On Wine
How Malbec Became the Wine of ‘Regular People’

Lettie Teague
November 19, 2011

The success of Malbec is a story in two parts.   Hadley Hooper for The Wall Street Journal

Certain wines are so popular it’s practically impossible to remember when they were not. Malbec, for example, was just another discarded French grape long before it became a staple of every wine shop in America—and a veritable synonym for Argentina.

The success of Malbec is a story in two parts.   The first took place in the mid-19th century, when Malbec was brought to Argentina from France.   Little regarded at home, thanks to ongoing problems with mildew and rot, Malbec was nevertheless one of several vines selected by the French agronomist Michel Pouget to improve the quality of Argentine wines.   At the time, most Argentine vineyards were planted with poor-quality hybrid grapes.

[ For video on the success of Malbec, see:  http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052970204323904577040031938032026 Malbec, the great red grape of Argentina, is one of the most sought-after wines in this country.  How did it become such a success?  Lettie Teague on Lunch Break looks at the history of the grape and its two-part rise to the top. ]

Though Cabernet, that perpetually prestigious varietal, was the great hope for a while, nothing flourished in Argentina quite as well as Malbec.  The hot, high-altitude region of Mendoza proved particularly well suited to the thin-skinned, late-ripening grape—much more so than the cool climates of the Loire and Bordeaux.  The only region in France where Malbec is still grown is Cahors, where it’s known as Côt Noir.  (With nearly 1,000 different names, Malbec may the world’s most-monikered grape.)

The Malbec bandwagon ground to a halt in the mid-20th century when Argentina experienced an economic reversal and many Malbec producers pulled their vines out, replanting them with cheaper, more prolific varietals. Producers were reportedly even urged to dilute their wines with water by Eva Perón (giving the country’s wine lovers a good reason to cry for Argentina, too).

The second part of the Malbec story began about 20 years ago, when a number of ambitious vintners that included locals and foreigners from countries like Italy and France decided to rehabilitate the quality and reputation of Argentine wine.  They made significant changes in vineyards and wineries, replanting varietals, reducing yields and improving wine-making technology.  The wines they created in the mid-to-late 1990s won international attention and acclaim, though it would be a while before Malbec became a household name.

Actually, it took until about 2006.  That was the year that Americans finally began to recognize the grape, according to Nick Ramkowsky, an Argentine wine importer.  He had begun sending Argentine Malbec to the U.S. five years earlier, through import company Vine Connections, and his first hurdle was explaining what the grape was—and was not.  “A lot of people thought that Malbec was another name for Chilean Merlot,” said Mr. Ramkowsky.  Sometimes he had to tutor his clients in geography, too; a good many wine drinkers—including wine retailers—thought that Chile and Argentina were two sides of the same country.  To this end, the Vine Connections sales team offered to hang both “Chile” and “Argentina” signs in wine stores, just to make sure the wines were properly located.  (Some 50 retailers took them up on the offer.)

Those signs aren’t required much anymore; in fact, most wine drinkers could probably find their way to the Argentine wines by the size of section alone.  At K&D Wines in Manhattan, wine buyer Tim Finch noted that when he joined the store eight years ago there were only 10 Argentine wines; today there are more four times that number—nearly all Malbecs.

According to a study commissioned for the Wines of Argentina, sales of Malbec to the U.S. (the top export market for the wines) are up 17% so far this year compared with the same time last year, and they’ve been trending ever upward since 2004.  Malbec accounts for more than 64% of all Argentine wine sold in this country.

So why did Malbec finally hit it big?  Mr. Ramkowsky’s theory:  It was all about populist appeal.  “I think that Malbec became popular because people asked for it,” he said.  “It was a wine discovered by regular people—not sommeliers.”

Mr. Ramkowsky had a point; Malbec, while popular in stores, doesn’t have a big presence in restaurants.  In fact, I’ve rarely seen more than one or two Malbecs on a list, and they’re usually relegated to a section with a vaguely uninviting title like “Southern Hemisphere” or “Miscellaneous Reds.”

And there are plenty of reasons that Malbec might appeal to “regular people” (perhaps the same reasons it doesn’t appeal to sommeliers):  It’s rarely expensive or hard to find.  Its flavors are straightforward, with notes of spice and red-berry fruit.  The best Malbecs also have a lively acidity and approachable tannins.  I think of it as a meatier, manlier version of Merlot.

But just how good are the wines on the shelves?  I hadn’t tasted Malbec in a while and was eager to find out.

I collected a couple of dozen Malbecs from a few different vintages, including 2010 (a very good year, though yields were low) and 2009 (also a very good vintage), plus a couple of stragglers from 2008 (a pretty inconsistent year overall).  The prices ranged from $10 to $45, though most were well under $20 a bottle.

The results were mixed.  The good news was that I found only a few truly unappealing or badly made wines—excessively oaky, markedly astringent or simply lacking in fruit.  On the other hand, there weren’t any wines that I’d call profound.  There were, instead, a number of delicious wines priced well.

The lively 2010 Malbecs from Crios and Don Gascón cost a mere $11 a bottle and were brimming with ripe, juicy fruit.  There was a more weighty 2009 Altos Las Hormigas Terroir ($12), marked by intense aromas and lush red fruit, and a solidly appealing Malbec from Hacienda del Plata ($11), whose slightly chewy tannins and lively acidity made it a pleasure to pair with food.  A particularly good wine was the 2009 Bramare Viña Cobos Valle de Uco ($45), made by Paul Hobbs in partnership with Andrea Marchiori and Luis Barraud.  Dense and rich with chewy tannins, it was a vivid example of how serious Malbec can be when it’s made from old vines—and it usually means it costs a bit more.

But the success of Malbec isn’t in these pricier bottles. It’s a wine, after all, with a populist appeal, a wine that everyone can enjoy and afford.  As for Mr. Ramkowsky, now that Malbec is no longer a mystery, he’s ready for a fresh challenge or two.  He thinks there are other wines with a great deal of promise, like Torrontés, an Argentine grape that some have even called “the next Malbec”—never mind that it’s a rather exotic white grape.  In fact, he believes Torrontés will be even easier to popularize than Malbec “now that everyone knows where Argentina is located.”


[For slideshow on 5 Malbecs, see:  http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052970204323904577040031938032026  Oenofile: Five Very Good Malbecs. ]