Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The two lives of Malbec

By Jennifer Chotzi Rosen
Jennifer is the author of, “Waiter, There’s a Horse in My Wine”, and “The Cork Jester's Guide to Wine”

At the age of twelve, I did something all embarrassed preteens dream about and few outside the witness protection program ever get a chance at: I reinvented myself. Fed up with my shoddy grades, my mother uprooted me from my uniformed girls’ academy—the kind of place where your status was a coefficient of dodge-ball throwing velocity and midterm math grades—and sent me off to a sort of new-wave experiment in learning where you went around in bare feet and called your teacher Bob. Unless, of course, his name was Sally.

It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Along with the enchanting and terrifying presence of boys, came the beauty of starting with a clean slate. No longer was I the loner who slept through math and found diagramming sentences a complete waste of time. Transplanted, I became a popular, vivacious biology whiz, admired by all for my ability to map out a phrase in Latin or English. I had found my people.

All of you who long to pull into the pit stop of life and have your reputation rotated: your vinous patron saint is Malbec.

Malbec is a grape with a second-rate role in Europe. In Bordeaux it’s a blender, little more than Viagra for flaccid reds. Its main home is further south, the region of Cahors. (Keep the S silent and pronounce the H like you’re receiving the Heimlich maneuver)

In medieval times, Malbec was cooked into a syrupy-concentrate they called Black Wine. For a brief burst of 1850s glory, Cahors counted 140,000 acres of Malbec and was getting almost as important as Bordeaux. But then came the root-louse phylloxera, munching its way through Europe like Pac-Man, and when the dust settled, Bordeaux had its act together while Cahors was still reeling.
Further demoralized by freak frosts in 1956 that killed another mass of vines, Cahors nevertheless became an official AOC appellation in 1971, one that requires 70 percent Malbec grapes, with Merlot and Tannat making up the balance.
Except at tip-top levels, Cahors isn’t very good. Thin-skinned and sensitive, Malbec longs for heat and sun, and craves well-irrigated, well-drained soil. Without these conditions, it’s extremely susceptible to frost damage, downy mildew, bunch rot and other nuisances. You’d be cranky, too.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, Malbec cuttings had been smuggled to Argentina in 1868. The pure air and high altitude of Mendoza lets in intense sunlight. Hot days, cool nights and long growing seasons build complexity.

Malbec took one look and knew it was home. Because here’s the thing: Cabernet, Merlot and the rest of that gang all come from a common ancestor. Malbec is genetically different. It has a Latin soul. With a little encouragement it will lie on the beach with its shirt off, whisper poetry in your ear, kiss with
passion and tango till dawn.
In Argentina, thanks to both mutation and climate differences, Malbec is rich and complex, with luxuriously smooth tannins and ripeness Europe can only dream about. Vivid plum and raspberry aromas give way to a darker edge of licorice, coffee, chocolate and leather. Joyful to drink now, it also ages gracefully for decades.

Then there’s the price. An acre of Argentine vineyard costs a fraction of its French and California counterparts. Labor
there is cheap and plentiful. So while a decent Cahors can set you back $70, the same amount buys you ten terrific bottles from Mendoza, where even the cheap stuff is good.

France has noticed. A top Cahors producer just successfully lobbied to allow the word “Malbec” on his labels, giving a former nobody grape star billing over an appellation that even the French don’t much understand.

Why, given all the grapes available, do the French continue to torture Malbec? It seems to come down to that Frenchest of reasons: “But…we have always done it this way!”
In contrast to the dashing Latin lover in Argentina, the top Malbec in Cahors marches along with austere, tannic purpose, humming mineral notes of iron, hot stones and tar, doing its buttoned-down best to be like Bordeaux. Most of it goes to Canada, Germany, Britain and Japan, who probably never had a Latin lover, anyway.

If you haven’t either, it’s time you spent the evening with an Argentine Malbec. And for some real fun while you sip, there’s nothing quite like diagramming a sentence.

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