I’m in Cahors, and it’s one of those thoroughly gorgeously sunny wine country days that at turns make me happy to be alive and secretly, maddeningly spiteful towards those who get to experience this nearly every day.
Of course, those turns tend to come after long stints of travel when I’m severely under-caffeinated, so keep that in mind before you read too much into it. Also, Charles de Gaulle airport smells of rotting garbage, but that might just be from the massive number of over-traveled, unwashed people congregated in close proximity after their long flights. Ok, I really need coffee right now.
Anyway, tonight (which will be last night, actually, by the time most of you out there read this) we kick off the International Malbec Days Festival here at the Pont Valentré with a pre-opening tasting event. In preparation, I’ve gotten a bit more info. on the aims of the event and its sponsors.
Cahors is laying claim to the title of “Spiritual home” of Malbec (also known as Cot and Auxerrois in the general Sud Ouest). Its main competition now, of course, is Argentina, who now grows more of the stuff than France.
[ Warning: Gross over-simplification in-progress ]
Cahors has three main terroirs when it comes to Malbec (and they’ve been growing it long enough that I think we can safely employ the dreaded T-Word), and they equate roughly to the elevation of the vineyard terraces above the Lot river. The closer to river-level, so the thinking goes, the more alluvial the soils and the less complex the wines (check out ReignOfTerroir.com for a great detailed exposition of these), and typically the higher proportion of other varieties (Merlot and Tannat) blended into the final product.
These terroirs produce wines with different stylistic profiles, from simpler and fruitier (“Tender & Fruity” according to the marketing materials) wines close to the river, to “Feisty & Powerful” wines in the middle terrace, and finally “Intense & Complex” wines made from 100% Malbec. Theoretically, the price points follow suit as expected.
[ Thus endeth the Gross over-simplification ]
The marketing strategy is to make a push for Cahors wines to gain market share of Malbecs sold internationally, which they’ll primarily need to take away from Argentina, starting with the U.S. market (the goal is a 3-5X increase in sales in the U.S. within 3 years). The focus of this push are the “Feisty & Powerful” Malbecs, priced in the $15-$25 range, hitting the large East and West Coast U.S. markets.
Ignoring the discussion of whether or not enough Cahors wine in the tier is produced and exported to the U.S. to provide the ammunition for such a push, from my vantage point it looks like Cahors will be going head-to-head against Argentina in that tier, only with higher prices, more confusing labels, less market awareness, and (arguably) a less newbie-friendly taste profile.
I suppose the cat’s now out of the bag that I’m a little skeptical, but I’m clearing a small space of my mind from concentrating on the secret spite of the recently-traveled, and reserving that space as “open mind” to be filled by the tasting notes of Cahors wines.
Can Cahors make such a push? The proof will be in the dark, inky, tannic pudding, I suppose… More to come…
Yeah, I know right?
There’s an upside to more and more wine being made more and more in an “international” style by more and more producers in more and more regions?
Yes, there is. Yes, I’m serious. No, I haven’t been drinking too much wine while writing this.
First, we need to explain what the “international” style is, which essentially is the advent in recent years of big, extracted, jammy, heavily-oaked, high-alcohol wine (both red and white). Robert Parker, who is the “1” in the 1 and 1/2 of the wine critics that move the majority of the wine market (Jim Laube at Wine Spectator is the “1/2”), likes the style and awards it high scores, which in turn allow producers of those styles to charge higher prices and then the market takes over to influence other producers to follow suit when making their wines so that they can sell more and charge more, etc., etc., blah-blah-blah.
The result, according to the detractors, is wine going the way of fast food, like McDonald’s taking over small family restaurants in Europe; everything becomes the same and we lose regional originality.
The whole phenomenon was more-or-less lambasted in the film Mondovino, which if you haven’t seen it yet, will give you a crash course in all things “style international du vin.”
Go ahead and watch it. I’ll wait.
Done? Okay, cool, let’s get back to what’s right about the Disney-ification and McDonald’s-ization of the modern wine market…
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Given its name, you’d expect the “invisibles collection” – a new line of glassware from crystal makers Ravenscroft, to be light, and probably thin.
You’d be right of course, based on the stemware sample that they sent to me recently.
What you might not expect, though, is the effect that the “Invisibles” glass has on the wine within it – at least, I wasn’t expecting the surprising effect that I experienced.
More on that in a minute (or two). First, I want to cover the aesthetics of the glass itself – both good and bad.
The particular sample I received was one of Ravenscroft’s Invisibles Chianti/Riesling glasses, which they recommend for use when drinking “Beaujolais, Carignan, Chianti, Cotes du Roussillon, Dolcetto, Montepulciano, Primitivo, Red Zinfandel, Sangiovese and Teroldego.” Oddly, Riesling isn’t mentioned in the list, but since it’s in the name of the model line, it’s the wine I used to test it out.
The first thing you notice is that the glass is very light and is quite thin, and it feels very well-balanced when you’re holding it by the stem and it has a standard 1/3-full pour in it. Despite the light weight, it doesn’t feel at all flimsy. Over-pouring does, however, make the glass feel unbalanced in your hand, which I suppose is a reasonable trade-off given the light weight (you shouldn’t be over-pouring anyway, you lush!).
The Invisibles line are hand-made and lead-free, and my sample glass had subtle but noticeable flaws of air bubbles in the base and at the very bottom of the stem, and the base didn’t sit perfectly flat on a smooth level table surface. I’m not a glass snob (and I really dug the overall tulip-shaped design), but if you’re coughing up over $40 for a set of stemware you’d probably be within rights to send back the glass for a replacement if it had the same issues as my sample, even if it’s blown by hand.
Ok, so after all of these aesthetic cavils, what about what the glass does to the wine?…
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If you live in the U.S. (and chances are high that if you’re reading this, you are in the U.S.), then it’s likely that you’ve been drinking some low-priced Malbec wine lately.
Don’t take my word for it – for some hard data on Malbec drinking trends in the U.S., you can check out a recent article by Laura Saieg on WineSur.com:
“According to a report issued by Nielsen, in the last 52 weeks, the consumption of Malbec grew by 60%. This makes Malbec the best performing variety in the US market… In 2009, in spite of the pronounced decline of American economy, there was a consumption increase of 6 million cases with respect to 2008. Most of these cases were within the retail price bracket of under USD 10 per bottle. This was due to the fact that, in response to the crisis, consumers changed their habits and chose less expensive wines. Americans changed from consuming less expensive bottles to focusing on obtaining the best possible value. Restaurant wine sales fell by 6% to 9% this year as consumers, under tight budgets, stopped dining out and preferred to stay at home and buy wine at wine stores.”
Maybe you’ve had one (or several) of those extra 72 million bottles of Malbec consumed in the good ol’ U.S. of A. last year? Looks like we can’t get enough of the stuff.
What’s most interesting, from a marketing / consumption / trending standpoint, is that you probably had that bottle at home while overall you were drinking less expensive wine (in both senses of the term).
By any measure, that’s a big coop for Malbec producers during the global recession, and it will be interesting to see if the trend continues. It’s unclear from the WineSur.com article if most of the Malbec that we Americans gulped down was from Argentina, but it’s not unreasonable to conclude that.
Which might be why the French, who invented the stuff, are coming (possibly quite late) to Malbec bandwagon party…
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