Is Malbec the New Merlot? How Can Argentina’s Superstar Save Itself from its Own Fame?
Depending on your interests, a Black Swan is perhaps the name of a theory about the impact of unexpected yet major events, an iconic character in the legendary ballet by Tchaikovsky, an eerie horror film by Darren Aronofky or an actual swan that happens to be black.
Malbec, the popular variety best known to make dark and flavourful wines often coming from the Argentinian region of Mendoza, might not have lots in common with the bird or the ballet, but the history behind this distinctively dark grape surely could be an example of a highly improbable and unpredictable event becoming major and only making sense having been seen with the 20/20 lenses of insight.
Who could have known that an obscure (both literally and metaphorically) variety from France would end up becoming Argentina’s flagship grape after being nearly obliterated from its home terroir by the infamous phylloxera parasite in the 19th century?
Once known as the “black wine” from Cahors, this intensely pigmented fruit has become extremely popular in recent years as it offers wine drinkers many of the features our palates instinctively favour in a red wine: generous in fruit and moderate in tannin, with a wrapping texture often enhanced by the pleasant seasoning of vanilla-rich American oak; it is rare the wine list that doesn’t include at least one Argentinian Malbec. It’s the go-to red, the reliable choice of those who want the perfect vino to go with their steak.
Merlot’s Cautionary Tale
If there’s a variety that can warn Malbec about what happens next, it’s Merlot. The former leading dancer saw its place seized by the sexier, passionate Argentinian just like Winona Ryder’s Beth was replaced by Natalie Portman’s Nina in the highly coveted role of the Black Swan in the 2010 film.
There is a scene in which Nina is approached by Beth at a party; the former has been announced as the star and the latter has just resigned. Everyone raises a glass to Nina then, but it’s only a matter of time before a newer, more talented ballerina turns her into the next has been. Surely in a less dramatic manner, Merlot’s perceived blandness offers Malbec a list of don’ts.
We can’t really talk about a varietal’s fall from grace and films without a nod to what’s known as the “Sideways Effect“, the disastrous consequences that the award-winning 2004 movie brought to Merlot’s popularity, presenting it as a dull and predictable wine, opposing to the exciting and complex wonders of Pinot Noir.
It’s been more than a decade and the snarky comments still haunt Merlot, one of Bordeaux’s most important grapes and the main ingredient in some of the world’s finest wines. And while wine lovers have forgiven and forgotten Merlot’s awkward phase, it is simply too tempting for critics and trend-setters to find the next superstar variety to throw under the bus.
Averting the Downfall
Just as Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand shines as the candidate for the whites; it’s almost as if Mendoza Malbec has bought half the tickets in the raffle for the reds (the other half is in the hands of Barossa Valley Shiraz from Australia). But perhaps Merlot’s cautionary tale has made producers savvy and efforts to reinvent the popular varietals in both regions are surprisingly similar despite being on opposite corners of the world.
Divide and conquer seems to be the mantra as Marlborough’s and Mendoza’s map are split and sub-regions come to the rescue. Both countries are taking crucial steps to ensure their most recognizable wines are playing the long game: This year New Zealand has granted official protection to 18 regions and Argentina has been redrawing its map since 2012.
Nowadays, the South American country is exploring Malbec’s different shades from smaller regions defined by their unique terroirs. Uco Valley, Gualtallary, San Pablo, Los Chacayes and Paraje Altamira are some of the appellations worth seeking for those who want to experience not just Malbec, but Argentinian wines with more character.
Some sub-regions have been officially acknowledged, some are still in the process of getting approved. In the mean time, let us keep enjoying great Malbec as the variety enjoys its moment in the spotlight.
Pyros Barrel Selected Malbec 2014
€20 – Available at Vintry Rathgar, Sweeneys, Redmonds, Jus de Vine, Martin’s Off LicenceWine Centre (Kilkenny), O’Donovans (Cork)
Pyros is located in the high-altitude Pedernal Valley, in the province of San Juan and recognised as a Geographic Indication since 2007. Velvety and well structured, it wraps you with its rounded tannins and combination of floral subtlety and fruity friendliness.
Think juicy blackberries meet candied violets with a pinch of chalkiness. It’s balanced and it has an acidity that keeps the pace next to its equally formidable ABV.
François Lurton Bodega Piedra Negra Malbec Alta Colección
€110 (case of 6 bottles) – Available at Wineonline.ie
This wine comes from the Argentinian venture of a prestigious family with roots in France and it offers the best of both worlds: New World’s exuberance and Old World tradition.
It’s complex and rich, with a parade of ripe red fruits marching along with pepper and a delicate touch of espresso.
Cahors Clos des Batuts 2016
€9.99 – Available at Lidl
This lean and pleasant Malbec hails from the varieties homeland in South West France.
It’s restrained and offers you aromas of ripe blackberries, clove, licorice with a touch of pepper. Its tannins are moderate and it has a smooth texture.
Bodega Norton Privada Blend 2014
€19.95 – Available at O’Briens Wine
This wine comes to show us that Malbec is not always a lone wolf but that it’s capable of leading a team. Combined with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, this juicy wine from Mendoza is a great argument for the region’s popularity: it’s perfumed and complex with a captivating mix of ripe blackberries, cassis and plums and a well integrated toasted and sweet spiced character that reveals its not-too-shy use of new French oak. Velvety texture and big but well rounded tannins.
Very good value for its quality, this is a real crowd pleaser.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.