Huffpost Taste
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Laura Catena Headshot

The Malbec Dream: A Personal Reflection on Malbec's Rise to Stardom

Posted: Updated:

Today over 55 cities in 44 countries are hosting gatherings to celebrate "Malbec World Day;" a day conceived by Wines of Argentina to pay homage to the grape that brought Argentina into the spotlight next to top wine producing regions in the world. It wasn't until 2002, just after Argentina's 2001 financial crisis, that Malbec began to attract the attention of wine lovers worldwide. Since then, Malbec, which has historically been Argentina's most dominant red variety, has continued to gain momentum and enhance Argentina's reputation for producing quality wines.

By 2010, Argentine Malbec became a leading symbol of quality wine from South America. Acclaimed Sommelier and Mina Group Wine Director Rajat Parr told Shanken News Daily back in 2011 that Malbec is an important varietal to feature on a restaurant wine list. Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, people now recognize and seek out Malbec to accompany their fine dining experience. Just 20 years ago, the idea that Malbec would be a prevalent choice on prestigious restaurant wine lists would have been unfathomable to me.

Malbec, a Lesser-Known Varietal

In 1995, when I was still a student at Stanford Medical School, I attended the New York Wine Experience with my dad. He invited me to represent our family winery as the official English translator. That night I had the opportunity to talk to sommeliers about our Malbec. They would say, "Wow, this tastes great," but that compliment was always followed by a daunting question: "But how are we going to sell a Malbec? No one knows this variety." And it was true; not even the most prestigious sommeliers in the industry knew about Malbec and Argentina's fine wine potential. The whole evening people would pass by our booth, see that we were from Argentina, and then continue to walk past us. My dad was determined to change Argentina's perception by producing high-quality wines; after this experience I knew I had to be a part of making his dream a reality.

Malbec's Obstacles to Stardom

Like many things in Argentina's tumultuous history, Malbec's rise to stardom has been a journey full of unpredictability and struggle. Malbec was brought to Argentina in 1852 from France, where it had the privileged position of being the main variety in the Medoc area of Bordeaux along with Cabernet Sauvignon. Malbec adapted exceptionally to Mendoza's climate and terroir when Italian immigrants, including my great grandfather, Nicola Catena, brought it over from France in the nineteenth century.

The immigrant families were accustomed to drinking their local wines daily and they brought this tradition to Argentina, creating a strong demand for quality Argentine wines. At this time in the early twentieth century, the people living in our capital, Buenos Aires, were drinking as much wine as people living in Rome and Paris. By the mid-1950s, Malbec was the most widely planted fine red varietal in Mendoza. Sadly, during the military years in the 1970s, the country was in a financial crisis that created a demand for table wines. As a result, thousands of Malbec vines were pulled, though 35,000 acres (14,000 hectares) remained, including the old vines in our family's 90-year-old Angélica vineyard.

An Unattainable Goal

In the early 1980s, my dad, a third generation vintner and economist, moved our family to the United States where he was a visiting scholar at UC Berkley. Coming to California on the heels of the change and instability in Argentina, my dad was surprised and inspired by the Californian winemakers who dared to challenge the French in the 1976 Judgment of Paris. When the California wines came out ahead of their counterparts in Burgundy and Bordeaux, he asked himself: why not try making fine wines in Mendoza that can compete with the best wines in the world?

The Malbec Dream: a New Frontier

My grandfather, Domingo, always told my dad that Argentina wines and in particular, the Malbec variety, had a chance to compete on the world stage. My dad was determined to bring my grandfather's vision to life; and so, he spent the next two decades working to redefine every aspect of Malbec winemaking and viticulture.

There is nothing quite as moving and inspiring as witnessing someone you love chase an attainable goal and then achieve it. My dad's role in shaping Argentina's reputation in the wine world earned him two very prestigious awards. In 2011 he was the first South American to be named Decanter Man of the Year and in 2012 he earned the Wine Spectator Distinguished Service Award. These awards, of course, hold a special significance for my family, but they really represent something much bigger than all of us. The new frontier of Malbec is here; that would not be our reality if it were not for the natural treasures of our home, Mendoza. The high-altitude, sunlight and low fertility soils in Mendoza produces a Malbec with concentrated juices, intense aromas and rich tannins -- a wine with the kind of gusto and authenticity that deserves a whole day of celebration.

A Personal Toast to Mendoza

I never intended to follow my father into winemaking; I chose to go into medicine so that I could directly impact people's lives. But after my experience in 1995 at the New York Wine Experience, I too, could not ignore the strong pull to return home to help Malbec reach its full potential. As my life has taken different turns, I've always kept my favorite Ralph Waldo Emerson quote in the back of my mind: "do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." It has been incredibly gratifying to be part of a community of winemakers, farmers, and viticulturists who have collectively poured their heart and souls into realizing the Malbec Dream and carving a trail for its prosperous future. Today, I raise my glass to all of you. Chin chin!