Argentine Malbec: Old dog, new tricks19th February, 2014 by Lucy Shaw - This article is over multiple pages: 1 2 3
“Local investors in Argentina and Brazil are the main engines at the moment,” says US winemaker and consultant Paul Hobbs of Viña Cobos, adding, “Wealthy Brazilians would prefer to spend their money on high-end Malbec rather than top Bordeaux – the shift happened a few years ago, it’s a nationalistic thing.”
Back in Britain, Webster of Las Bodegas believes people are starting to wake up to investing in Argentine fine wine. “It’s rooted more in private collecting rather than investing at the moment but Brits are buying up the top Malbec blends from Catena, Achaval Ferrer and Dominio del Plata and storing them in bond around the country,” he says. While Crozier is buying up some of the country’s finest wines in bond to conduct an ageing experiment, he believes Malbec’s beauty lies in its ability to deliver immediate enjoyment. “I like the freshness and florality of young Malbec. The majority of producers aren’t making Malbecs to lie down. They tend to have a lifespan of six to eight years and show best after about three,” he offers. Malbec is by far the most widely planted variety in Argentina, with its 34,000 hectares nearly double that of second place Bonarda. Consequently, it has developed an identity in Argentina similar to Côt in Cahors, delivering power, concentration, structure, acidity, and, increasingly, elegance.
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, with other countries keen to sample a slice of Malbec’s success. Having traditionally made black cherry-flavoured blockbusters generously licked with American oak to please US palates, as a new generation of winemakers rises up through the ranks, freshness is now the focus. Producers are planting at increasingly high altitudes, picking earlier and using less oak to achieve more balance and elegance in their Malbecs.
Hobbs believes the UK is “driving the argument for elegance” in Argentina and has had a “balancing effect” on its wines. “US palates are more sophisticated now too – gobs of fruit are out of fashion. And if Argentine producers want to succeed in Europe and China they are going to have to turn the power down and refine their offerings or they won’t see growth,” Hobbs warns. A shift towards elegance has also come due to a growing confidence from Argentina’s more established winemakers, who no longer need their hands held by consultants. “Producers were making wines to please American palates, but the trend is reversing as they become more confident about making wines with higher acidity and less dependence on oak,” says Christian Rothhardt of boutique Argentine wine importer Ruta 40.
Webster of Las Bodegas agrees: “There’s an overwhelming movement towards fresher styles, which is linked to higher altitude areas. Boutique producers like Riglos are leading the way with a style that’s a lot more elegant, structured and food friendly,” he says.
While looking to Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc as a model for keeping consumers consistently happy and prices high, Argentina needs to avoid putting all its eggs into one basket, as it could prove a risky strategy if supply starts to outstrip demand.
“The possibility that Argentine Malbec could become a commodity is a concern. Consumers always want the lowest price, which leads UK supermarkets and US big buyers like Costco to drive prices down. There are always people willing to supply this demand and unless we diversify and strengthen our upper tier, we could be in trouble,” says Hobbs. Thus, the time has come for Argentina to begin exploring its micro-terroirs and communicating site specifics.
“Argentina’s fine wine future lies in small production wines from well mapped out terroirs – it’s time to get the quality message across to consumers,” says Rafael Calderón, chief executive of Riglos. Juan Pelizzatti, co-owner of Chakana in Lujan de Cuyo, echoes Calderon’s sentiments: “The Argentine wine industry is getting to the point where it’s ready to produce its most interesting results. We need to talk regionality in order to promote Argentina on a higher quality level – it’s not good to be perceived as an ocean of Malbec,” he says. Pelizzatti has been busy terroir mapping with soil expert Pedro Parra to seek out the best areas to plant Malbec at high altitude, and believes Altamira in Mendoza’s Uco Valley is the best chance Argentina has to talk terroir. “The soils in Altamira contain calcium carbonate so there’s a lovely mineral element to the wines,” he says.