Monday, February 6, 2012

The Vineyard at the End of World

My review of The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec by Ian Mount appeared today in The Washington Independent Review of Books:

Aficionados will lap up this history of the Argentine wine industry and its signature grape, Malbec. Writing in a lively, journalistic style, Ian Mount combines colorful vignettes and extensive interviews of the key players with a wealth of information to provide the definitive word on what has become a mainstay of New World wine.
Mount writes authoritatively about wine. His deft descriptions explain why it’s important how vines are planted, how the grapes are picked, how high the pH level should be, why oxygen must be avoided at all costs, how modern equipment and techniques have improved the product, and how revolutionary the last three decades have been in creating a wonderful new world of wine.
The story he tells is truly astonishing. Argentina has a tradition of wine growing and production dating back to the conquistadors. Waves of Italian immigrants well-schooled in Old World vineyards gave the country a robust wine culture. But Argentina often remained mired in autarkic economic policies, at times a political and economic pariah in the world community. Through much of the country’s history, Argentine vintners produced a cheap, substandard wine, (“plonk” is one of Mount’s favorite words) suitable only for domestic consumption.
It was only as the wine revolution in Europe and California was under way that a handful of intrepid Argentine winemakers brought in these foreign consultants to study the challenges posed by the hot, dry climate of the country’s western wine-growing regions. Hoping at first to compete in a global market dominated by Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, they developed Argentine versions of these varietals that gave them their first export products.
Through trial and error, patience and skill, the winemakers and their foreign consultants eventually came to the realization that the Malbec grape, one of the original constituents of fine Bordeaux wines that had survived as an ugly-duckling varietal in the New World, offered the best opportunity to create a distinctive, world-class wine. With its dark, inky color and fruity flavor, Malbec previously had been used to lend body to thin clarets. By adapting the grape to the Argentine terroir and using modern techniques, a new generation of winemakers was able to create a wine that could not only stand on its own but enrich what had become a truly global market.
Mount tells the story with verve and distills a great amount of research and reporting into his book. But he makes the reader work a little harder than necessary by failing to mold the story into a tight narrative. The wine connoisseur will relish every detail, but the general reader and casual wine consumer may not have the motivation to read through the early chapters about the settling of western Argentina and the often extraneous details about some of the colorful characters involved.
Without a strong narrative arc, the book, even though it is roughly chronological, emerges as a somewhat disjointed series of anecdotes, vignettes, snatches of historical research and a textbook on wine production. Rather than plunging us immediately into the historical beginnings of the Argentine wine industry, Mount could have made it easier for the reader by starting with the success of Malbec — this is what we’re most familiar with — and then going back into history to explain where it all comes from after he had us hooked.
When Mount does get to the series of events that brought the new Malbec wines to the world, even though he clearly has talked to numerous sources on three continents, his account seems to rely heavily on Nicol├ís Catena and the role of his family company. However crucial Catena’s contribution might have been, the book at times reads almost like a corporate history.
Nonetheless, Mount does not gloss over Catena’s failings, describing him at times as Machiavellian. The author presents both sides regarding Catena’s final break with his longtime consultant, Paul Hobbs, but the parting was obviously acrimonious because of competing claims about who should get the credit for discovering Malbec.
In any case, The Vineyard at the End of the World is a great read for anyone caught up in the romance of wine (or, for that matter, the romance of Argentina). It is amazing in retrospect that the breakthrough for Malbec and for Argentine wines in general took place in the mid-90s, less than two decades ago.
For expert and casual consumers alike, the dazzling array of wine choices now available at affordable prices has reached Bacchanalian proportions. Ian Mount’s book, focusing on this one important location, helps us appreciate the history, the talent and the hard work that has gone into making that possible.
Darrell Delamaide, a Washington, D.C.-based writer, has visited vineyards on four continents. His latest book is The Grand Mirage, a historical thriller.

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