylistically different depending on where it grows.

Happy Malbec World Day Everyone!

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