Anyone in the wine business who is paying attention knows there is a disconnect between what people in the industry drink and what the people they sell to drink. While 2020 was the year of Grenache, PetNats, Carignan, and domestic Gamay for industry people and a few wine bars, restaurants continue to report that their bestsellers are Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec. Yes, Malbec, and that might be the biggest disconnect of all.
“Malbec has a reputation as a beginner wine,” Ian Clarke, a certified sommelier and industry professional, said. “In the glass, it’s so purple it looks like cartoon wine. It’s easy to drink, juicy, and plummy with almost no tannins.”
That’s industry talk for “it’s pleasant but very uninteresting.” Malbec has never been an important grape, except in Cahors, a French region that grows the grape exclusively. Clarke sells what is likely the best and most affordable introduction to French Malbec available – Clos La Coutale – and if all the iterations of the grape tasted like Cahors, then Malbec would have a better reputation in the wine world.
As it is, the grape is not very hardy, and Merlot can deliver some of the same notes, meaning Bordeaux has been using less and less Malbec for decades, and the only place in the world that really grows a ton of it successfully is Argentina. And that is part of the problem.
“About 15 years ago, there was a ‘wine under $10’ movement that emerged from cheap Australian wines and wines from Chile,” Clarke said. “That hurt Malbec, because South American winemakers started responding to American demand.”
This seems obvious but Argentina is not Chile, and while the latter has produced some stellar wines (Don Melchor Cabernet, Terrunyo Carmenere, Montes Purple Angel, etc.), the overwhelming majority of U.S. imports are value wines. Argentina’s wine industry has benefitted tremendously from Italian immigrants, and the quality difference has been obvious for a long time. But demand is demand, and so the U.S. market got flooded with cheap Malbec: earthy, fruity, green, high alcohol, no structure.
Domestic Malbec is almost nonexistent, comparatively speaking. A few are exceptional, but they are expensive, like the Devil Proof from Aperture Cellars. Absolutely stunning California Malbec for well over $100. Titus Malbec is delicious and more modestly priced, but it’s still about $50 – at least twice that at restaurant prices.
“That does show you the potential of Malbec, though,” Clarke said. “It can be great. Wines like Vina Cobos from Argentina show that the quality is there when it’s done right.”
Good Malbec is not easy to find, but it does exist. You can find these around the 405, or just order them from your favorite wine shop.
Brazos Wine Company has made a living off finding great South American Malbecs. Their Vaglio trio – Aggie, Chacra and Temple – are single-vineyard wines at great prices. They are vibrant, layered, and complex with dark fruit and excellent structure.
Trapiche, long associated with bulk wines, has a single-vineyard line, too. Marketed as the “Terroir Collection,” Ambrosia, Coletto, and Orellana are rich, fruit forward, serious wines that hit the mid point between French (restrained and serious) and New World (fruity and bombastic).
One of the Vina Cobos wines, Felino Malbec, is super affordable. It’s by the glass at The Hamilton, so you can try it before you commit to a bottle. The upper tiers of that line get pricey, but there is a lot quality in the lower tiers.
Also from Argentina – Patagonia, really – comes Wapisa. It has far less fruit extraction than typical South American Malbecs, so it showcases genuine restraint, bright fruits, and medium body. It’s also priced to move.