There's this moment -- it happens after you've looked out the window for too long -- when you realize the clouds aren't clouds, they're the Andes. Giant, burlap knuckles of earth done up in dust and sunshine. It's December, just days from Christmas, and in Argentina this means signs of summer: poplars, willows, and miles of Malbec, growing in bright green rows.
If you've had Malbec in the past five years, there's a good chance it came from these mountain plains. The grape's not out there alone (search the vineyards and you'll find Cabernet, Viognier, even Sangiovese) but it's the only one the locals call The King. The Flagship. The Taste of Argentina. Malbec has become such a symbol of the country, it's planted just feet from the arrivals hall at Mendoza's airport; land here and you'll be greeted by Argentina's most successful new ambassador.
The story of Malbec begins in Europe, the way many Argentine tales do. In a nation built by Spanish and Italian immigrants, to call Argentina home is to have adopted it (or to know which of your ancestors did so). Native to southwestern France, the first Malbec made it to South America in the late 1800s, carried by the man who broke ground for Argentina's national vine nursery. Now, 100 years after its arrival, Malbec from Argentina has, well, arrived: it accounts for the majority of the Malbec consumed in the world, and its presence in the States alone grew from 628,000 cases to more than 3 million between 2005 and 2009. Argentine Malbec even managed to emerge not just unscathed but bolstered by the global economic crisis, thanks to scores of Bordeaux and Cabernet fans switching to affordable reds.
"Malbec is the great variety," says Matthieu Grassin, chief winemaker at Alta Vista. "Easy to grow, easy to make, easy to drink." Pointing out to the land, he describes the natural affinity between region and grape. The clear skies, poor soils, and thermal oscillation (the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures) offer Malbec much of what it needs to become a deeply concentrated, richly fruited wine. When I ask him about Malbec's performance in its hometown of Cahors, which happens not to be too far from his own, he shrugs, plainly: "The climate in Cahors is wrong for Malbec."
Good as the wines from here can be, though, they didn't just suddenly find prominence on their own -- part of the credit goes to the nation's diligent winemakers, investors, export managers, and trade organizations who've conducted a very successful consumer education campaign in the past few years. Through concentrated outreach they've hit the initial goal -- ensuring that when wine drinkers hear "Malbec" they think "Argentina" -- and now have a new one: showing the same drinkers that Malbec isn't a monolith.