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Argentina Opens the Tap for Malbec

Source: New York Times
By: Eric Asimov

FOR the last few years the wine business has been riddled with dire warnings and disastrous portents. In the United States and around the world, producers have struggled with the bad economy and the sluggish market. One slender segment, seemingly alone, has not only weathered the storm but also prospered: malbec from Argentina.

How can this be? Easy. It’s the right sort of wine at the right kind of price.

Argentina is pumping out a river of malbec, and it has been flying off the shelves at an astounding rate. Since 2005, shipments of Argentine malbec to the United States have quintupled, to nearly 3.15 million cases in 2009 from about 628,000 cases in 2005, according to figures from Wines of Argentina, a trade group.

While Argentine malbecs can run to much more than $100 a bottle, those aren’t the ones flowing out of the stores. Sales have been pushed upward by demand for inexpensive bottles.

Unlike European wines, whose prices have been driven up by the weakness of the dollar in relation to the euro, Argentine malbecs have benefited from the strength of the dollar against the Argentine peso. With prices remaining stable, many Americans see Argentine malbecs as great values.

But what about the wines themselves? The wine panel recently tasted 20 bottles of malbec from the Mendoza region, Argentina’s leading wine-producing area. Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Brett Feore, the beverage director at Apiary in the East Village, and Kristie Petrullo, the beverage director at Craft in the Flatiron district.

About two years ago, we did a tasting of malbecs costing $25 or less. We found those wines pleasing and amiable, and I have had no cause to think our opinion of malbecs in that price range would have changed. For this tasting, we set a price cap of $50 a bottle. That’s clearly more than what most people are spending on malbecs, but we wanted to see what a higher price bought.

We did not forsake the lower end; 10 of the 20 bottles were $25 or less. So what do you get when you spend more? Well-made wines with a little more polish and sleekness than the cheaper bottles, for one thing, and a little more richness and intensity.

Over all, these wines were juicy and straightforward, emphasizing fruit flavors with occasional nuances. They were consistent, generally unchallenging and crowd-pleasing. In short, what’s not to like?

That really depends on your point of view. Malbecs’ emphasis on soft, ripe fruitiness over more polarizing flavors and their velvety textures make them safe and reliable for people who may be unsure of their tastes. Some of the wines we opened were a little more ripe and jammy, while others were spicier and more linear. But these were small divergences in what was largely a uniform set of characteristics.

This leads us to the same paradoxical, underwhelming conclusion we reached after the last malbec tasting: part of the reason malbecs are so popular is that they are not displeasing. In other words, their consistent profile is a virtue, especially for people who do not appreciate being surprised or challenged by a wine. The genre itself has become a brand.

“Malbecs are bringing attention to wine,” Kristie said. “They make people who are not really interested in wine drink wine. They order malbec — they don’t really care which one.”

From a marketing perspective, Argentina has achieved an enviable position. These days, malbec sings out Argentina as clearly as do grass-fed beef and Eva Perón. Forget that malbec was brought over in the 19th century from France, where it’s still grown, primarily in Cahors and in the Loire Valley. Argentina owns it now.

“Argentina has done a really good job of positioning itself,” Brett said.

Of the 10 bottles costing $25 or less, only 4 made our list of 10 favorites. Our top five wines were all $36 or over.

Our No. 1 wine was the 2006 Alfa Crux from O. Fournier, an inviting, balanced wine that may seem a bit simple now but will, I think, gain in complexity over the next few years. The Alfa Crux comes from grapes grown in the Uco Valley, at an elevation of almost 4,000 feet. The Uco Valley is quite a bit south of Luján de Cuyo in central Mendoza, the home of our No. 2 wine, the 2007 Viña 1924 de Angeles. The Viña 1924 was smooth and polished with pleasing floral and mineral accents enhancing its potent fruit flavors.

The consistency we found in these wines applies, of course, to those we liked. We rejected bottles dominated by oak flavors and those that seemed manipulated, resulting in cloying, sweet wines with power but no more structure than grape juice.

Like our top two, the other wines we liked showed admirable balance, and just enough accents to the core of fruit flavors to keep our interest. Malbecs from two of the bigger names in Argentina showed well. The 2005 Viña Francisco Olivé from Trapiche had bright, spicy flavors to offset its jamminess, while the 2006 Catena Alta from Catena Zapata was fresh, mellow and pure.

As with all our top five, these wines are by no means inexpensive. Yet compared with, say, Napa cabernet sauvignons in a similar price range they are very good values. Our best value, at $23, was our No. 6 wine, the 2007 Signature from Susana Balbo, fresh with touches of spice and licorice.

As the outdoor cooking season gets under way in earnest, with its plethora of grilled and roasted meats, malbecs would make fine choices. I tend to think of them the way I did of zinfandels, before so many zinfandels became top-heavy with alcohol. They are likable and powerful enough in their own right. And if you served them slightly cool, as Florence suggested, well, then you have a fine summer party wine.

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