Tim Dwight: The meteoric rise of malbec

Last week’s column touched on the continued success of malbec in the world wine markets and offered a bit of a challenge concerning pricing. Despite its growing popularity with American consumers, this Argentinean import faces some of the same obstacles that derailed the meteoric rise of Australian shiraz back in the ’90s. As consumer demand for shiraz rose, so did the efforts of cheap bulk producers rushing in to fill the void.

New brands sprung up overnight devoid of any viticultural history — or style. Aussie shiraz became a race between quality and quantity, leaving many bewildered consumers lusting for cute, animal-adorned labels at grocery-shelf prices.

Too often, lost in the scuffle were the iconic names that were instrumental in the varietal’s success. By the turn of the century, bottles of quality Australian shiraz selling for more than $20 were nearly extinct on wine lists and shelves.

Flash-forward to the 21st century. Malbec from Argentina is the fastest-growing red varietal in the world. Exports up; double-digit increases every year since 2001.

Vintners there need only to look down and under to see the hazards that swift success can bring. Overproduction, and the results of planting in easily accessible but less than choice vineyard sites, are the most obvious temptations facing the larger exporting firms.

The province of Mendoza, the heart of wine production on the eastern side of the Andes, is a huge geographical area with all the benefits and deficiencies that such size implies.

The twin blessings of high altitude and low humidity mean Mendozan vineyards largely avoid the challenges posed by insects, fungi and grape diseases that affect most other growing regions. Phylloxera, the ever-dangerous root louse that has proven so costly to vineyards around the world, is a non-issue to the Argentineans, and thus “old vine” plantings are becoming ubiquitous.
Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley are prime, remote sites that have nevertheless seen rapid growth and critical acclaim.

The family of pioneering vintner Nicholas Catena has vast acreage here, as do many of the smaller, quality-oriented growers.
Keep an eye out for the efforts of some of the top malbec producers. The risk versus reward quotient still leans heavily on the latter side of that equation.

Tasting notes

Susana Balbo 2009 Malbec ($25). Mendoza’s most famous female vintner is responsible for numerous bottlings of upscale malbec. Her eponymously named 2009 Malbec includes 5 percent cabernet sauvignon. Lushly textured with a plush, full-bodied framework, this bottling combines smoky, chocolate-mocha aromas and blackberry flavors.

Achaval Ferrer 2010 Malbec ($26). This trendsetting winery is a joint Italian- Argentinean production with a trio of triple-digit priced single vineyard bottlings that critics routinely fawn over. Opt instead for this vastly more affordable Mendoza-based bottling to sample the wineries’ fragrant, spicy flavors and elegant floral style.

Dwight, a certified wine educator, is proprietor of The Green Turtle Market, a gourmet food and wine store in Indian Harbour Beach. Send information about local wine dinners, tastings and charity events open to the public to winecolumn@cfl.rr.com.

Thanks @Argentineanwine