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New Vanguard In Sauvignon Blanc, Malbecs A Surprise

Bottles of Mendoza Malbec and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Credit: Paul Lukacs

Bottles of Mendoza Malbec and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Credit: Paul Lukacs

Malbec from Mendoza in western Argentina and Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough at the tip of New Zealand’s South Island set today’s global benchmarks for wines made from those two grape varieties. They do not echo European archetypes so much as serve as stylistic models themselves.  As such, they are at the forefront of a changing order in the ever-expanding field of contemporary wine.

Regardless of where the grapes are grown, virtually all fine wines are made with varieties of the European vine species Vitis vinifera. Hundreds of vinifera varieties, ranging from Albarino to Zinfandel, have been planted outside their original habitats, bringing classic flavors to places previously home to innocuous wine, or none at all.

Still, for many varieties, European wines still set the standard. Premier and grand cru red Burgundy, for instance, continue to serve as the touchstone for Pinot Noir, as do Barolo and Barbaresco for anyone growing Nebbiolo, and wines from the Mosel and Rhine for a great many Riesling producers. With a handful of other grapes, however, the pendulum has swung the other way. And with Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc, both of which are native to western France, the reversal has been astonishingly complete.

Wines made from these varieties in Mendoza and Marlborough, respectively, have established wholly new styles that demand both attention and respect.  The Argentines and Kiwis may not always be the best wines, but they have become standard-bearers, the wines that consumers, critics  and vintners look to in order to define, for good or ill, varietal identity.

Setting a leading standard for Malbec

The story is easy to understand with Malbec. Once grown in many regions of France and a major component in red Bordeaux, it largely fell out of favor in the second half of the 20th century. A disastrous spring frost in 1956 led growers to plant other varieties that flower earlier and are less susceptible to mildew disease, and it today is the dominant variety only in Cahors, where it is called “Côt” and produces fairly rustic, often simple wines.

Malbec flourishes, however, in hot, dry Mendoza, the epicenter of the Argentine wine industry. Imported there nearly 150 years ago, it led Argentina’s wine renaissance in the late 20th century. Wines fashioned from it tasted so compelling that they quickly made a name for themselves at home and abroad, becoming wildly popular with enthusiasts worldwide.

That popularity was due to the wines’ style, as Malbecs from Mendoza, particularly when grown at high elevations, taste quite unlike their Cahors cousins. Smooth and supple, they convey a sense of grace and sophistication enhanced by a sometimes haunting violet-tinged perfume that can prove extremely alluring. A number of foreign winemakers have set up shop in Argentina, and many more have planted the variety elsewhere — in California and Washington, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, even Italy and Mexico.  All are trying to express the style first realized just a generation ago in Mendoza.

Sauvignon Blanc’s story is a bit more complicated. It never became unfashionable in France, being a traditional component of white Bordeaux and the dominant grape in wines from the eastern Loire Valley, and it only arrived in New Zealand in the 1970s. Almost immediately, however, the Marlborough renditions proved so riveting that they compelled notice. Unlike the French originals, which tended to mute Sauvignon’s inherently herbaceous character, they unabashedly celebrated the variety. As a result, they tasted pungently green yet exotically ripe, with a crystalline purity that simply could not be ignored.

Marlborough Sauvignon serves today as an international standard for this grape in its purest form. Some people find it too pungent, and some vintners deliberately aim to scale back the variety’s intensity, but regardless of whether one loves or hates it, no one interested in the grape can afford to discount it.  Most Chilean and South African winemakers deliberately emulate it, and more and more vintners in the Loire appelations of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre produce wines that clearly echo its overtly green but fully ripe personality.

For a long time, people could discount New World wines because, even when expertly made, those wines were fashioned on European models. No more. With Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc leading the way, the paradigms have begun to shift, offering compelling evidence that stylistic and qualitative benchmarks now can come from many different parts of the world.

Top photo: Bottles of Mendoza Malbec and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Credit: Paul Lukacs

Zester Daily contributor Paul Lukacs is a James Beard Award-winning author. His most recent book, a Beard Award finalist, is "Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures," published in December 2012 by W.W. Norton & Company.