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Wine without pretense: Its cold, but we can still enjoy summers fruits
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Wine of the month

The wine: Niner Wine Estates Bootjack Ranch Syrah 2006

The grapes: 98 percent syrah, 2 percent petite syrah

The source: Paso Robles, California

The verdict: Wow! That's what I said after my first sip ... and after several more sips, too. Niner is an up and coming wine producer from California's lush Central Coast. This syrah is rich and plummy; fully mature and loaded with flavor. There's a peppery tinge, too. The fruit that went into this big red beauty enjoyed a lot of pampering — hand-picking and hand-sorting. The wine was subjected to malo-lactic fermentation, which converts the somewhat harsh malic acid into softer, friendlier lactic acid, in small oak barrels, and was bottled in May 2008. I would match this with a hearty beef or lamb dish, but I recommend that first you pour a glass of this wine, lightly chilled, and enjoy its aromas and flavors by itself.

The price: About $20.



Ah, January. Lovely time of the year ... cold, damp, uncomfortable, never-ending.

In other words, January plants that big, dark cloud overhead and never lets up.

Unless you live in the southern hemisphere — and I don't mean Valdosta. In South America, it's summer. Georgia winemakers are wandering through bare, shivering vineyards, pruning and planning. But in places such as Argentina and Chile, winemakers are watching grapes ripen and build up sugars. Harvest begins in March.

The wine grape from south of the Equator that has drawn so much attention for the past decade or so is the cornerstone of Argentina's huge wine industry, malbec.

Although other grapes are grown to produce Argentine wine, malbec is the big boy. It is to Argentina today what cabernet sauvignon was to California during the 70s and 80s.

Argentina's "Napa Valley" is a sprawling area called Mendoza, in the west central part of the world's sixth-largest wine producing nation. It's snuggled up against its wine-producing neighbor and rival, Chile. Argentina's success in the wine world can be attributed to a heavy French influence in the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, the malbec grape itself hails from the land of brie and Jerry Lewis fans.

It is one of the five approved blending grapes grown in Bordeaux. But malbec grows and thrives far better in Mendoza. I've often said that two words on a wine label — malbec and Mendoza — virtually guarantee a good, quaffable wine.

Many elements contribute to the success of Argentine wine production. There's that French heritage, hearty soil, just the right microclimates scattered around and a grape that loves its new home.

A Frenchman, Don Michel Aime Pouget, was brought to Argentina in the mid-1800s to establish a wine industry. In 1853 the vine nursery known as the Quinta Nacional was established. A Bordeaux blend from there won a bronze medal in the Paris Exposition in 1889.

The full story of malbec and Argentina's fascination with food and wine can be found in a nifty book titled "Vino Argentino: An Insider's Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina." It was written by winery pioneer Laura Catena. It took her eight years to put it together, but she did have other things on her plate.

She's a physician, and helps run the family winery, Catena Zapata, founded by her groundbreaking father Nicolas Catena.

Catena Zapata malbecs are hailed as among the finest from Mendoza. They also carry hefty price tags and are difficult to find. For example, the 2007 Catena Zapata from the Nicasia Vineyard received a stunning grade of 96 from Wine Spectator magazine. That kind of grade always means the price skyrockets and the wine disappears into the hands of collectors and others who don't mind spending $120 ... for one bottle.

But malbec lovers with my kind of budget — 25 bucks is a lot of money for a bottle in my chateau — can be assured of finding good-quality, affordable wine from the Mendoza.

One note: The 2008 vintage in Mendoza was a tricky one. Weather played some nasty pranks on wine makers. If you are able to find wines from either 2007 or 2009, they would be a better choice. And remember that the Southern Hemisphere growing season is six months behind ours. That means a 2009 wine really is 2008-and-a-half to us.

One of Argentina's major producers, Trapiche, has undergone a major quality overhaul. As a result Trapiche's single-vineyard malbecs are highly rated ... and more affordable.

I've been a fan of the malbecs of Bodega Norton, a long-time producer. Their '07 barrel select malbec rated a respectable 89 from the Wine Spectator — at $14-$16.

I recently received a sample of Mendoza malbec from an impressive new producer, Antigal Winery & Estates. And although it's from the spotty '08 vintage, this is a lovely wine. Sturdy, with a notable amount of oak in the nose, this malbec masquerades as its big brother — cabernet sauvignon. Throw a skirt steak or flat iron steak on a red-hot grill and pop the cork on a bottle of Antigal Uno Malbec.

I was impressed with the overall quality of this wine, and the seamless way it partners with red meat. It began appearing in wine shops in late fall and I have been assured by the winery rep Antigal Uno will be in general distribution in north Georgia.

Argentina celebrates the pairing of red wine and red meat. It's the kind of match that can brighten and warm even a gloomy January day.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. He can be contacted at His column appears monthly.