What Goes Up Must Come Down

The wine, beer and spirit industries are very boom-oriented. There was the Merlot craze, the Shiraz craze, the Pinot Noir craze, the Malbec craze and so on. As with all booms, they eventually plateau and then decline, sometimes severely (see Australian Shiraz). For several years I have lamented the spot Malbec has found in the market. I enjoy Malbecs and promote them in the marketplace, but I also worry that it will become a commodity and follow in Aussie Shiraz’ steps (or missteps). Many people think I’m crying wolf on this, but I am seeing the early signs of a dangerous slope for Malbec.

Even though we have only begun to embrace Malbec on its own in the last twenty years, we have been drinking it for much longer. For centuries, it has been used in Bordeaux regions with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and can be found in many regional blends around the world. The grape has a thin but very dark skin that adds deep color and rich tannins to the resulting wines.

It is believed Malbec originated in Northern Burgundy before migrating south due to its need for more heat and sun to fully ripen; Cahors in Southern France was the grape’s most famed region until Argentina’s Nicolas Catena produced the 1994 Catena Malbec.

The success of Malbec has been great and the wines it produces have offered excellent value. For most of the last 10 years, a wine drinker could buy a Malbec with confidence and it really didn’t matter who the producer was or where in Mendoza, Argentina the wine came from. Recently though, I have found some instances of disappointing Malbecs. This is due to it becoming a commodity. Wine consumers have been trained to just ask for Malbec, rather than one from Valle de Uco, Tupungato or another area within Mendoza where the grape produces especially fine wines. This is the same trap that Australia fell into with Shiraz. Only two pieces of information were needed for a decent wine: Australia + Shiraz = good wine (that is until they didn’t).

Now we are seeing that same math with Malbec: Malbec + Argentina = good wine. Drink enough wine, and you’ll learn math doesn’t always work. To avoid a similar fate as Australian Shiraz, Argentina must learn from Australia’s decline as evidenced by Yellow Tail’s TV commercials. Only wine brands trying to hang on to their dominance advertise on TV.

The solution to this future problem is for Argentina and Mendoza to carefully define the best regions for different styles of wine and promote that to the consumer. All wine consumers know they will pay more for a Cabernet Sauvignon labeled “Napa Valley” or a Pinot Noir labeled “Sonoma” than either of those grapes labeled as “California.” Mendoza is similar in vineyard size to California, about 400,000 versus 450,000 acres, so the importance of subregions gaining consumer recognition is not just relevant, it’s paramount.

Malbecs That Add Up:
Catena, Mendoza; Familia Mayol, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza; Benmarco, Mendoza and, of course, something from Cahors—Clos la Coutale.