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Malbec: The Whole Nine Yards

Malbec: The Whole Nine Yards
© Lapastoure Didier/AFP/Bob Campbell
With Malbec World Day on April 17, Tyler Colman provides a backgrounder on this varietal that "sells like water."

History lesson

Malbec originally hails from Cahors, an interior region of southwestern France. The inky, purple grape formed the base of wines so dark that they were known as “black wines” in the Middle Ages. Also known as côt or auxerrois, the grape came to be planted across several growing areas of France – including Bordeaux, where malbec vines were a common sight before the advent of phylloxera.

After phylloxera devastated Bordeaux's vineyards in the mid-19th century, however, malbec was not widely replanted. The thin-skinned grape, which is susceptible to disease and “shatter” and craves sunlight, seemed destined to become a grape variety found in history books rather than on dining-room tables.

Malbec rebirth

A strange thing happened on its way to irrelevancy: malbec found a new home in Argentina. In his book about the Argentine wine industry, "The Vineyard at the End of the World," Ian Mount writes that although the grape first came to Argentina in the mid-19th century, the resulting wines were poorly made and came to have a bad reputation.

By the 1980's, growers uprooted malbec in favor of trendy international varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon. Then the winemaking team at Catena overcame Nicolas Catena’s initial skepticism and experimented – trying out different clones, planting at various altitudes, reducing yield and using modern winemaking techniques. The current style of malbec was born.

The new merlot?

The plush, smooth, plummy character of malbec has been a big part of its mass appeal, as well as a restraining hand in the grape's popularity among wine geeks. Those not wild about the Argentine examples suggest they are bland – the muzak equivalent of the wine world.

The character Miles in the movie "Sideways" famously sent merlot sales into a tailspin with his withering comment about wines that feel as though they were thought up with a focus group in mind. To some extent, malbec has filled that gap, since it can have a similar flavor profile and similar retail prices – and it is a grape that Americans can pronounce.

Mendoza – the new home of malbec
© Wines of Argentina/Carlos Calise | Mendoza – the new home of malbec

Dressed for success

You can’t argue with the sales figures. Argentine malbec has seen vertiginous growth over the last decade, rising from 1.3 million cases exported in 2003 to 9.1 million cases shipped last year. Much of that comes to the U.S. Last year, almost 37 percent of all Argentine wine exports went to slake American thirst. Nielsen data shows malbec as very strong in 2012, leading red wine categories with 15 percent growth; malbec sales across their surveyed U.S. outlets accounted for 2.1 percent of all wine sales (up 16.3 percent in volume).

Parker praise

Argentina has historically been a top 10 wine producer as well as a top 10 wine-consuming market. But local wines and consumption were traditionally the most important as there were few exports and imports.

Starting in the late 1990's, Nicolas Catena, who had lived and studied in California, sought validation for his wines in the American market and from American critics (Ian Mount describes him as “points-obsessed”). Robert Parker praised a 1994 Catena Malbec and gave it 89 points; a later harvest in 1996 produced a malbec that Parker praised as having “exceptional intensity”; it resulted in a score of 94.

Pushing new boundaries

The old vines, stunning beauty, low costs and the frontier aspect of Argentina had already started to attract some international interest. Paul Hobbs of Sonoma had an early interest in the country, as did Patrick Campbell, also of Sonoma. Kendall-Jackson’s early foray resulted in a U-turn as they left the country.

The French have been active in Argentina, with Michel Rolland first consulting in Salta and later leading a group of seven investors to buy 2,100 acres in the Uco Valley. Switzerland's Donald Hess purchased the high-altitude malbec vines at Colomé in 1998. Chileans have come across the Andes to buy several properties. And Italians have dived in too: Antonio Morescalchi and Antonio Antonini bought land in 1995. More recently, in an evolution of Argentine wine, Piero Incisa – whose grandfather founded Tenuta San Guido (Sassicaia) – purchased old vineyards in Patagonia and is now focusing on pinot noir.

From Cahors to Argentina
© Wikimedia - Lapastoure Didier/Wines of Argentina | From Cahors to Argentina

Trouble fermenting

Investors in Argentina from the 1990's got a haircut on their investments early on. The peso’s 1:1 dollar peg collapsed in 2002; overnight it took 3 pesos to buy a dollar. Although foreign capital flowed in after the currency's fall, foreign investors are now more apprehensive.

The current government enacted a policy in 2011 that requires companies to match imports with exports. For some extroverted wineries, that’s not a problem. But for a start-up winery needing to import French oak barrels, for example, it poses an additional challenge. Also, the black market for foreign exchange market is pricing in a 50 percent devaluation.

Price inflation

Unofficial inflation rates in Argentina are 30 percent a year. Importer Ed Lehrman of Vine Connections in San Francisco reports that after a decade of never raising prices, some of his wineries have increased prices to him two to three different times in the past year. Could this spell the end of the malbec boom? It could. Lehrman says that many malbecs are sensitive to certain price points, so he and his distributors are working to maintain them as best they can.

Wine to water

At restaurants, Lehrman has found malbec slower to take off than he might have hoped, as it “doesn’t have the geek factor” that some sommeliers love. But at retail, “malbec sells like water,” according to Ian Dorin, wine director at Wine Library in Springfield, NJ.

Dorin says that anything they promote in the $10 to $15 price range sells through quickly, adding that there is stylistic variation – from “the 90-point fruit bomb” to artisanal styles that have elegance. And, in a twist, the success of the grape in Argentine wines helped Dorin sell out a 100-case offer of a $20 Cahors wine – in part because he offered it as malbec.

Time to party

To promote Malbec World Day, Argentina’s tourism office is throwing parties in 60 cities worldwide. This year, the aim is to attract new, young and "urban" drinkers by drawing a parallel between the Latin American street art movement and winemaking.

Scheduled events include tastings, tango performances, grape crushing, cooking classes and food pairings.

To find a Malbec World Day event near you, click here.


Related stories:

Malbec's Journey From Cahors to California

Q&A: Laura Catena, Luca Wines, Argentina

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