As a beer industry executive said recently, "The trouble with wine is you can only make it once a year."
Worse yet, grapes come from vines planted in the ground, often expensive ground, and the silly things want to produce the same type of grapes every year. So when tastes change rapidly, the wine world lags behind and then usually overreacts.
Merlot shot up in popularity in the 1990's, ostensibly as the softer version of Cabernet Sauvignon. This was part of a sea-change resulting from a 60 Minutes broadcast entitled "The French Paradox," which examined how the French were able to eat a diet much richer than ours yet have less heart disease. The difference Morley Safer intoned: "Red wine."
Overnight, the U.S. went from consuming about 60% white wine to 40% red wine to the reverse of that. Consumption of red wine increased 44% in one year. Red table wine blends were suddenly in short supply. Merlots were allocated and in very short supply. Prices shot up. Supply and demand.
Supply caught up with Demand (and beat its skinny little ass into the ground) as growers and wineries reacted by planting significant new acreage of Merlot, often in places not suitable for it, and by grafting over vines of then less popular varietals. As a result, within a decade, we had a lake of watery, one-dimensional, dull Merlot from the world over; its nadir cemented in the 2004 film Sideways when Paul Giamatti's character Miles Raymond screams, "No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving."
The movie also spurred an intense interest in Pinot Noir, Miles' passion. And, off we went again. Even inexpensive Pinot was suddenly in short supply. More plantings, more Pinot, please.
Now, it's Argentina's turn in our spotlight with, ta-da, Malbec. Easy to pronounce Malbec (Mall-bec), though, is not Merlot. Merlot's popularity had to do with smoothness and softness. Malbec has a spicy, earthy richness to it with enough character and complexity to be appealing in its bang-for-the-buck ratio.
Originally one of the five varieties used in Bordeaux (not so much now), Malbec is the primary grape of Cahors in southwestern France. It has been widely planted in California, Washington, Oregon, and several other states, used mostly as a blending grape. But, in the last decade plantings in California have increased sevenfold. Here, we go again.
Although there are pricier and cheaper versions available from Argentina, the sweet spot seems to be around $10. The big wine companies, as usual, are doing the Me-too dance, and Malbecs are suddenly everywhere.
History, as it is want to do, repeats itself. Substitute the word Australia for Argentina, Shiraz for Malbec and this could be a decade ago or so. Australia, with few exceptions, was not able to establish its premier grape beyond the $10 bottle, nor delineate its regional differences in the minds and tastes of U.S. consumers. It fell out of fashion.
I fear the same fate for Argentina and Malbec. But in the meantime, here are some pretty girls in the latest styles, the hit of this year's party:
Altos Las Hormigas Malbec, Mendoza, 2007, $9.99
Although clocking in at 14.5% alcohol (usually a warning to me to stay away), this wine has terrific balance. Everything seems in place. Spicy notes with blackberryish, plummy fruit and a white pepper note. Easy to like.
Imported in Washington by Elliott Bay Distributors, in Oregon by Domaine Selections.
Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec, Mendoza, 2007, $9.99
There's a velvety texture to this one with blackberries and plums predominate in the fruit. Not as overtly fruity as the Altos, but seems more complex with black pepper, smoke, and a touch of vanilla. Long finish. Both are amazing values.
Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons.
Prices quoted are average retail. Prices may vary.