"No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving," says Miles in what is perhaps the most memorable line from the 2004 film Sideways. "I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!"
I, too, have my issues with "Merlot" (especially when uttered between air quotes). But if there were one wine category where Kantian absolutism could be applied in my sensorial universe, it would have to be Argentine Malbec.
To me, the wines all taste alike: dominant blueberry notes that compete with high alcohol on the nose and in the mouth and oak tannin in the finish. When the Argentine wine industry decided it wanted to become a wine trade powerhouse in the late 1980s, most producers went for the same style. In a trend that mirrored the Californian "Merlot" movement of the same period, "big wine" branded the grape variety by guaranteeing homogeneity and delivering consistency to the consumer.
Yes, I've tasted high-end $80+ Argentine Malbec like that produced by Cheval des Andes (the collaboration between Terrazas de los Andes and Château Cheval Blanc, producer of the famous expression of Merlot that Miles drinks in another memorable scene from Sideways). It had character and depth and while I wasn't a fan, there's no denying that it was superbly made wine, intelligent, elegant and focused.
But for me, the overarching problem with this wine is that I can't afford to drink it.
When it comes to the under-$20 crowd, I have always been disappointed by the McDonaldization of this once noble grape variety, widely cultivated in Bordeaux until the phylloxera epidemic decimated the vineyards of Europe in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.
Well, folks, I'm here to tell you: Never say never.
The 2009 Rutini Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, came to my attention recently at a consumer tasting.
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It was fresh and clean and had the acidity I crave. On the nose and in the mouth, it had the characteristic berry notes but it also showed earth and other savory flavors. And to my very pleasant surprise, it weighed in at just 13.5 percent alcohol (!), a rarity in the world of "hot," 14.5 percent-plus red wines (as we say in the trade) designed for alcohol-loving Americans.
Most importantly, for under $20 in our market, I can afford to drink it. And you can find it at Spec's for around $16.