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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Traditional Winemaking in Mendoza

Visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Argentina and Chile last month, I spent some time trying to define regional and sub regional typicities. In Chile there’s a certain sense of restraint, perhaps making a halfway house between old Europe and the more forceful fruits associated with the New World style.  Maipo Valley was elegant, Colchagua more obviously structured, and Apalta the most silky. In Mendoza, well really in Luján de Cuyo since that’s where the serious Cabernet is to be found, the fruits are a bit more forward, but not nearly so obvious as, say, Napa. Both countries have a tendency towards varietal wines at entry level and blends at top level, although the blends are different: with Carmenere in Chile and with Malbec in Mendoza. In spite of that, I found the same difference between the varietal wines and the blends; where direct comparisons were possible, the varietal Cabernet has more of a linear purity, the blend smoother and broader and (to my mind) often more interesting with age.

But my attempts to define the wines in terms of terroir and climate were brought up short by a visit to Bodega Weinert in Mendoza, where winemaker Hubert Weber marches to the beat of a different drum. “The new style of winemaking is not very friendly for aging; if you concentrate on blackcurrant aromas and intensity, aging potential is reduced. Bodega Weinert is classic winemaking -I am not looking for intensity of young aromas, I am looking for complexity of flavor.  The wine spends up to five years in 2000 liter casks of old wood. Gran Reserva is the model,” he says. The lead wine is the Cavas de Weinert, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot. The blend stays constant in varietal composition, and is not produced unless all three varieties are of sufficient quality. It was declassified in 1995 because Hubert didn’t like the Cabernet, and in 1998, 2001, and 2005 because of problems with the Merlot. In some years, when one variety is exceptional, there may be a varietal bottling under the Estrella label.

Casks at Bodeha Weinert

Old casks are used to age the wines at Bodega Weinert

With no exposure to new oak, the wines make a distinctive impression: the primal quality of the fruits to come through, showing a savory, almost savage, impression with  age. And the wines certainly age: vintages were lively back to 1977 in a vertical tasting. Younger vintages seemed more dominated by Cabernet, older vintages more by Malbec. I also tasted two of the Estrella wines. A Cabernet Sauvignon from 1994 was still intense and barely showing the austerity of the variety; a Merlot from 1999 showed refinement, and seemed to be aging scarcely any more rapidly than Cabernet Sauvignon. As you go up the scale at Weinert, the wines start out more fruity with faintly savory overtones, and then at the top of the scale the fruits are still there of course (in fact they are more intense) but the savory and even animal notes become predominant. You might say that the wines show an increasingly traditional European flavor spectrum.

So what price terroir and climate as the defining features for common qualities in the wine? I decided my conclusions about different regions were all valid, just so long as the winemakers stayed within the bounds of a certain commonality of approach.  But once the consensus is broken, it’s the winemaker’s hand that shows.

Tasting Notes

Estrella Cabernet Sauvignon, 1994

The immediate impression is savory and developed, with notes of barnyard and gunflint, all integrated with the underlying sweet ripe fruits. There’s still a lot of intensity. This is a powerful wine with an interesting blend of savory and fruity elements, supported by balanced acidity and smooth, firm tannins. Notes of gunflint on the finish really bring the wine to life, with the savory to fruit balance at its peak, almost salty in its overall impression. Only at the very end do you see the austerity of pure Cabernet Sauvignon beginning to take over. No one could call this wine elegant – it has too much intensity for that – but the balance should allow it to continue to age for another decade at least. 14.5% 92 Drink to 2024.

Estrella Merlot, 1999

This Merlot bucks the trend for clay terroir by coming from relatively sandier soils. It spent three years in cask and ten years in concrete before bottling. Initially this seems full and ripe, showing Merlot’s characteristic presence on the mid palate, with the typical barnyard notes of developed Merlot and just a touch of pungent gunflint. But there’s a finer impression than comes from Merlot grown on its more traditional clay, with an impression of refinement that’s unusual for the variety, and there isn’t much impression this will be much shorter lived than the Estrella Cabernet. 91 Drink to 2027.

Cavas de Weinert 2004

This is the current release. The immediate impression are those characteristic savory, almost pungent, almost piquant, notes. Smooth and ripe on the palate, there’s a sensation of coated black fruits. Tannins underneath the fruits dry the finish, but overall the impression is quite glyceriny. There’s an openly delicious quality. 14.5% 89 Drink to 2022.

Cavas de Weinert 1994

Development has taken a slightly different path here, in fact the nearest parallel would be the 1977 Cabernet Sauvignon, as there are only some hints of savory notes and more of a delicate, almost perfumed impression. Apparently this wine has gone up and down, and appeared oxidized a year or so ago, when it was taken off the market for a while, but then it recovered. There’s a slight sense that the smooth fruits are beginning to dry out, allowing the tannins to show more as a dryness on the finish, which is a little nutty. 14.5% 88 Drink to 2016.

Cavas de Weinert 1983

Savory and animal with pungent overtones of gunflint, overall contributing to a slightly sweaty impression (perhaps a touch of Brett). The smooth palate tends to opulence but is beautifully cut by the savory overtones. This is at a perfect tipping point from fruity to savory (although it’s probably been here for a while). Hubert sees this wine as having become more dominated by Malbec over the past five years; indeed, it shows more Malbec as it develops in the glass, becoming smoother, more elegant, more perfumed, less animal. 93 Drink to 2019.

Cavas de Weinert 1977

We compared two bottles. Around 2004 one lot of wines was recorked for an importer who insisted on having fresh corks. The rest remain under original corks. The difference was like night and day. The wine under new corks showed slightly oxidized fresh fruits with hints of raisins; otherwise the wine remains youthful, with the evident fruits lacking savory overtones, and a little restricted in flavor variety. By contrast the wine with the original corks has more of that classic savory impression, with rather restrained fruits, kept lively by an acidic uplift. Matching the greater tertiary development, the color is also a little more garnet. Compared with the varietal Cabernet Sauvignon of the same year, the wine is a little more developed and a little less obvious. 92 Drink to 2019.

Blending Cabernet: it’s the history, stupid

In Bordeaux they will tell you that Merlot is the perfect partner for Cabernet Sauvignon, because the Cabernet doesn’t always ripen reliably on the left bank, and the fleshier tones of Merlot complement it by filling in the mid palate. In Napa they will tell you that Cabernet Sauvignon ripens so fully and reliably here that there is no need for Merlot; it makes a complete wine in itself. In Chile they used to follow the Bordeaux model by blending the Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot; but then it turned out that most of the Merlot wasn’t Merlot, it was really Carmenere; they did not throw up their hands with horror, tear out the Carmenere and replace it with real Merlot; now instead they make a point of producing varietal Carmenere or of blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon. In Argentina, if they blend Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s usually with Malbec, which is the predominant black variety. In nineteenth century Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon was usually blended  with Malbec and Carmenere as well as Cabernet Franc: the Malbec was replaced by Merlot, and the Carmenere disappeared after phylloxera struck. The blend everywhere is as much a matter of historical accident as a deliberate search for what varieties best complement one another. So the question is whether Cabernet Sauvignon still needs to be blended, given that the climate is warmer  in Bordeaux than it used to be, and that the other areas where it is planted are mostly warmer than Bordeaux anyway.  And if it does need to be blended, what other varieti(es) really give the best complexity, and are they necessarily the same in every region.

Even though Bordeaux has experienced warmer temperatures in the past decade, tastings of barrel samples have convinced me that the Cabernet Sauvignon makes a more interesting wine when it is blended. As a single varietal wine, it tends to have very pure, precise, but more linear flavors: it broadens out to become more interesting when blended. I believe the same is actually true in Napa, but not for the conventional reason. Young Napa Cabernets can be so bursting with fruit that you really do not see any need for any other variety to round out and complete the flavor profile. But wait a few years. As those primary fruits drop out, the wine begins to become more linear, more austere, the bare bones of Cabernet show more clearly, and you feel that by ten years of age it would very often be improved by some Merlot, which brings more interesting savory development.

A recent visit to Chile left me wondering about the rationale for blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Carmenere. If you think you have difficulties ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, try Carmenere – which usually harvests about one month after the Cabernet Sauvignon. That alone shows you why it became untenable in Bordeaux. Even in Chile, where the Cabernet ripens quite reliably, Carmenere can be questionable; it needs to be grown in the warmer sites. When it ripens fully, it develops a smooth, elegant palate, with tannins that seem more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon, and it brings elegance to a blend. When it does not ripen successfully, it has something of the same herbaceousness as Cabernet Sauvignon itself, so it’s something of a double or quits game.

Malbec is somewhere between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon: not as fleshy as Merlot, but certainly smoother and more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon. Under peak conditions, Malbec may be a more interesting blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot, because the tannic structure is complementary: the more supple character of Malbec adds smoothness to the tighter structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. It doesn’t fill in on the mid palate in quite the same way, so the wine tends more to elegance than fruit-driven power.

For roughly a hundred years, from its rise following the phylloxera problem in the 1880s until a couple of decades ago, Merlot was the perfect blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon. This is not true in the warmer climates of Napa and Chile, where the “Merlot collapse problem” describes the situation in which Merlot goes straight from green, herbaceous character to over-ripe jammy character, with too narrow a chance to catch it at the right point. I sometimes wonder whether Napa’s concentration on varietal Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t due as much to their difficulties with Merlot as to the attractions of the Cabernet. I am inclined to wonder whether Syrah would be a good choice, since it has richer tannins than Cabernet and can add a touch of aromatics that increases complexity, but Napa seems fixated on a bimodal view: it’s either Cabernet or it’s a Bordeaux blend. Syrah  might also do well in Argentina and Chile, but the accidents of history mean that Malbec and Carmenere are well entrenched. Come to that, it may be time for Bordeaux to reconsider, because in the 2009 and 2010 vintages, the Merlot became so ripe and alcoholic that in many cases it was impossible to blend it into the Grand Vin and it was relegated to the second wine. (An amusing paradox here, since that can make the second wine higher in alcohol than the Grand Vin, and the concept that higher alcohol goes with wines at higher appellation levels is well entrenched in the French hierarchy.) How about going back to Malbec or Carmenere in the Medoc – or maybe Syrah.