Malbec is moving up in the world. The grape that put Argentina on the map with gutsy, fruit-forward wines and easy-to-love prices is chasing an increasingly upscale market. For producers, the gambit comes none too soon, largely redefining a category that was in danger of getting caught in an el-cheapo rut.
But can the humble vine with scant presence outside Argentina joust with internationally popular and arguably more regal varieties, such as cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir? More and more, the answer seems to be yes.
Globally, the average per-litre price of bottled Argentine wine jumped 14 per cent in 2011, according to Wines of Argentina, a trade group. Meanwhile, in malbec-smitten Canada, the South American country's No. 2 export market (after the United States) and by far its thirstiest per-capita foreign consumer, the landed value per case rose 13.5 per cent even as volume fell by 2.6 per cent. Canadians drank less but more expensive Argentine wine, the vast majority of it malbec from the huge Mendoza region.
"I think it's got a tremendous future," said Brent Fraser, the restaurant manager and head sommelier at the Granite Club, a private members' establishment in Toronto. Although the club features an expansive cellar of French, Italian and Californian trophies, its top seller in its restaurant is Catena Malbec, a red retailing for about $20 across the country.
It's a future I'm mostly watching from the sidelines, even though I don't mind splurging when the bank balance and my tax return permit. With $20-plus to spare, I feel a stronger tug from regions with a more vaunted pedigree, such as Burgundy and the Rhône Valley. Even Chile, frankly, with its premium cabernet sauvignons.
One reason is cellar-worthiness. Most Argentine offerings we see on our shores hail from estates with short track records in that department. That is not to say malbec can't age gracefully. The grape's European stronghold, Cahors in southern France, yields fiercely astringent reds that can improve with (and often demand) a decade or more in the cellar. There's also decades-old proof in the stashes of some Mendoza estates, trotted out as showpieces for the benefit of visiting critics. Most are young ventures, though. Even the aforementioned Catena Zapata, a quality brand with roots going back a century, didn't start producing eye-popping – and wallet-emptying – wines until the 1990s.
Another source of my resistance is flavour, to be blunt. Even in the upper ranges, I find malbec can lack finesse. The wines are usually big and fruity, which can be nice with a grilled steak, but they are often syrupy and purple, yielding overripe, jammy characters owing to Mendoza's sunny, arid climate. They're rarely as one-dimensional or sappy as many Australian shirazes in their price camp, to be sure, but they still leave me with a haunting refrain: "I could have had a Chilean cab!"
Just as problematic, they can be laden with vanilla-like sweetness from aging in new oak barrels, a winemaking fashion designed for easy drinkability. Argentina is crawling with high-priced consultants smitten with lumber.
To be fair, Argentine malbec is hardly a monolithic style. Much of it is sublime, if hard to find in stores here. The wines worth serious coin tend to come from higher altitudes, from such districts as Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. Vines in the cooler corridors of the Andes foothills keep excessive ripeness in check, yielding better balance, with plenty of acidity mineral-like character for verve.
"You don't want them to get bigger and richer," said Rhys Pender, an accomplished Master of Wine who runs Wine Plus +, an education and consulting firm in Cawston, B.C. Mr. Pender believes higher altitudes hold the key to Argentina's climb up the premium ladder.
For better or worse, Argentina, like no other country, has a lot riding on a single grape.
Cabernet sauvignon, its No. 2 bottled export, accounts for just one-fifth of malbec's volume, and shipments are running flat, facing stiff competition from around the world, especially Chile.
Torrontes, the country's signature white, with an uncanny flavour of white table grape, is showing better traction. Shipments last year jumped 26 per cent, though from a tiny base. I think it's a compelling wine, ideal for summer refreshment, although it lacks the gravitas and complexity of, say, riesling and chardonnay.
And there's bonarda, a widely planted red variety formerly confined mostly to jug-wine duty but now coming into its own as a bottled offering, both alone and in blends with such grapes as malbec and syrah. It, too, possesses something of a split personality, simple, bright and crisp at the low end, more tannic and powerful above about $14. Either way, it's no high-altitude malbec.
Finca Decero Amano 2008
Price: $69.95; Score: 94
Mostly malbec, with cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and tannat, it was sourced from vineyards at an altitude of 1,000 metres on the Andes foothills, and imbued with a chewy-cherry core, fine-grained tannins and a Bordeaux-like nuance of graphite. Top-notch. ($62.49 in Man.)
Carinae Malbec Reserva 2009
Price: $15.95; Score: 91
Crafted with the Midas touch of Bordeaux-based consultant Michel Rolland, this bargain from the concentrated fruit of 85-year-old vines shows a lusciously creamy core, with crisp acidity and a nuance of mineral to provide lift.
Joffre E Hijas Grand Malbec 2007
Price: $17.95; Score: 91
From high in Mendoza's Uco Valley, it's handsomely structured, delivering dried-berry, beef jus and spice flavours, with dry, tea-like astringency.
François Lurton Piedra Negra Malbec 2007
Price: $34.95; Score: 90
Bordeaux-based Lurton works from a 1,100-metre-high estate in Vista Flores in the Uco Valley. Plum, milk chocolate and spice lead the way, though it's hobbled ever so slightly by conspicuously toasty oak. The tannins could use three to five years to soften.
Norton Privada 2008
Price: $24.95; Score: 88
A blend of malbec, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, it's pleasantly chewy, with a soft texture and notes of berry, chocolate, cigar tobacco and spice. It's a crowd-pleaser, but it would merit a higher score if the fruit were less confected. ($24.75 in B.C., $23.05 in Que., $21.98 in Nfld.)