A Curious Rise In Malbec Popularity

Napa Valley

Napa Valley’s Darioush Winery. Photo from Roberto Viernes

What is the deal with Malbec?

I’m serious. I know everyone is talking about it as if it is the second coming of Shiraz, but it’s far from it. I’m not a Malbec “hater,” in fact, there are many examples that I really enjoy. I just don’t think it is the huge new category that many producers and marketers seem to think it will be.

I’ll start with what I like about Malbec. When it is made with soul and in the right space, it can be quite vibrant and provocative. They can smell quite floral, like wildflowers, wild blueberries and even savory herbs. When really ripe, they can approach the jamminess that some Shiraz offer, which for some may be interesting, but not so much for me. On the palate they can be medium- to full-bodied, and they are almost always deeply colored as Malbec has a very thick, black skin. At their best they can be quite textured, from medium to full body with heady flavors of blue and black fruit, and maybe even a hint of game, meat and earth.

I personally like the versions most from Cahors in the southwest of France rather than those from Argentina. The likes of Clos la Coutale and Chateau du Cedre are some of easiest to appreciate and delicious expressions of Malbec available. They have just the slightest hint of rusticity but in the best way possible, just to let you know it comes from the Old World. Clos la Coutale especially is a terrific value for around $15 a bottle. It brims with sweet, black fruit, hints of herbs and black rock. It is smooth but not overpowering. It is softened with some Merlot for complexity and texture. Malbec like this has a sense of place as well as delicious flavors.

What I don’t like about Malbec from Argentina is that it has so many different identities. You can go from a medium-bodied, over-cropped, thinly flavored, unassuming red to a full-throttle, high-octane, over-oaked version in the blink of an eye, just depending on how the producer decides to grow and manipulate the grapes. As you know, for me wines have to have a sense of place. Well, in Argentina, they have no single “style,” much less a sense of place.

Now some of you may be saying that diversity is great in Malbec. Sure, if you already know what Malbec should taste like. Nine drinkers out of 10 have still never tasted one. That makes it quite confusing to us consumers. And without the experience and history behind the Malbec brand, it is hard to build a solid foundation for it to grow in the market place.

I also find that Malbec is prone to reduction in the bottle. This is when the wine doesn’t get enough air in its elevage and when you first open it and taste it, there is a slightly funky, less than flattering nose to it. It also suffers from over-sulphuring by many wineries in Argentina, so it stinks like a recently lit match when you first pour the wine.

Malbec does have the fact that it is relatively inexpensive going for it, and it’s easy to say. Some in the industry are putting their bets on Malbec. We’ll just have to wait and drink.

Recommendations: 2010 Darioush Viognier ($39) This is a wonderfully exotic smelling and tasting white from Napa Valley. It is replete with white flowers, peach, orange and mango. It is almost full bodied with really ripe flavor and round texture. It’s definitely a “wow” wine. 2011 Joguet Chinon Rose ($19) Keen acidity with electric flavor make this Rose one of favorites. There is an array of citrus combined with notes of wet stone and melon. Rose refreshment at its finest.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. Email rviernes@southernwine.com or follow him on Twitter @Pinotpusher.