Originating in France, where it typically finds its way into Bordeaux blends, malbec never really ascended to star status in its native country. It does stand alone in the wine of Cahors, producing a medium-bodied red with a good tannic structure. But while malbec plantings were on the decline in France, they were taking off in Argentina, which has a sun-drenched climate that's ideal for growing the grape. Introduced to Argentina in the 1850s, malbec is now the country's most widely planted red wine grape. Its plush, fruit-driven style has made Argentine malbec a hit, and its popularity has led to plantings in other appropriate regions. Here are the panel's top three picks:
2011 Clayhouse Vineyard Malbec, $14.99
Too often, malbecs produced in the United States are on the high end of the price spectrum, but this wine from Paso Robles, Calif., proves it doesn't have to be expensive to be good. Cherry liqueur aromas are colored by licorice, sage, basil and green tea. It's a decidedly elegant wine that's a mix of strawberry, dried cherry and sweet cranberry fruit flavors. The finish is long and silky.
2012 Michel Torino Cuma Malbec, $13.99
This malbec is made from organic grapes grown in northwestern Argentina's Cafayate Valley. The nose is filled with bright red fruit and plum, along with touches of black pepper and soy sauce. The sweet berry flavors are fresh and lively, matched by racy acidity and just the lightest kiss of oak. This wine is a nicely balanced crowd-pleaser.
2012 Sur de los Andes Malbec Clasico, $10.99
Accounting for about two-thirds of Argentina's wine production, Mendoza is a high-altitude region nestled in the eastern foothills of the Andes. This malbec offers heady aromas of mocha-laced blackberry, sweet cherry, coffee, mineral and spice. Ripe and round in the mouth, this wine's creamy berry flavors are backed by earthy licorice and smooth tannins. This is an amazing value.