Once upon a time ( the late 1980’s thru the late 1990’s to be exact ) Merlot was king. Cabernet may have been the big man on campus but retail shelves and restaurant wine lists were crowded with juicy, fruit forward Merlots from California, Chile, Washington State,France and even Italy. The grape that had always played second fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon was having a decade long coming out party. How did this happen? Was there a sudden surge of wine making interest in this grape? New health benefits? The answer lies not in any of the previous subjects but in a few simple and easily explainable facts. First, it’s easy to say, two syllables, short, only one word. Americans could easily order this juicy wine without taking a foreign language class. Next, and at least as important, Merlot is an earlier ripening grape that is adaptable to most climates. This made it easier for the wineries to consistently produce products for an ever growing market. The decade of Merlot dominance also corresponded to a remarkable string of successful vintages in California, from 1987 – 1997 California produced ever more opulent wines from year to year, finally interrupted by the ‘El Nino’ weather of 1998. Wine was also rapidly gaining ground on beer and spirits as Americans alcoholic beverage of choice and Merlot was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the rise in popularity of wine. So, why did the dominance end? A few reasons, the immense over planting and overproduction of Merlot to try to take advantage of this cash cow by numerous producers which resulted in thin, insipid versions of Merlot and decreased market value. Next was the trend by consumers for bigger, more structured wines, which Merlot can be, but too many of them were juicy, simple, low tannin versions. Lastly, the plain fact that consumers were on a fast moving trajectory involving their personal palettes appreciation of fine wines. They wanted something more in other words. Enter Malbec.
For a few years, industry insiders (myself included) were convinced that Syrah was destined to be the next varietal to be embraced by the wine buying public. That never panned out, even though California and Washington State had invested heavily in new Syrah plantings. Syrah was the logical choice. It had an easy to pronounce name, a pedigree (being the star of theNorthern Rhonefor centuries), it was bigger and more tannic than Merlot and was what the public palette was leaning toward. The main reason that it didn’t happen was the emergence of Malbec, specifically, Argentine Malbec.
The story behind the rise of Argentine Malbec is rooted in the efforts of one winery, Catena. Argentinahas always had a booming wine industry. The weather, soil composition and inexpensive land and labor made it a very viable industry. The Argentine wine industry was, for decades, completely dominated by bulk wine production. The country had a voracious appetite for the fermented juices of the vine. The per capita consumption was ( and still is ) much higher than America’s ( Argentina coming in at #20, The U.S at #58 according to the Wine Institute’s latest figures ).
Nicolas Catena inherited a property that was on the verge of economic collapse in the 1960’s. Nicolas, who had recently received a PhD in economics decided to see if his father’s vision of making an Argentine Malbec to rival the great wines of Bordeauxcould come to fruition. He started a fine wine division of Catena Wines called Bodegas Esmeralda specifically for this purpose. The results were not promising and production was halted while Nicolas took a professor position at Cal Berkeley……..near theNapaValley. What he saw there was a fledging wine industry with the gumption to challenge the great wines ofFrance. He was inspired. On his return toMendoza, he aggressively started experimenting with different clonal selections of Malbec planted at differing elevations. It worked……well. Starting with the 1994 vintage of Catena Malbec and the 1995 Catena Alta Malbec, the meteoric rise of Malbec began. In the current market, Malbec has gained a serious foothold in both retail shops and restaurants in this country and throughout the world. The current vintage of Catena Malbec was rated 91 points by Wine Spectator and is available in the shop. Also checkout the Gauchezco Malbec (rated 89 points). Tune in next week as relate why the best deals in the world are coming from………..