Argentine Malbec gives immediate pleasure and is bringing new drinkers into wine. But how does the country build on this without making the same mistakes made by other varieties that became brands?
“MALBEC IS like pizza and sex. It doesn’t matter how bad it is, for some people it will still be ok,” Alessandro Marchesan, group sommelier and wine buyer for Roka and Zuma, recently tweeted. While the inky red can get a bad rap for being too reliable for its own good, no one can argue with the strength of “brand Malbec” in the UK, US, and increasingly, among the Brazil elite, who are latching onto Argentina’s top Malbecs in favour of Californian Cabernet.
Juicy, soft and generous, it’s easy to see why consumers have fallen for its violet- scented, velvety charms. The fact that the word “Malbec” is both easy to remember and pronounce coupled with its ability to consistently deliver immediate pleasure keeps consumers coming back for more and is helping to bring both Millennials and non-wine drinkers into the category.
So much so, that Argentina is currently the most popular wine country among the UK’s 24- to 35-year-olds with particularly strong sales of Argentine wine on the part of Millennial males.
• Argentina is currently the most popular wine country among the UK’s 24-35 year-olds with particularly strong sales among Millennial males.
• Soaring grape prices, increased labour costs and an overvalued peso are affecting Argentina’s ability to compete at the entry level of the wine market.
• In the last five years, shipments of Argentine Malbec to the US have more than doubled, from
1.9 million cases
• In a similar vein to the “Moscato madness” boom, in recent years, Malbec has put down roots in Chile, Australia, the US and New Zealand.
• Producers are planting at increasingly high altitudes, picking earlier and using less oak in order to achieve more balance and elegance in their Malbecs.
• The time has come for Argentina to begin exploring its micro-terroirs and communicating site specifics to consumers.
“Malbec’s consistent profile is a virtue, especially for people who don’t appreciate being surprised or challenged by a wine. The genre itself has become a brand,” says Eric Asimov, wine critic of The New York Times. Phil Crozier at Gaucho agrees: “Brand Malbec is ahead of the content at the moment. I have people coming into the restaurant asking for steak and Malbec without really knowing what a Malbec is.” Malbec was brought over to Argentina in the 19th century from Cahors in France (where it is known as Côt). In some respects, Argentina’s economic problems have been beneficial to its wine industry. Soaring grape prices, increased labour costs and an overvalued peso are affecting Argentina’s ability to compete at the entry level of the market, but this is no bad thing for the world’s fifth-largest wine producer. “Argentine wine is not cheap and that’s part of its success. The average UK retail price of a bottle of Malbec is relatively high, making it a perfect fit for the independent sector,” says Laurie Webster at specialist Argentine importer Las Bodegas, adding, “sales are still very ‘brand Malbec’ driven rather than producer led at the moment”.
In the last five years, shipments of Argentine Malbec to the US have more than doubled, from 1.9 million cases in 2008 to four million in 2013, according to the latest figures from Wines of Argentina. What’s more, the country’s top Malbec blends now top US$100 a bottle, from Paul Hobbs’ Viña Cobos Malbec and Catena Zapata’s Estiba Reservada to Luigi Bosca’s Icono and Dominio del Plata’s Nosotros. Compared with top Napa Cabernet, Argentina’s best Malbecs are seen to represent good value and, while Argentine Malbec is gradually evolving into a fresher, more elegant beast, there is still a market for its blockbuster wines.