January 18, 2012

Appel on Wine: Malbec wines are here to stay, hiding in plain sight

By Joe Appel

I've wanted for a long time to write about Malbec, because I know so little about it and (consequently) have held prejudices against it. And there's nothing like a healthy mix of desire, ignorance and acknowledged bias when you want to learn something.

Who would attempt a short newspaper column on "Pinot Noir" or "Sauvignon Blanc?" No one interested in fairness or categorical insight. You'd get called out in an instant, yet somehow everyone thinks they know what "Malbec" indicates. I know I did, based on limited and arbitrary tastings. I still don't know what it's all about, but now I'm interested.

I'm interested in the wines, and I'm interested in the thought processes that have kept me (and many others) from being interested in the first place. Much of this space today will represent an attempt to emerge from a blinkered perspective on Malbec; next week, I'll stay on the topic but pay more attention to Argentine terroir and particular wines.

By "Malbec," I mean the single-varietal wines from Argentina. Malbec in its entirety takes many more forms: Single-varietal Malbec from Cahors, France (where it's called Cut Noir) and the Loire; Malbec as a minority grape in Bordeaux and a growing number of exciting domestic blends. And Mendoza, the main wine-growing area in Argentina, has three-fourths the acreage planted to grapes that all of California has. So let's please not generalize.

Can we call it wine racism? I'm not sure I've been immune. Many hip young sommeliers are more eager to find quirky and immature wine cultures in Slovakia or Michigan than to admit that a Southern Hemisphere wine can express depth, terroir and complexity, much less provide the "intellectual" qualities of Burgundy or Barbaresco.

In the communal imagination of most Americans and Europeans who think about wine, Malbec, patronizingly, can be "fun" or "bold" but is rarely "noble" or "delicate" the way European wine is. If it's not an object of scorn, it's a guilty pleasure.

Hip-hop was a "fad" too, until (white) people who first acknowledged only its fun and sensual values finally accepted that musical genre's profound artistry, urgency, importance, and long-lasting relevance. I see the same trajectory for Malbec.

If it's not racism, it's at least an elitism based on privileges of age and geography which, while it sounds innocuous enough – "this family has been making wine in Alsace since 1434; your Argentine guys have only been doing it since 1849" – is just as divorced from the liquid in the glass as an assertion of racial superiority. South African and Australian wine cultures suffer from a similar mindset.

It's demeaning and inaccurate. Argentine Malbec can make fascinating wines of astounding length and purity. For a number of reasons, it can offer these fascinating wines at exceptionally attractive prices. And an increasing number of Mendoza wine makers are making it intelligently, traditionally, sustainably and respectfully, yet with an ongoing creative flair that signals that Malbec is not a fad; it's here to stay.

Splendid Malbec is hiding in plain sight, nestled as so many splendid things are among the boring, the inoffensive, the confected and the swill. I want to find these wines.

And I want to no longer treat Malbec as signifier – New World-bargain success story, easy-to-pronounce crowd-pleaser, this year's model, jammy-n-soft-cheapo-glass-pour. I want to experience it on terms closer to its own and further from mine.

One prejudice remains, though: I'm looking for Malbecs that don't necessarily require steak. Despite the natural pairing (Argentines consume more beef per capita than anyone else in the world), most people don't drink them that way. We drink Malbec with burritos, pizza and burgers, for which the softer styles sampled below are a better fit. And they're great with blue cheese, beets or tomato sauces whose acidity has been reduced or offset.

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