Boom Varietal: The Rise of Argentine Malbec is director Sky Pinnick’s somewhat meandering documentary focusing, appropriately, on the seemingly sudden explosion of Malbec into the popular consciousness. But I don’t think the film succeeds in delivering a necessarily accurate portrait of the wine and its place in the larger culture. It keeps skirting away from the really interesting conversations, frustratingly enough. What Boom Varietal does provide, though, is a comprehensive snapshot into the professional wine industry.
Pinnick is effusive in his adoration of the grape and the region, with lots of intercutting shots of the sun rising over vineyards, close-ups of soil crumbling in tender, calloused hands, and men walking in slow-motion among the vines* while his interview subjects expound on the importance and beauty of the land and the Malbec that grows on it. I get the impression of Pinnick asking softball questions and receiving safe, obvious answers from people whose livelihoods are directly affected by the continued proliferation of the romanticism of wine.
Where thing do get interesting, though, is in the moments where Pinnick’s subjects stray a little off course and hint at the larger aspects of the wine industry. Early on Nicole Ciani, general manager for Terroir Tribeca in New York City (properly great wine bar, by the way), explains that Malbec has grown in popularity in part because the grape is easy to pronounce. And Mike Veseth, The Wine Economist, talks about how easy it is to find quality, inexpensive, entry-level** Malbec. And there is an extended sequence that follows Joanna Sherman, a salesperson working for a small distributor, as she tries to sell wine to several shops and restaurants. That job is absolutely thankless, and while the sequence has nothing to do with Malbec or Argentina, it is a welcome detour that expands the world Pinnick is focusing on.
Moments like these are where the film is at its best, and at its most honest. The scenes that actually focus on Malbec feel very much like a commercial for the wine (how much of this has to do with the film being produced by Southern Wine Group, an importer focusing on the wines of South America, is something I’m a little curious about), but when it strays out of the vineyards, stops with the hyperbole and platitudes, it becomes something more special. I don’t think Boom Varietal has much to say about Malbec or about Argentina, but it does provide a good glimpse of this larger world, and that’s something to be commended.
Let’s Talk About Malbec.
So let’s talk a little about Argentina and that country’s premier grape. Malbec is originally from France, where it was a huge component in Bordeaux blends before our old pal phylloxera showed up and shit the bed, wiping out the overwhelming majority of France’s land under vine. There is still a little bit of Malbec grown in Cahors, south of Bordeaux, where it is called Côt, but the grape is largely inconsequential in its home country.
In the mid-1800s the grape was introduced to Argentina, and specifically to Mendoza, where it adapted very well and very quickly to the climate. Malbec in Bordeaux and Cahors can be a little one-dimensional, with a slightly herbal style and not much else, but it picks up more complexity in the dry, arid climate of Argentina, especially in the high-altitude region of Luján de Cuyo. For a hundred years it was used primarily as a blending grape, often being paired with Merlot and the little-known Tannat*** to make serviceable but largely uninteresting red wines. But it’s in the last twenty years that Argentine Malbec has really come into its own.
Following closely in the footsteps of the Australian wine industry, Argentina’s wineries made the conscious decision to not only start producing higher quality wine comprised entirely of the Malbec grape, but to market themselves accordingly. The result was a complex, full-bodied, and fruit-forward wine that was both readily available and affordable. It was, and is, also in the style that was immensely popular in the 1980s and 90s.
Malbec is a very heavy red, in line with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and it takes to new oak very well. It offers a lot of ripe fruit and some balancing acidity, while remaining smooth and eminently drinkable. Malbec is very pleasant, and it’s easy to see why it is well liked. It is tasty, reliable, and cheap. But there’s not really anything you can do with it. It’s so heavy that unless you’re serving beef, it doesn’t offer any versatility. This is great in Argentina, home of the best cuts of beef in the world, and the grape thrived in the days of big, point-driven, heavily oak influenced wines.
But those days are coming to a close. Wine drinkers are, by and large, looking for subtlety and versatility (see the recent surge of affordable, high-quality Pinot Noir, and the continued success of dry Riesling), and neither of those are things that Malbec is going to be offering up. I’m of the opinion that Argentine Malbec is starting to fade from the public consciousness. I think the boom is over. But maybe I’m wrong.
Either way, I urge you to pick up a good bottle of Malbec (look for Durigutti or something in Susana Balbos’ excellent portfolio, her Crios is a personal favorite) and a big hunk of steak and watch Boom Varietal. It’s currently playing on VOD and really is an entertaining little film, even if it is a bit slight.
*And here’s something irksome. All of the winemakers Pinnick interviews in Argentina are middle-aged white men. And while this is par for the course in the wine industry, Argentina is actually one of the more progressive winemaking nations. Vintners like Susana Balbo make not only some of the best wines in the region, but some of the best in the world.
**The film’s idea of inexpensive wine starting at $15 is...a little misleading. You can and will find good wine for under $10, and that’s really the entry-level price point. Even in New York.
***The best Tannats I’ve had are, weirdly, from Uruguay. They’re rare, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for them.