Good wine is a labour-intensive product, and the labour in question is highly skilled and ever more informed by scientific knowledge. In a country like the United States, where qualifications are real and therefore a costly investment, good wine is bound to be expensive.
Moreover, the combination of patriotism and Parker (Robert, the country’s leading wine critic), not to speak of the sheer wealth of the suburban middle classes, has ensured that the average American wino will happily spend $35 on a bottle of Californian Cabernet Sauvignon, even when there is a perfectly acceptable claret available at half the price. Hence good American wine is now unaffordable, and those of us who come to America to enjoy our freedom must continue to import the stuff that enables us to tolerate the freedom of everyone else.
A solution to this problem is Argentinian Malbec, which sells at roughly $10 a bottle, is never undrinkable, and is usually hangover-proof. The Malbec is the dominant grape in Cahors, and is used in smallish quantities to improve the colour and fruit of the Bordeaux blends.
The grape was brought to Argentina in the early 20th century but did not rise at that time to export status – or even to the status of a valued local product. The Argentinians remained major importers of French wine until quite recently, when they began to import French winemakers instead.
The Buenos Aires government awoke from its long stupor at last and began to subsidise the indigenous wine industry. But it recommended that growers uproot the Malbec and replace it with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Only very late in the day did the government realise that Argentina’s soil and climate are perfectly suited to the Malbec, and that the resulting product would, if properly marketed, in heavy bottles stamped all over with their carbon footprint, entirely change the drinking habits of North Americans.
Malbec’s deep purple colour, which verges on black, has a strong appeal to people who still see wine as an intruder from the primeval darkness. And it has a kind of rounded, boiled-sweet savour in the mouth, not unlike that of Coca-Cola, which perfectly suits American cuisine. It is probably the only wine to drink with lobster in chocolate sauce, or with beef and pineapple on a blue crab risotto.
True, Argentinian Malbec tastes better in company than when drunk alone on the porch, while listening to the tree frogs. Still, it has helped me through a couple of weeks of solitude, never upsetting either the head or the stomach, and doing what only wine can do with proper grace and tact, which is to tell me in the gentlest of tones to shut down the computer, get up from my desk, and read something that has stood the test of time, instead of writing something that will soon be forgotten. So here goes.