Chameleon Red 

Versatile Malbecs evoke everything from Life Savers, alfalfa, and lemon rind to dark chocolate and, regrettably, baby aspirin.

In addition to her expertise on the cuisines of far-flung lands, our favorite foodie neighbor knows just a little something about wine, and love, and how best to combine the two. So when the nephew of a friend came to her in need of advice about a good bargain wine for a first date, she had one word for him: Malbec. A chameleon red whose lack of telltale varietal characteristics makes it both hard to identify and highly versatile, Malbec rarely tastes as cheap as it is. And its medium body delivers a fruity punch that can still be pleasing to lovers of lighter reds.

Although it's strongly associated with Argentina, being that country's most heavily planted and critically acclaimed grape, Malbec actually hails from France, where it was long ago nicknamed "the black wine" by the neighboring English. Today's French Malbec is often more heavily oaked than its Argentine counterpart; it also thrives in Chile, where it tends to be a bit more tannic and is frequently blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. There are decent Malbecs from Australia, California, and Italy, but we stuck with the big three for this tasting, needing as we did to redeem Malbec after its disappointing showing in our Mendoza tasting last winter ("Mendoza Olé!," 2/21/07).

This time, we made a game of guessing the country of origin of each of our three wines, and Foodie Neighbor and I recognized the Frenchie in an instant: The 2003 Chateau La Coustarelle Cahors ($10), a Malbec blend. I loved its oaky, distinguished aroma, while Foodie praised its lean, layered taste. Our Token Winemaker, in supertaster mode this particular evening, raved as well: He noted hints of cherry Life Savers, alfalfa, and citrus rind, along with an intriguing dry finish that was almost leathery. Our fourth taster, who brought her self-described "lead tongue" to the table, dismissed the Cahors as "a ghost" — watery and bland.

Lead Tongue found more to like in the "surprising and classy" 2006 Montes Malbec ($8.99) from Chile's Colchagua Valley. (Montes is an upscale producer whose premium wines earn high marks from Chilean and American critics alike.) We all enjoyed the spicy nose on this one; I tasted dark chocolate but agreed with Foodie Neighbor that it would go well with steak. Our Token Winemaker complained of a baby aspirin flavor to the finish. He also recommended giving the Montes a year to age.

"Where's the nose?" Foodie Neighbor and I complained of Argentina's own 2006 Punto Final Malbec ($12.99). To me this was a frat-boy wine, reminiscent of bad Merlot. Our token winemaker tasted blackberry pie with a gunpowder finish. Lead Tongue begged to differ; she found it delicious and complicated. With that, our tasting concluded. The grape was redeemed, and the nephew got lucky.

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