Can we just talk about Catena for a minute?

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4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Catena Malbec 2012

I mean, regular Catena. Not Catena Alta or Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino or Angelica Zapata or Nicolas Catena Zapata or the other more exotic wines I tend to wax poetically about.

Good old Catena Malbec. The one that is probably on your supermarket shelf for $22. (Unless you’re at Whole Foods Market where it will be a silly $26). The same Catena that you can get for $17 at Costco if you remember to pick some up.

The story has already been far better told by others of how Nicolas Catena transformed Argentine winemaking, so I won’t repeat that here.

I feel like my job on this blog is to make you look beyond the obvious choices. But seriously, if you find this for under $20, Catena Malbec IS the obvious choice. I just opened a bottle, at the proper temperature, used an aerator, and holy crap, this stuff is good. Not just acceptable, but delicious.

I’ve read columns from Luis Gutierrez and other wine experts who say Catena continues to make their whole line better and better. And tonight’s bottle reminds me this is true.

Yes, they have an empire. Yes, they even collaborate with Gallo on a high-distribution wine now. Yes, they have alliances with Rothschild and others. But you have to give credit to a company that despite growth, hasn’t taken their eye off the ball.

To me, Houston’s (maybe Hillstone in your city) is the most reliable, high-quality restaurant chain you can walk into. Everything is going to be good, every time, whether you’re in Atlanta, New York, Boston, or Santa Monica. You just know it’s going to be delicious. And that confidence, adds value. Well, Catena just might be the Houston’s of wine makers. And that is a compliment in my book.

Store Check: Joe’s Wines & Liquor, Memphis, TN

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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A family event brought us through Memphis, Tennessee one recent weekend, and a group dinner at Felicia Suzanne called for one special bottle of Malbec. But where to buy?

Quench, across from the Peabody Hotel, had a couple of decent mid-range Argentine reds, but nothing to write home about. A phone call to another recommended store, The Corkscrew, revealed little more than the same.

Time to consult Yelp, which revealed Joe’s Wines & Liquor, 10 minutes away in Midtown. A phone call quickly revealed this store was worth a visit.

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First of all, you have to love the retro Sputnik signage – your first clue this place is a cut above. And the Argentine red selection was very nice. While including the usual suspects like Achaval Ferrer Malbec, the always-delicious Luigi Bosca D.O.C., and Catena Alta, this proved the perfect place to explore the Terroir Series from Traphiche. These wines are designed to showcase very specific microclimates and soil.

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Our choice was the Robert Parker 94-rated Trapiche Terroir Series Finca Ambrosia, 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) which sources from Gualtallary. It was a big, bold and powerful New World red that demanded a good steak and at least a half hour of decanting. Honestly, I still found it opening up almost an hour after the cork came out.

At dinner, the wine accomplished its goal – which was to share with new friends the incredible artistry, story, taste and value of today’s Argentine malbecs. We can’t wait to try another bottle in the Terroir Series.

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Oh, and back to Joe’s. They have a super-friendly, knowledgable staff who is eager to share what they learned, and for you beer drinkers out there, a fantastic growler station which sells growlers as well as customized cans of draft with their own distinctive labels. I would characterize the wine prices as $3-5 higher than you might find at a Costco, but the convenience and expertise make Joe’s a very worthwhile visit indeed.

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95 Points! A huge score for an affordable Malbec.

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Congratulations to Tapiz for scoring an extremely impressive 95 points from James Suckling for their 2013 Alta Collection Malbec.

Tapiz used to be a great place to eat lunch in Mendoza, but not a place you would detour to for the wine. But new winemakers and a motivated team have clearly led to something special here.

Tapiz Alta Collection is widely distributed in the States, and you can often find it under $20. I would grab a bottle of this quick, before the score inflates the price. Check with Costco, who often has had this in stock.

Puramun Reserva 2012

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

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Many thanks to Vino del Sol (one of our favorite US importers) for hosting a “Surprise Argentina Tasting” tonight at the Western Market in Birmingham, AL – one of the best places to buy wines in that city.

They featured some of the excellent low-priced single vineyard wines from Bodegas Lamadrid ($14-17 ), as well as Altocedro Reserva ($38). But for us the sweet spot of the evening was the wine you see here.

Puramun Reserva ($25) comes from the Uco Valley and is the personal project from Pepe Galante, who was the chief winemaker at Catena Zapata from 1976 to 2010. So you can definitely say he has some experience with premium Argentine reds. The 100% malbec is aged for 12 months in 50% new oak and 50% second-use French oak.

Puramun means “harvest” in Mapuche, and Galante chose to have a maze (redrawn in a different shape every year) on each label, to symbolize that getting the best out of each year’s vintage is a constant challenge.

How does it taste? It’s a big, New World red, to be sure. Let’s just say it wouldn’t be Neal Martin’s cup of tea. Wine Enthusiast’s Michael Schachner gave this wine a lowly 87… he found it not as expansive as he would have liked, but I disagree – I think that score is too low – I quite enjoyed it and would drink it again. Wine Spectator gave this bottle a 90 – and I think that’s more in the ball park. That review shows a price of $39, but it was $25 at tonight’s tasting as well as online.

At that price, it’s a good bottle to take home with your next ribeye.

Store Check: Costco, Atlanta, GA

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

It’s well known that Costco is the largest retailer of high-end wines in the United States, selling over $1 Billion in product annually.

Part of how Costco achieves all those sales is by keeping the product interesting and the price right. They buy huge lots of wine from vineyards from small to large, and rotate the stock frequently.

If you see a wine at Costco that looks good, buy it that day. Do not assume it will be available on a future trip, or you are likely to be disappointed.

My travels take me to Costco locations around the country, and the stock of wines is never the same. Local buyers clearly have influence over shaping their own inventory, using localized sales data and preferences.

Here’s a look at the best values we saw at Costco’s Atlanta (Brookhaven) location last week.

Several weeks ago I raved about ZaHa, from Bodega TeHo, a world class $40 malbec with an odd label that’s one of the best wines we tried this year. We came across its $70 big brother, TeHo, at Costco for a mere $59. That’s a phenomenal buy on a wine we can’t wait to try.

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They also have Matilde La Madrid, a $56 icon wine with a 94 rating from Robert Parker. In my opinion, you wouldn’t want to drink this one today. A wine that special demands another few years of cellaring.

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Black Tears, a deep powerhouse of a wine from the people who make the Tapiz Alta Collection, is a good bet at $39.

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They have Kinien, the top of the line wine from Bodega Ruca Malen, for $36. That’s a choice you don’t see every day (we had a fabulous dinner at the winery a couple of years back.)

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I’m curious about these two moderately priced wines, Altamira and Casarena Reserva, both under $20. Never tried either but the price is right. Any comments from folks who have tried them?

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Mendel: A Winery You Should Be Getting To Know

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One of the more under-the-radar wineries you should be getting to know is Mendel Wines. They’re small but steadily gaining huge respect in the industry.

Their highest rated wine is the Finca Remota, which is $100 in the US, but Mendel Malbec is a good (and fairly widely distributed) choice in the $25 range.

In between is Mendel Unus, a delicious wine around $50 that got 93 points from Wine Enthusiast.