Shed a tear for Argentina, because the malbec machine has begun to sputter. Exports from the South American nation hit a wall after a decade that saw sales to key foreign countries, such as the United States and Canada (its No. 1 and 2 markets), soar on the strength of cheerfully grapey wines made from malbec, Argentina's signature red grape.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service, Argentine wine exports decreased 16 per cent in volume and 4 per cent in value in 2014 from the previous year. Value of shipments to the United States and Canada in 2014 dropped by 11 per cent and 4 per cent, respectively.
It's not the wine's fault, mind you. Blame it on the economy. More specifically, the Argentine economy, which is in a sinkhole. Runaway inflation has helped push production costs into the stratosphere. Wineries have had to hike wages to ensure that labourers can afford to put food on the table. And trade restrictions imposed by the government have made it harder for wineries to afford imported equipment, such as costly French oak barrels.
Producers at the cheaper end of the market – where profit margins were already thin – have been hit hardest. In many cases, wholesale grape prices destined for low-end bottled wines now exceed the market value of the wines themselves, forcing some wineries to stop making bargain-basement cuvées altogether. It's been a virtual swan song for some of the decent $8 malbecs that conquered the world. Only the very large producers with significant economies of scale have been able to weather the storm.
Yet there are bright spots on the horizon. The latest figures from Wines of Argentina, an industry trade group, suggest that stability may be returning. Exports of packaged wine (which are more profitable than bulk wine) edged slightly up in volume, by 2.7 per cent, between January and July 2015, versus the same period a year earlier, though the average price per litre dropped by the same amount. The USDA forecasts an export-volume increase of 10 per cent for 2016, on the assumption that inflation is kept in control and exchange-rate issues are solved. And double-digit growth has in fact been coming from countries that, it must be noted, count for a relatively puny share of Argentina's sales, such as Malaysia and Spain.
Ironically, another such place is Chile, the wine-exporting competition on the other side of the Andes, whose domestic wine consumption has in fact flatlined. Chile has been having its own export troubles of late, hit with bad frosts and droughts in 2014 that saw production fall by 24 per cent over the previous year; one reason it may be saying "si" to more Argentine imports.
Production troubles aside, South America's two powerhouses continue to deliver compelling value, at least above $12 or $13 a bottle. Match any of these densely fruity reds with grilled steak or lamb or, better yet, beef-filled empanadas.
Trapiche Terroir Series Orellana de Escobar Malbec 2010 (Argentina)
SCORE: 92 PRICE : $39.95
There is generally a significant difference between basic factory-farmed malbec – with its Welch's-style grapey fruit – and handcrafted juice like this. Call it complexity, the quality that satisfies you as much, or more, well into the second glass. A single-vineyard expression, the Orellana de Escobar is voluptuous, at 15-per-cent alcohol, a velvety chocolate-espresso bar studded with plums and blackberries, with firm structure and a mineral note on the way out. Available in Ontario.
Altos Las Hormigas Malbec Terroir 2012 (Argentina)
SCORE: 91 PRICE : $22.95
There's impressive structure in this full-bodied red, which hints at cherry jam, dark coffee and spice set against a firm backbone of astringent tannins and fresh acidity. Various prices in Alberta, $23.10 in Quebec.
Finca Flichman Paisaje de Tupungato 2012 (Argentina)
SCORE: 91 PRICE : $17.95
It's mainly made from malbec, but I wonder if somebody didn't accidentally back the syrah tractor into the fermenting vat. This is one spicy, aromatic red, with heady syrah-style pepper and lovely floral overtones, bringing life to the chunky-smooth thickness. Luscious plum jam and dark chocolate provide the crowd-pleasing, sweet core. Available in Ontario.
Finca Flichman Expresiones Reserve Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Argentina)
SCORE: 89 PRICE : $15.95
Chunky blackberry and dark chocolate, with spicy, cedary overtones and a pleasantly dry-dusty outer shell. Very good value. Available in Ontario.
In Situ Reserva Carmenere 2012 (Chile)
SCORE: 89 PRICE : $15.95
Chile's signature red grape, carmenere, delivers sweet, syrupy-berry flavour in this ripe red, with lively balance supplied by fresh acidity and notes of spice and eucalyptus. It's almost off-dry, which I suspect should please many palates. Available in Ontario.
Alamos Syrah 2013 (Argentina)
SCORE: 88 PRICE : $14.95
There's a sappy richness here not normally associated with the peppery, firm syrah grape (unless we're talking about the 15-per-cent alcohol monsters of Paso Robles in California). The blackberry jam and coffee level out nicely with lively baking spices and tight tannins in the second act. $16.50 in Quebec.
Escorihuela Gascón 1884 Estate Grown Malbec 2013 (Argentina)
SCORE: 88 PRICE : $16.95
Escorihuela Gascón, founded in the 1880s, boasts that it was the first winery in Argentina to bottle a 100-per-cent malbec, a red variety that would become the country's global calling card. This one comes across like grape and blueberry jam, intensely fruity and almost sweet, with vanilla and coffee nuances and well-integrated tannins. Available in Ontario.
Tabali Reserva Syrah 2012 (Chile)
SCORE: 88 PRICE : $14.95
Closer to Australian shiraz than to the more classically firm syrahs of France's northern Rhône valley, Tabali's 2012 syrah is a tad overripe for my palate, but it may impress those who like the style. Jammy plum takes a dip in dark-roast coffee and vanilla extract, with a nuance of spice thrown in for good measure. $15.06 in Manitoba.
Cristobal 1492 Barrel Selection Shiraz 2012 (Argentina)
SCORE: 88 PRICE : $15.95
This aims for the sweet spot of the moderate-price shiraz market, which is inhabited mainly by another southern hemisphere country, Australia. Grapey and youthful, it's got sweet fruit and plenty of vanilla and savoury oak flavours from 12 months in new French barrels.