Many cuisines brought by immigrants to the United States have long been pigeonholed as cheap and plentiful, part of a high-volume, low-margin business.
Efforts to serve more intricate dishes using better ingredients in more elegant surroundings face steep obstacles. The increased expense requires higher menu prices. Consumers often balk, and ambitious Chinese chefs, for instance, prevented from showing the complexity and power of their cuisine, decide instead to work at more lucrative sushi bars.
It’s tempting to think of malbec from the Mendoza region of Argentina as the cheap Chinese food of wine. People will happily accept it so long as malbec is inexpensive and cheerful. But they rebel if it aims higher.
In the United States, the wine is popular and ubiquitous. People ask for malbec as if it were a brand name. Corner bars reliably stock it. These wines, most people assume, will be inexpensive. Generally, they are right.
But what if the vines were situated on rocky hillsides at higher altitudes, where the yields stay low naturally, rather than in the fertile flatlands where the yields are generous? What if they were meticulously tended by hand rather than by machine? What if the grapes were fermented in small lots, so that each section of the vineyard could be treated individually rather than homogenized in huge vats?
The result would be very different wines. One would be a wine intended to express the characteristics of a place, provided, in the considered judgment of the grower, that the place had a character worth expressing.
The other would be a generous, fruity wine that might well be enjoyable but innocuous, with little depth, character or sense of place.
The high-altitude wine would most likely cost more. But the difference in price would go toward a more distinctive wine. Whether it is worth the higher price is the sort of decision wine consumers must make all the time.
Here at Wine School we regularly ponder the differences between wines and the reasons for their pricing. We know that higher prices do not always buy better wines.
Sometimes prices are derived from perceived status: Wines from Napa Valley can charge more because Napa adds value not attributed to wines from, say, Lake County. Or a celebrity lends a name, and the price rises as marketers seek to capitalize on the glitz. Occasionally the price is a direct result of a basic economic law, like supply and demand.
But pricing can sometimes be tied directly to the means of production. Mass-produced wines that take advantage of the economies of scale will often be cheaper than those that are the products of laborious farming and careful craft.
For the last month in Wine School we have been drinking Mendoza malbecs. As usual, I recommended three bottles. Readers seek out the wines or equivalent bottles, drink them and report their reactions.
The three were Zuccardi Mendoza Paraje Altamira Concreto Malbec 2017 ($28); Catena Alta Mendoza Malbec Historic Rows 2015 ($35) and Altos Las Hormigas Mendoza Appellation Gualtallary Malbec 2016 ($38).
The idea was to get wines a cut or two above the mass-market malbecs in an effort to examine wines intended to be more expressive of place.
“I could easily have chosen less expensive bottles,” I wrote, introducing the three bottles. “But I wanted to be certain that we would be trying wines produced from a more imaginative, labor-intensive point of view.”
Some readers voiced their displeasure.
Tracie Barnes of Denver took issue with my declaration that I could have found cheaper bottles. “Then, why not do so?” she asked.
Rather than try the bottles I recommended, F. Lehoucq of North Carolina instead praised a $12 Altos Las Hormigas. (I can attest that it’s a good value, but a different sort of wine.) And Mr. XYZ of New York said simply, “If that isn’t sophistry and silliness, I don’t know what is.”
I don’t take issue with anybody who sets limits on what they will spend on wine. That’s a personal decision. But the idea of Wine School is to learn about all sorts of wines, to discern differences, to develop confidence in our own preferences and to take all of that into account when making buying decisions.
This sometimes means spending a little more money than might be comfortable because some wines legitimately cost more. If we refuse to do this, we are left to focus on only a small segment of wine’s possibilities.
Consider the decisions that wine producers make all the time. Must Beaujolais be only a pleasant, refreshing knock-back wine? Don’t underestimate the pleasure in wines like that. We need vins de soif, or thirst quenchers.
But what if Beaujolais could be more expressive than that? What if chenin blanc from California could be more than a cheap component for inexpensive blended wines? What if garnacha could do more in Spain than make alcoholic fruit bombs?
We need winemakers to ask these questions, and to find answers. If they did not, we would have far fewer interesting wines in the world. So let’s not be so quick to doubt either the potential of Mendoza malbec or the sincerity of those who are seeking to demonstrate it in their wines.
A relentless desire to test the limits of malbec drove producers in the 1990s from the flat, loamy clay vineyards of the Luján de Cuyo region near the city of Mendoza to higher elevations in the Uco Valley in search of stonier sites and cooler temperatures.
The Zuccardi comes from the Paraje Altamira area in the southern part of the Uco Valley while the Altos Las Hormigas comes from Gualtallary, farther north in the Uco. The grapes for the Catena come partly from Luján de Cuyo and partly from the Uco, including its Adrianna Vineyard, a pioneering high-altitude site at almost 5,000 feet in Tupungato.
I found each of these wines far more interesting than the typical inexpensive jammy malbec. The Zuccardi was dark and plummy, with an aromatic note of leafiness. On the palate, it was earthy and focused, with a touch of unsweetened licorice. I thought it was lovely.
The Altos Las Hormigas had flavors more of red fruit. It was also earthy and dry, yet deep and rich. The Catena Alta was the most tannic of the three, and the most reticent despite being older. It, too, was plummy and earthy.
One thing they all had in common: On the day after I originally opened the bottles, they each got better, deeper and more detailed. The Zuccardi developed mineral flavors, as did the Altos Las Hormigas. The Catena developed complexity and the tannins softened.
What does that mean? None of these were simple wines. They each showed an ability to evolve, in the glass, in the bottle and, I’d wager, in the cellar if you left them to age a few more years. You would not see that in ordinary, inexpensive malbecs.
I was not the only one to notice this improvement in the bottle.
VSB of San Francisco drank a bottle of Zorzal 2016 Eggo (it’s aged in concrete eggs) from the Tupungato area, and said the contrast between the wine on the first day and the next was striking. Dan Barron of New York noticed a similar evolution in the Catena Alta.
Acknowledging potential in the wines is not the same as liking them. Not everybody did. Martin Schappeit of Forest, Va., enjoyed both the Zuccardi and the Catena Alta, but Mr. Barron found both not entirely to his taste. Martina Mirandola Mullen of New York found the Catena Alta delicious but maybe not something she would choose to drink again.
Ferguson of Princeton, N.J., acknowledged stereotypes of malbec.
“My husband’s preconceived notion of malbecs is that it is the type of wine drunk by the fathers at the swim club with whom we avoid talking politics,” she said. They tried the Altos Las Hormigas nonetheless and enjoyed it, but she wondered whether it was worth the money.
That’s a legitimate question to ask about any wine, especially after sampling it.
My own feeling is that the potential of Mendoza malbec, as these wines demonstrated, goes far beyond cheap and cheerful. The prices of these wines, $28 to $38, are not all that much compared with those of equivalent bottles from California. They just need to be approached with an open mind.