I know I’m going to sound like a school marm here (the first clue is that I’m using the term “school marm”), but as much as I want you have fun at the coming Vancouver International Wine Festival, I do really want to stress that one of its real values is the opportunity to advance your wine education through comparative tasting. It’s one thing to have a California Chardonnay at your brother’s on Friday night and then have a one from France by the glass when out for dinner the following week and try to remember what things you liked about one and didn’t like about the other—that’s a start, but it’s pretty tricky to do. What Wine Fest offers is the ability to taste a certain grape in depth, very quickly, such that differences become evident—even the subtle ones.

You can do it with any grape that grabs you, but I’m going to suggest Malbec, because it was World Malbec Day last week and there’s a really deep selection of them being poured, so you’re going to get a sense of regional differences and stylistic choices winemakers are making. Plus, you can run the gamut from entry level to literally the best Malbec on the the planet. Give me 45 minutes, and I swear you’ll emerge and exponentially more focussed taster.

Wine 1
Bodega Norton Barrel Select Malbec 2020 $14.58

This may be our “opening” wine, but this bottling from Norton has twice appeared in the Wine Spectator’s Top 100, a rare feat for a sub-$15 bottle of wine. You’re not getting a sense of place here – this is a blend of the Uco Valley and Lujan de Cuyo, both subregions of Mendoza—but it gives a good base from whence to start your journey: smooth tannins, rich berry flavours, slightly smoky finish.

Wine 2
Kaiken Idomito Malbec 2019 $24.50

Kaiken is a producer that always punches above its weight class and here we’re getting fruit from Lujan de Coya, which in this case imparts a slightly lighter, more floral presentation than the Norton. It’s still rich wine mind you, but it’s raised in concrete not oak so it presents as lighter (but not so much that you think you’re drinking Pinot Noir).

Wine 3
Bodega Amalaya Malbec 2021 $24

Well now we’re taking a side-trip from Mendoza to Salta, 1,250Km to the North. Salta is both a desert (less than 15cm of rain a year) and extremely high (Amalaya’s vineyards reach almost 6,000 feet above sea level). These extremes produce a wine that stands out for its freshness, more delicate nose and often a little more spice/pepper on the palate. The only downside is we don’t see that many Salta wines in our market, but this perennial on our shelves is a winner.

Wine 4
Zuccardi Jose Malbec 2019 $52

Ok, now that you’re essentially a MW, let’s stop jacking around and get to the advanced levels. The Zuccardi family are the absolute bedrock of the Argentinian wine industry, yet they never lost their sense of experimentation. This is one of their flagship wines (it also made the Wine Spectator Top 100 a few years back) and it’s textbook example of a powerful take on Malbec: waves of dark fruit, quite structured on the palate and a finish that emphasized both sweet (baking chocolate) and savoury (dried sage). A sledgehammer of concentration.

Wine 5
Catena Zapata Argentino 2020 $145

Of course we finish with Catena, the Mendoza house that has done more than any other to make sure that Argentinian Malbec has a place in the pantheon of great wines of the world. At this level you’re getting a focus that wows: there’s a lot more blue fruits coming through and the exuberant richness of the other wines is gone, replaced with a clear sense of tannins that rigorously keep this wine on point from the first drop in the mouth all the way to the finish that flows on so long you lose track of time. Wow.