A wine region that comes late to the party needs a signature grape if it wants to get noticed in a world dominated by France, Italy, Spain and California. Australia proved the point by planting its flag with shiraz, the Down Under version of syrah. Oregon made its move with pinot noir, the red grape of Burgundy, after a bottle of Oregon pinot horrified Francophiles by coming in first in a Paris wine competition in 1979; shortly thereafter, the famous Drouhin family of Beaune, France, set up a winery, Domaine Drouhin, in the Willamette Valley. New Zealand gained a toehold in the mid-1980s when a single wine, Cloudy Bay, educated palates in thrall to chardonnay that sauvignon blanc yields spectacular white when it has cool-climate zing and lots of minerals and grassy pungency. Today, sauvignon blanc constitutes 63 percent of New Zealand's wine exports.
Which brings us to Argentina, a country with a centuries-old wine-making history that is now commanding considerable attention with just one red grape, malbec, most of it coming out of one high-elevation region, Mendoza. Malbec is an unlikely candidate. It is the Daniel Baldwin of red grapes, the Ringo, the Zeppo. It is allowed in Bordeaux blends but not used a lot, generally faulted for having decent color but not as much fruit as merlot and not as much structure—i.e., the bodybuilding tannins and acids that make a big wine mature properly—as cabernet sauvignon or cabernet franc. The so-called black grape still dominates the wines of Cahors, a region of southwest France, but Cahors is not exactly a household name like the Rhône or even Provence.
The claim for Argentine malbec is that the grape shows more character in South America than it does in even the best French examples. The grape is too sensitive to French weather; it finds its best natural expression in the Andes. An acquaintance of mine from Argentina who knows his wine and loves his malbec told me what to expect: "Malbec in Argentina is much more full-bodied than in France; it's juicy, it's concentrated. Plenty of plum, plenty of chocolate notes. Fairly low level of acidity." Another wine fanatic and Bordeaux-ophile told me he had tried a few Argentine malbecs and had one word for them: "plummy." He did not mean it as a compliment.
My Argentine friend was describing a malbec that had been cleaned up and made presentable for export, mind you; traditional Argentine malbec is, he told me, often a bit muddled, fuzzy. An Argentine wine web site describes local tastes as somewhat peculiar by international standards: "Argentines prefer their wines very low in tannins. . . . They like to smell old, damp wood. No Argentine winemaker is in a position to ignore a customer that single-handedly sustains the world's fifth-largest wine industry." Certainly not, but good luck selling old, damp wood on the world market. There are people, including me, who seek out the barnyard funk of Rhône and Burgundy reds, the petroleum-like cut of a good German riesling or the cat-pee odors of an intense sauvignon blanc, but I just wouldn't bank on musty cabin pong working in malbec's favor. Hence some Argentine winemakers now produce one style for export and another for the large local market.
After tasting more than a dozen Argentine malbecs produced in Mendoza (all for export, of course, most from the standout 2002 vintage), I can report that this wine certainly has distinctive character, and further that its character may allow the Argentines to cut a significant wedge out of the world wine market long-term. I can see Argentine malbec appealing to fans of softer zinfandel, say, and merlot, to those who like their fruit forward and their tannins in check and who tend to drink red wine young. I'm just not sure I love it too much myself.
What we have here, on first whiff, is a wine of Queer Eye fruitiness—queer fruit for the gaucho guy. It smells like all the sweet-tart red berries you can think of mashed together: raspberries, boysenberries, chokecherries, red currants, cherries. And, yes, plums. It tends to be a very dark red in color, and, with all that fruit in the nose, by first taste you're expecting a monster, perhaps one of the huge California reds: not only mega-grapey but with some of the tongue-numbing tannins of a new wine that is built to last a decade or two. But in most cases there is less tannin than fruit in these wines, and far less of the acid that makes Italian chiantis, say, so mouthwatering. The Argentine malbecs have an exuberance, a pop musicbright intensity. They're not anywhere near as simple as a stunt wine like beaujolais nouveau—they are, after all, aged in oak, so there's a lot more going on—but they have some of that fruity pop, and the lesser wines seem almost evaporative; they retreat quickly from the tongue.