Illustration by Sushrut Royyuru

Week 4: When wine worlds collide.

Source: Ben Owen

Sainsbury’s Santa Julia Uco Valley Malbec
Most major stores, £10 as tested

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I know what you are thinking. Three weeks into the column, and I am yet to select a bottle from outside Western Europe. What was sold to you as a first-class viticultural ‘voyage of discovery’ has somehow metamorphosised into a tragic tour of French and Spanish appellations that not even your local Majestic branch is likely to stock.

Before you skim read the rest of the preamble to this week’s selection, though, I do have one or two points in my defence.

Perhaps putting things into perspective might help. It is, for example, easy to forget that alone, Languedoc-Roussillon (the southern slither of France from where Weekend Two’s Gaillac hails) produces more wine than the entirety of Chile and New Zealand combined. In mathematical terms, we are talking some 1.8 billion bottles per year. 1.8 billion – minus those which I can get through, naturally. Alongside the sheer selection of blends on sale in the UK from what wine drinkers affectionately call the ‘Old World’, it only felt right to start close to home.

Rules are, however, made to be broken. Swapping Mediterranean sun for the foothills of the Argentine Andes, Week Four is the New World’s revenge, and the chance for the Santa Julia Uco Valley Malbec to bask in the limelight.

I should get straight to the point by addressing the elephant in the room: the price. At £10 per bottle this is by no means a cheap pick, sitting right at the limit of The Weekend Wine List’s budget. Granted, strategic shopping when the supermarkets run their next gauntlet of offers will save a pound or two. Yet even after reductions this Argentine wine will still have big boots to fill indeed, especially when placed alongside such scandalously good value reds as Weekend One’s Tarima Monastrell.

If you happened across the Malbec in the drinks aisle, then, it would be that kind of bottle which weighs heavy in the hand as you deliberate whether the contents merit parting with a tenner. Following a few seconds’ pause during which you put that asking price into real terms (several pints at the college bar, two lesser wines, a trip to Nando’s…), rational gut instinct dictates that you should ashamedly restore the bottle to its rightful place and go for something else instead.

Of course, the very fact that I’m writing this article means I did not listen to reason. That would have been far too responsible for such a hardened wine drinker.

But the leap of faith mercifully paid off. Never has following one’s heart tasted so good.

A large part of what justifies this particular red’s price can be found in its very name: the acclaimed Valle de Uco status and the exceptional growing conditions it represents. At the subalpine altitudes in which almost all of this subregion’s vineyards lie, grape plants have to fight for their survival in a way unbeknown to their lazier counterparts from the less hilly parts of France. The stratified air then combines with dramatically changeable weather conditions and fertile soils in order to produce wines that, in the words of my favourite wine book, “can finesse while retaining their acidity.”

In this light, it is no wonder that many critics place the Valle de Uco at the pinnacle of Argentine viticultural offerings. Bar one or two Gamays from Savoie and Garnacha-based Priorats, very few blends from the Old Continent can rival such high-altitude credentials at this price point.

The vines that eventually find their way into Santa Julia’s offerings are thankfully no exception to this overview, and it really shows in the quality of the stuff. The Malbec’s aroma alone is bold yet exquisitely balanced, expressing hints of pomegranate, pine forest, and pistachio ice cream that offer the perfect invitation to down a glass or two.

On the palate, smooth is the name of the game. In its immediate and sensual roundness that still maintains an acidic back note, the wine is not too dissimilar to a young Saint-Emilion Merlot: sophisticated, elegant, and a certified crowd-pleaser. The absence of oak tones typical to French Malbecs from Cahors is clear, but the muted cranberry tang Argentina’s blend leaves in their place affords a freshness and vibrancy that I found to be a refreshing change. As the drinking experience finally meanders towards its conclusion, look out for a lingering aftertaste whose persistent evocation of sweet dark fruits leans towards good exemplars from the southern Rhône valley.

If you are looking for a pairing to roast beef, chilli con carne, or any other flavoursome red meat dish, this expression of Mendoza’s Valle de Uco subregion makes a worthy case – both as the perfect accompaniment, and as a representation of New World wine at its most expressive best.

Just be sure to keep an eye on your glass count. 14.5% means this is not a drink for the faint hearted.

Any facts included are sourced from The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, by Neel L Burton.

Ben Owen

A contributor to The Oxford Blue since its inception, Ben’s pieces explore topics as diverse as travel, literature, politics, and wine. His translation work has also helped foreign journalists share their ideas in the English language.