Malbec, the new Merlot
Once upon a time (the late 1980’s thru the late 1990’s to be exact), Merlot was King.
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 winemaking interest in this grape? New health benefits? The answer lies in a few simple and easily explainable facts.
First and foremost, it was an easy word to pronounce, and Americans could order this juicy wine without taking a foreign language class. Also, Wineries took full advantage of Merlot’s highly adaptable and quick-ripening grapes to produce wines for an ever-growing market.
The decade of Merlot dominance corresponded to a remarkable string of ever-more opulent Californian vintages from 1987 – 1997, interrupted by the ‘El Nino’ weather of 1998.
Wine was rapidly gaining ground on beer and spirits as America’s alcoholic beverage of choice and Merlot was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the rise in popularity of wine.
So, why did Merlot’s reign end? A few reasons: over-planting and overproduction weakened its market value; consumers clamored for bigger and higher quality wines in a market flooded with simple, low tannin versions; and lastly American palettes were quickly developing a love of fine wines. In other words, we wanted something more.
The story behind the rise of Argentine Malbec is rooted in the efforts of one winery: Catena.
Nicolas Catena inherited a property that was on the verge of economic collapse in the 1960’s. Nicolas, having 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 Bordeaux could 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 the Napa Valley. What he saw there was a fledgling wine industry with the gumption to challenge the great wines of France and Nicolas was inspired.On his return to Mendoza, he aggressively started experimenting with different clonal selections of Malbec planted at differing elevations.
It worked. The Catena experiment produced vintages that brought something more to American palettes, and it was exactly that “something more” we had sought.
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 America 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 to discover why the best deals in the world are coming from………..