Has Malbec Run Its Course?

A tasting of wines from Uco Valley made me wonder whether Malbec is running out its appeal as a varietal. It’s been the big thing from Argentina for quite a while. Nicolás Catena told me on a recent visit that “when my grandfather came from Italy and planted vineyards in 1902, they were Malbec because that was what everyone was planting at the time.” In Mendoza, which is the center of quality production, Cabernet Sauvignon is pushed into second place by the success of Malbec. Is Malbec just so successful that it reverses the usual trend where Cabernet Sauvignon occupies the best terroirs wherever it can be planted? “The answer is yes, Malbec is occupying some land that would be better suited for Cabernet. Malbec is so well adapted to Argentine culture because it is less demanding,” Paul Hobbs, who makes wine in both California and Argentina, told me.

I was struck by a comparison of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, both grown at Finca el Origen’s  La Esperanza vineyard at 1,200 m elevation above Uco Valley, that at both the Reserva and Gran Reserva level, the Cabernet Sauvignon seemed to have more interest. All the wines showed quite a bit of new oak, with vanillin well in front of the fruits, but whereas this impression was somewhat unrelieved with the Malbec, with the Cabernet Sauvignon there was a faintly savory overtone and a sense of structure to provide more counter balance. At either price point ($12 for the Reserva or $24 for the Gran Reserva), I would prefer the Cabernet. The most interesting wine, however, was the proposed new “icon,” called Phi, a blend based on three quarters Malbec. Given greater interest and complexity by the minor components of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot, this may do well in the United States if the price point can be kept below $50.

If what you are looking for is a simple entry level wine, with lots of upfront fruits and the impression of new oak, without wishing to be snobbish, I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of difference which variety is used. The varietal name is more significant as a marketing ploy than an indication of character. In that context, people do get tired of varietal labels, and the focus is so intense on Malbec in Argentina that the more thoughtful producers are asking what might be next. There’s some talk of Bonarda as a possible alternative (this is not the same as Bonarda in Italy, but  is the same as Charbono in California), but I’m not sure it really has enough distinction or interest to carry it off.

Producers  believe they need to stick varietal labels (which in Argentina means a wine must have 85% of the named variety), at least at lower levels. “I don’t think we can go far from varietals because that is the way the market understands wine, but many of the wineries have a blend as a high end wine,” says Nora Favelukes, who represents Wines of Argentina in the United States. It’s a pity, because not all varieties are interesting as monovarietal wines, and I think they might make more interesting wines at all levels if they broke out of the straitjacket of single varieties.

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