Malbec and Memory: Gauchito Gil’s Malbec Day
My first glass of Malbec is a potent memory. I was 22 years old and had just finished expeditioning around Europe for two months as a first-time solo traveller. Prior to this trip I was a determined non-wine-drinker, would you believe? As in, flat-out refused to drink wine. Even if it was free! Trust the sunny hills of Tuscany to tickle those vinous sensibilities; by the end of that trip a thrilling new world was suddenly ripe for drinking. And not only was this my first glass of Malbec, but it was the first time I’d even been brave enough to ask for a drink on a flight. Such was my feeling of adventurousness at this point, it seems, that I opted for this seemingly random wine from Chile.
I think of that little plastic cup of airplane Malbec and can still taste the sharp sting of it, high on the feeling of bravery and independence and the strange sensation of having been tangibly changed by a place. I was drinking wine! Red wine! And I was enjoying it. On a goddamn plane.
For many people, I think, Malbec is powerfully moving – in an almost literal way. Certainly, at the annual Gauchito Gil’s Malbec Day event that Cass and I attended a few weeks ago, I overheard an extraordinary amount of exchanges begin with “when I was in Mendoza…” Despite the fact that (great) Malbec is grown and made in Australia, it was clear that people were here for a fleeting taste of their past escapades in the fertile pastures of Argentina, where over 75% of the world’s Malbec is grown. Beneath the stunning barrel-vaulted ceiling of North Melbourne’s historic Meat Market pavilion, where tango music played, the empanadas baked and the Malbec flowed – that is exactly what this day was. It was a glimpse of a holidayed self, care of sense memory and the buzz of good wine.
Gauchito Gil’s Malbec Day came at a nice time for The Booze Hags; Cass has begun to travel yearly to South America for business, and I scored a dream trip to Chile and Argentina for the first time just last year with work. Despite these experiences, we felt that we didn’t actually know a whole lot about Malbec, so we were very eager participants in this romantic afternoon of wine worship.
In retrospect, it’s gutsy to take on an event like this; when there are over 90 Malbecs to try, the tastings stack up quickly. We lucked out by beginning at the Jed Wines stall, helmed by some very cool folks who took us through an ascending tour of Malbecs from Argentina. These wines are both imported and made on yearly expeditions to Mendoza – Argentina’s most famous Malbec region. This journey through Jed Wines’ offering made apparent what would become the big reveal on Malbec for the day: this grape loves altitude. We sipped from a huge range of labels, with vineyards right from 550m all the way up to 2400m (there’s a 3100m, but sadly it didn’t make it down for the Melbourne event). Turns out Malbec thrives in hot days and cold nights; perfect for high altitude regions like Mendoza, and why Malbec has found its honorary home there.
An event like this is unique because there is so much to explore within a single variety. It’s a concentration of one thing that ends up amplifying its own nuances, like stepping into a carnival house of mirrors and seeing yourself multiplied in new, unfamiliar angles. I’ve by no means been magicked into a Malbec expert, but a day like this opens you up to all the wonderful little details you should start paying attention to. Things like getting to know how Argentinian Malbecs differ from French Malbecs. And, given Malbec is particularly sensitive to the elements – thinking about how this plays into the character of a wine. High or low altitude? Is the “hot days, cool nights” ideal being achieved in a way beyond altitude? As we learnt from Cullen Wines, based in sunny Margaret River – which is only 99m above sea level – for them it’s the cool ocean breeze at night that makes ideal conditions to produce great Malbec.
By the end of the day, we were thoroughly buzzed and our hands were cramped from gripping wine glasses for hours. My event booklet was covered with progressively messier tasting notes in an attempt to discern between the wealth of wines tasted; from what I can make out, we made our way through at least 31. There was lots of “jammy” (including, specifically, IXL raspberry jam), there was fennel and even purple Zooper Dooper. And most magically, a couple that hit the spot exactly, and tasted like a crisp spring morning in a Chilean vineyard, or a night bumping elbows around the dinner table in Buenos Aires.
It makes me perhaps even more excited that a trip to Mendoza itself remains on the wish-list for now – unfortunately I didn’t quite make it last year, being the whirlwind trip it was. It’s a delicious travel dream to look forward to, and it’s days like these – heck, even days like that first Malbec at 10,000 feet – that will make that first glass on the slopes of the Andes all the more special.