A spell of the Doubts

Even in Argentina, a fine wine can be teased from grapes, finds a surprised Roger Scruton

To be a terroiriste you need faith: faith in the soil and the people who work it, faith in climate, culture, tenacity; faith in faith itself. And all those are changeable and fragile things, which waver in the breeze of history. So the terroiriste is much troubled by Doubts.

Maybe it is true, after all, and despite the propaganda, that good wine can be made anywhere, and that the varietal and the science are more important than the soil and the culture. Maybe it is a species of idolatry, to believe that those hallowed village names are anything more than names, and those neatly buttoned chateaux anything more than capital investments.

My last spell of Doubts occurred at a restaurant in Washington when my host ran his finger down the wine list, arrested it on Malbec, and looked up to enquire whether that would do. Certainly, was my response, if you mean the wine of Cahors. What could be more agreeable, more in keeping with the difficult business that we had to discuss, than the dark, earthy wine of that beautiful region, where Malbec, mixed with Tannat and Merlot, produces those tannins and grapeseed flavours that you don't so much drink as chew. "Yeah, that's right," my host replied, "and they've a good one here from Argentina." I felt that he had not seen my point, but in an unusual excess of politeness I endorsed his choice.

To my chagrin, the wine - from the Mendoza region - was quite delicious, smooth and full beyond what you would expect from this grape, the tannins bearing up the fruit like festive flagpoles. After a couple of bottles, each glass more lively than the last, I succumbed to Doubts. Maybe Malbec, introduced into Argentina in 1868 by a French agriculturalist, has found its proper home there. Maybe, in the hurly-burly of climate change and global guzzling, it is in Argentina that this varietal will flourish, culture, soil and history notwithstanding.

Staggering home with my newly acquired burden of Doubt, I looked up Malbec on the web. The Argentinians, I discovered, had at one stage subsidised their farmers to uproot the grape, which they regarded as an illegal alien. They were stopped only by the belated discovery that (with a bit of science) Malbec tasted better than anything else they had tried to grow. This discovery stoked the embers of my faith.

Then, surveying the 50 or more names that the grape has acquired, I recovered completely: for all the names are French, and most are place names, suggesting that the grape had achieved its current character from hybridisation in those ancient terroirs, and that behind the varietal shine the hallowed villages of old France. How could a grape called Grelot de Tours or Cot à Queue Verte be anything but a colonist in the dry hills of Argentina? Yeah, and maybe the Argentinians were right to grub it up.