If you didn’t know better, it would seem in the last decade a new varietal wine had been magically invented or finally discovered. During the last American recession, a new standard for structured reds just magically appeared in the marketplace hailing from Argentina, and its name? Malbec.
The last American recession is important to note in regards to Malbec’s grand entrance as many people literally could no longer afford the high-priced Bordeaux and Napa Cabernets as readily and needed a structured and powerful red for a more affordable price. Malbec was the answer.
Now remember, it only seemed to come out of nowhere, but Malbec has a rich history as one of the blending grapes in Bordeaux, and with the phylloxera epidemic in Europe, plantings were moved into South America in an effort to avoid the extinction of this noble grape. By chance, choice, or happy accident, it thrived in Argentina. For the first time this blending grape really took on a life of its own. Quite honestly, it really found its identity.
In Argentina the grape thrived as a single varietal expression in high altitude growth. This dark skinned grape that had been almost too much on its own in lower elevations in France (used mainly for color depth and tannin presence) found a home in the hot days and cool nights along with the well draining soils in the high Mendoza elevations. The Argentinians finessed the wine with minimal oak ageing at around 6 months, and pushed it to the fullest expressions going on 2 years in oak barrels (Reserva level). The grape was delicious, versatile, structured, quaffable, and most importantly for the time of the recessed American market, inexpensive.
It seemed for the first time you were able to enjoy the power of a structured red that would normally cost you $40-$70, for $12-$24. It was an overnight success. Best part? It hasn’t gone away or lost steam. Argentina not only saved Malbec from being lost to the annals of history, but furthermore brought a feverpitched level of interest that had winemakers globally experimenting with plantings or expanding existing plantings in a number of New World locations, including California.
But it wasn’t just the New World who gained from the popularity, France benefitted as well. Due east of Bordeaux in the southwest of France is a region by the name of Cahors. Where exports of Cahors wine had been minimal at best to the US and familiarity with the region hovering around the zero mark, Argentina’s Malbec wave changed that. For what appeared to be the first time, Cahors was able to make a name for itself in the markets. A regional blend of at least 70% Côt (Malbec) backed up by no more than 30% Merlot and/or Tannat started appearing on restaurant wine lists and on shelves in local wine shops, in some cases, 100% Côt (Malbec). A different, well…more French variation on the profile of the grape, it added another dimension to this versatile and structured grape’s growing portfolio.
Meanwhile in California, specifically Napa Valley, vintners began producing labeled Malbec exhibiting good acidity but more extraction, chocolatey notes and spice. In Sonoma it took on more dark fruits and black pepper, and in Lodi it takes on a more green note with soy. And thus, the Malbec portfolio continued to grow.
While 75% of the global plantings of Malbec reside in Argentina, and the export pricing still makes for a more approachable selection, the other New World expressions of the varietal have taken traction due to the way each unique terroir influences the grape. In most cases, Californian Malbec ranges in price from $20-$50 a bottle, with some of the finer expressions fetching around the $150 mark. With land costs up in California and Malbec being honestly quite disease prone (we will save that part of the conversation for another post, possibly on World Malbec Day), the California market prices reflect these facets as well as low yields in certain vintages. That said, we are extremely excited today to bring you a great California expression from the Paicines AVA at $15/bottle.