“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,” is how Charles Dickens started his Tale of Two Cities, but he might have been referring to two modern-day grapes.
Australian shirazes and Argentine malbecs have occupied similar places in the American wine psyche. Both have enjoyed their seasons of Light, but only one has seen its season of Darkness, so far.
Australian wine exports to the U.S. are predicted to continue their slide this from $464 million to $448 million, according to an Australian trade publication. And while shiraz growers continue to plant shiraz vines, much of the wine produced flows into the bulk wine market (think Yellowtail and other wines with cute critters on the label). This image does not a thing for makers of first-class shirazes fighting for shelf space—and respect—in your local wine shop.
While not quite as mature as Australia’s wine export market, Argentine winemakers seem to be following a different road with their iconic red wine, malbec.
Argentine malbecs keep chugging along in popularity in the U.S. From March 2013-March 2014, malbec sales were up 1.5 percent; case shipments were up 1.8 percent. Not stunning growth, especially after nearly a decade of double digit increases, but check this out: Growth in the $30-$60 segment grew by 14.6 percent, or 4.9 million cases. Americans are falling for quality malbec wines and are willing to part with some bucks to enjoy them. And as any actuarial will tell you, where your heart goes, your wallet is sure to follow.
But whither goes Argentine malbec?
“The direction of malbec is still a little unclear,” says Paul Hobbs, the world-renown wine consultant who found himself standing in a vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina, 25 years ago wondering if he could “do something” with malbec. “The wines have only been in the marketplace for a relatively short amount of time. Early on, malbec was on its way to the shiraz graveyard, but it was pulled back from the brink due to economic factors in Argentina that made the mass production wines unprofitable. I think malbec has a very good chance to go the way of Napa cabernet, and the varietal certainly has the inherent potential for that, but there is always risk.”
Hobbs, who now runs Viña Cobos winery in Mendoza, Argentina, has seen the boom of Argentine malbec blossom before his eyes. He has enjoyed and helped spur the lengthening arc of quality malbecs from Argentina.
“Early Argentine malbecs were very simple, with low to medium color,” says Hobbs, who just returned from the harvest in the Southern Hemisphere. “That style evolved to wines that were more brawny and rustic in structure. Malbec style has now evolved further into wines of great elegance, power and nobility.”
Hobbs’ company sure has enjoyed our growing fondness for higher end malbecs, generally wines $15 and up. His imports to the U.S. are up 37% over the past 24 months and it would have been higher had Hobbs not run out of his popular El Felino Malbec.
Whether Argentina’s decision to focus on quality malbecs was mere good fortune or forward thinking, it may be a far, far better thing than Australian shiraz makers have ever done. And it may result in a far, far better end than shiraz makers will ever have known.
Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog