Saturday, May 23, 2020

Malbec's New Life in Argentina

In recent years, South American wines have had a major impact on the U.S. wine market. Today, the impact has lessened, or perhaps settled in. Years ago, Chile, and to a lesser degree, Argentina, were known for their historic efforts to penetrate foreign markets.

Chile was shipping wine to the United States since the early years of the last century. Vine Undurraga, a storied Chilean wine, first shipped wine in flask-shaped bottles to the United States in 1903. 

Bocksbeutel - Wikipedia
Franken bocksbeutal

Undurraga's flask-shaped bottle was fashioned on the bocksbeutal, a square, flattened bottle used for Franken wines, from the central German region of Franconia. The local translation of the bottle name is "goat's scrotum," although the more likely meaning    comes from the Low German word for a pouch to carry prayer books.

Since the early 1990s, Chilean wine making and marketing has been aggressive, producing all of the popular varietals, while expanding vineyards to new regions, such as Casablanca in the north and Bio-Bio in the south. Argentina has lagged behind its neighbor, but is catching up fast.

Getting Argentina Up to Speed
Due to social and political unrest in Argentina, wine exports were slow to expand.  Exports were light because Argentine wineries were selling most of their wine to Argentinians. Except for Bodegas Trapiche, most Argentine wineries were content with cellar door sales and supplying the restaurants of Buenas Aires.

Mendoza region Wine Region | Gold Medal Wine Club
Malbec vines against the Andes
Mendoza was the first wine region to gain notice outside Argentina. The region is a sprawling high desert at the eastern edge of the Andes mountains and a couple of hours by plane from Buenos Aires. Mendoza city is the staid small provincial hub of a wine producing province, while in contrast, Buenas Aires is a bustling vibrant metropolis and the nation's capital.  

Converting the semi-arid desert into fertile vineyards is a vast network of irrigation channels that feed run off from the Andes into the vineyards. Although most of the vineyards are on flat lands, there are many grape vines planted in terraces on the eastern face of the Andes. In Mendoza, altitude is the answer to providing more moderate growing conditions, the opposite of the warmer continental climate on the valley floor. Chilean vineyards enjoy cooling conditions from being close to the Pacific ocean.

In the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, Argentina had all of the popular varietals that other wine regions had. But that was the problem; Argentina had all the same popular varietals, so the competition for a place at the world table was fierce. Europe was established, California and Australia were on the rise, Chile was already moving ahead, so Argentina needed a wine to capture the world's attention. 

Malbec in France 
Malbec is not native to Argentina. In fact, Malbec has long been a staple in the Cahors region of southwestern France where it makes a robust red once called "The Black Wine of Cahors." More familiar to American wine drinkers is the position of Malbec as one of the five red grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot) used to make the great Bordeaux red wines of the Medoc.

However, Malbec is prone to damage from frost in the cool climate of Bordeaux. Prior to the devastating spring frosts in 1956, Malbec was an important component in the Bordeaux blend.  But Malbec never achieved the status of the top three varieties.  

After the frosts of the 1950s, Malbec plantings in Bordeaux dropped and the grape became an after-thought for many chateaux, although a number of them still add a small amount of Malbec to their blend. Despite Malbec falling out of fashion in Bordeaux, it remains a major grape in Cahors and is growing in popularity throughout southwest France.

Malbec in Argentina
Malbec was likely brought to Argentina in the 19th century by European settlers, but for decades the grape competed with popular varieties like Bonardo. Long periods of economic and political strife, including a disastrous vine pull scheme, held vineyards and wine making back until the late 1980s. Growth took off in the '90s and Malbec plantings bounced back. 

Today, Malbec is Argentina's most planted variety, especially in top Mendoza vineyard zones of Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo . Growing conditions in Lujan were considered good enough for Malbec to be granted Argentina's first controlled appellation. 

Free Wine Tasting - Understanding Malbec - Table Wine Asheville
The deep red of Argentine Malbec

Enjoying Argentine Malbec
What attracts wine drinkers to Argentine Malbec is its juicy, fruit-forward flavors, supported by firm but not raw tannins and good acidity. Dominant flavors include black fruits and hints of chocolate. The tasty combination makes Argentine Malbec an ideal choice with grilled meats and hearty cheese.

Argentine Malbecs range in price from $10 to more than $50 a bottle . Here are seven popular brands to look for that have national distribution: Susana Balbo, Luigi Bosca, Catena, Bodegas Norton, Familia Zuccardi, Trapiche and Terrazas de los Andes.

U.S. Malbec
Washington state has had some success with Malbec. California wineries, however, put more effort into Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and while Malbec is bottled as a varietal, most of it goes into Bordeaux-style blends and blends carrying the "Meritage" label.

Meritage: In the early 1980s, an effort was hatched to give a new name to California red blends made in the Bordeaux image. The idea was to distinguish those wines from those based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. A contest was held and the winning name, Meritage (rhymes with heritage) was adopted by the newly formed Meritage Association (now Meritage Alliance). Wineries that joined the association were permitted to use the Meritage name on their labels so long as the blend consisted of at least two of the known Bordeaux red varieties.  Besides the five varieties, Carmenere (which itself has an interesting history in California), St. Macaire and Gros Verdot, are also permitted, although these obscure grapes are rarely seen today in Bordeaux.There is also a Meritage white wine. 

With warmer weather arriving soon, it's time fire up the grill and enjoy a glass or two of Malbec from Argentina, Cahors, California or Washington state. 


Next Blog: "My Life in Wine" Episode 3 

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