Malbecs Maligned? 

A difference of opinion on what's usually a reliable bargain.

Perhaps it was the power of suggestion; value Malbecs have never let me down before, so I had every reason to believe that all three wines we tasted this week would be winners. After all, these deeply colored wines made from the preeminent grape of Argentina are known as much for their lushness as for their frequently low prices.

So it was no surprise that I really enjoyed this latest round of Malbecs, two of which hail predictably from Argentina's Mendoza region, with the third coming from unspecified "coastal vineyards" in California. The surprise was that our Token Winemaker really didn't.

He was the least unkind to the 2006 Terrazas de los Andes Malbec ($9.49), made from grapes grown in 3,500-foot terraced vineyards in Argentina's Andean foothills. He called the Terrazas' aroma "a little vegetal," with a mix of celery seed, black fruit, and earth and an overly acidic mouthfeel, and declared it an obviously young wine that needed food. I smelled entirely different things in this medium-bodied Malbec: cork, sweat, leather, moss, and stone, with still more leather on its nicely complex palate.

"Green!" was the takeaway for both of us regarding the 2006 Coppola Diamond Collection Malbec ($14.98), but for me it was the freshness of a putting green, while for Token Winemaker it was, er, Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner. In my more charitable appraisal, I noticed an absence of fruit here — though there was a bit of prune in both the aroma and the taste — but still felt this lighter red with a slightly sweet finish was nice without being distinctive. Token Winemaker couldn't get past the Simple Green, which he felt overpowered secondary aromas of strawberry, raspberry, allspice, and menthol and also seeped into the taste.

I'm almost glad he didn't taste the 2006 Barking Sheep Malbec Bonarda ($9.99) from Mendoza — my favorite of these three wines, thanks to its lovely nose of plum and spice (courtesy of the aromatic Italian Bonarda grape) and a true richness on the palate. If the Barking Sheep label weren't so wacky (I'm not even sure how to describe it, but there's a photo of a sheep, and he or she does not look happy), this could definitely pass for a more-expensive wine. I say embrace the wackiness and brag about the price.

Bragging about low prices is in fashion at the moment, as is the power of suggestion (witness an economy in freefall over panic that the economy's in freefall). We invite both East Bay wine bars and wine retailers to tell us what you're doing to make the price of fine sipping a little easier on our wallets, and to lure shell-shocked consumers out of their bunkers. Wineaux, feel free to weigh in yourselves on the creative ways you keep your palate happy through hard times. Send e-mails to Wineau@eastbayexpress.com.

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