Americans love malbec from Argentina. It is consistently good, fruit-driven and best of all, a great value at $10-15/bottle. Argentine exports of bottled Malbec wines grew 20% by value in 2009, then 31.7% in 2010, with the US being the largest global market with about a 35% market share (winesofargentina.org). Argentine wines are not cheap per se, they are helped by a favorable exchange rate which belie the quality inherent in the wines from unique terroir, natural farming practices and modern winemaking. But does it warrant luxury status?
The short answer is yes based on the foundation that malbec grows better in Argentina better than anywhere else in the world. Malbec is a grape variety famously known for its fickleness in the vineyard. It is naturally vigorous and subject to poor fruit set if grown in high vigor or in cool climates. It is also vulnerable to mildew and rot, making it unsuitable in more humid climates such as maritime Bordeaux where Malbec is an authorized variety. These are some of the reasons that malbec is not grown more widely around the world; except that is, in Argentina, where it accounts for over two-thirds of world plantings.
Most malbec wines come from the Mendoza region, in the rainshadow of the highest mountain in the Americas, the Aconcagua, that rises up to nearly 23,000 feet. The Andes range creates a dry, continental climate for the Mendoza wine region to the east with only 8 inches of rain per year and more than 300 days of sun. The dry and sunny climate means little disease pressure and necessitates irrigation from the pristine snow melt from the Andes. The stony and well-draining soils, originating from Andean erosion and river deposits, limits Malbec vigor. It would be too hot during the growing season but for the high elevation of its vineyards, ranging from 1,500 to 5,500 feet, allowing red grape varieties to benefit from high solar radiation but at the same time, cooler nights to preserve acidity.
Since Mendoza is a huge wine region of nearly 400,000 acres, the terroir ranges from the hotter eastern Mendoza with its full-bodied wines, to the cool climate of the relatively young Uco Valley to the west with its more structured wines. In the middle is the sweet spot, the Mendoza River area, notably Lujan de Cuyo, where the First Sons established vines in the 19th century. Lujan de Cuyo was Argentina’s first official denomination of origin.
Some of Mendoza’s oldest vines are located in Lujan de Cuyo, attracting foreign investment from producers like Chile’s Concha y Toro. They own a brand called Trivento, or three winds, representing the dominant winds influencing the wine region throughout the year. Their luxury wine is Eolo – named after the Greek god of wind Aeolus – using fruit from a 10-acre parcel of vines planted in 1912 on the north bank of the Mendoza River at the 3,000 foot elevation, well above the highest vineyard one would find in the Napa Valley. It is warm during the day here, but the climate is moderated by cool nights and by the influence of the Sudestada wind from the south, slowing down the ripening of grapes and preserving acidity. These old vines on well-draining soils consistently produce low yields of less than 2 tons/acre.
Eolo (300 cases) is made jointly by Trivento winemaker Federico Galdeano and Concha y Toro winemaker Enrique Tirado, the man behind Chile’s icon wine Don Melchor. They practice severe selection with hand harvesting and berry sorting, cold soak for color and aroma and macerate post-ferment for polished tannins. The wines are aged in french oak for 18 months and racked by gravity using inert gas to control oxidation. The result of the low yields, vine age, climate and winemaking results in deeply colored, concentrated and balanced wines with abundant but “sweet” tannins.
With a history of wine older than California’s, personality from an old and specific block of vines, custom climate conditions and small-lot winemaking, it’s easy to make a case for luxury malbec wines.