I had enjoyed empanadas as a pre-lunch taster before the traditional Argentine lunch of steak and more steak. The empanadas that were served were semi-circular, no more than three bites-full, made from crisp pastry and filled with lightly spiced chopped beef, with half an olive in one end.
Served hot from the oven, they represented the hearty cuisine that Argentina is known for.
The word empanada means “wrapped in bread”, but these are like the many types of pastry-covered meat and vegetable pasties eaten around the world. From Galicia in Spain, to Cornwall, Mexico and even the Far East, there are variations of empanadas in most cultures around the world. Every country has its own recipe, and they all claim to have invented their own version.
I never did get my oven. Having seen the traditional wood-fired domed clay ovens, it was clear that these required careful building and even more careful use. An empanada oven in the garden needs time and dedication if you are to get the best out of it.
So, when a box of empanadas was delivered to my door, complete with a bottle of Malbec wine, I was instantly transported to that chilly day in Mendoza when there was snow on the mountains and a stiff wintry breeze. By standing close to the oven, I not only stayed warm but I was also the first to choose my piping hot, delicious empanadas.
Tasting one wine is good but it is much better when a whole collection of wines is pitted against each other, so I lined up a box-full of assorted Malbecs to find which ones went best with the empanadas. To be honest, there were no losers.
There is something about the ripe mulberry fruit of Malbec, its structure and depth of flavour that made them all good to match the warm beef and lightly spiced filling.
Specially Selected Argentinian Malbec 2020, Aldi, £5.99: Soft, lush blackberry fruit with an easy-drinking style. Perfect for Bonfire Night, even if you don’t manage to make the empanadas.
Special Selection Malbec, Bodega Norton 2021, Marks & Spencer, £9: A chunky, powerful wine with mulberry and blackberry fruit, spiced black pepper and supple tannins. Good with empanadas but probably happier alongside spiced sausages.
Don David Fairtrade Malbec 2019, Salta, Co-op, £9: From vineyards planted at 1,700 metres altitude in the Calchaquí Valley in Salta. Here the clear sun yet cool conditions produce vivid, intense flavours of mulberries, damsons and violets. Structured, firm and suited to a plate of red meat, this is delicious.
The Best Gran Montana Malbec 2020, Mendoza, Morrisons, £10: High altitude with clear sunshine gives this wine deep flavours with a fresh style. Seriously good with bags of damson and mulberry fruit, backed by silky tannins and a long spice-sprinkled finish.
Domaine Bousquet Finca Lalande Malbec 2020, Tupungato, Mendoza, Waitrose, £10.49: Made from 100 per cent organic grapes, grown at 1,200 metres altitude in the foothills of the Andes, this Malbec has intense aromas and flavours of blueberries and blackberries, dusted with black pepper with a seam of freshness running through it. It is made by French winemaker Jean Bousquet who bought a tract of uncultivated land in the Gualtallary valley and planted it with Malbec. A gold medal winner in IWC 2021.
The Society’s Exhibition Mendoza Malbec 2019, the Wine Society, £11.50: A new addition to this range and seriously good. Dark, rich mulberry fruit dusted with spice and a long finish.
No. 1 Malbec, Mendoza, 2019, Waitrose, down from £14.99 to £11.99 until Tuesday: New at Waitrose from Vista Flores in the Uco Valley which has become the upmarket place to grow Malbec grapes. Packed with damson and mulberry fruit, it has structure and a creamy finish.
Finca Flichman Single Vineyard Malbec 2019, Uco Valley, Tesco, £12: Established back in 1910 by a Polish immigrant, this winery has been totally renovated and vineyards renewed. The wine has dark plum fruit, layered with blueberries and a firm, concentrated style.
Zuccardi “Serie A” Malbec/Tempranillo 2019, Mendoza, Majestic, £12.99 on a mix-six deal: There are some people who still remember Jose Alberto Zuccardi’s visit to the York Food Festival decades ago. He put vitality into all his wines and now his son Sebastian has followed suit, adding layers of flavour with a splash of Tempranillo. This wine has deep mulberry fruit lifted with cherry, with a mellow, rounded style.
Taste the Difference High Altitude Malbec 2019, Mendoza, Sainsbury’s, £13: Altitude is everything in Argentina and the more a label can talk about the height of the vineyard, the better the wine seems to taste. This is a powerful, well-structured wine that was good with the empanadas but really needs a juicy steak to partner its intense plums and oak flavours.
Altos los Hormigas Malbec 2018, Mendoza, Latitude Wines, £13.50: Hormigas means ants, and when planting the vines there were many ant colonies in the ground. The ants have moved on and the vines have sunk their roots deep into the soil, producing a wine with deep plum and strawberry fruit and enough structure to cope with empanadas, but also a rich beef casserole.
Viñalba Gran Reservado Malbec 2018, Valle de Uco, Tesco, £16: Hervé Fabre is the Frenchman behind the Viñalba brand and over the last 20 years he has transformed the availability and flavour profile of this grape. Some are straight Malbecs, and some blended with other grapes but all hit the mark for flavour and value.
This is packed with mulberry and plum fruit, supported by quality oak. Good enough for a Saturday night dinner party. Gold medal in IWC 2021.