Argentine Wines for Redneck Spring
My oldest friend in New York is a man of observations that grow on you—observations that have to be lived with. Fortunately, he writes most of this stuff down, and permits me to read at least some of it. Fragments come at me from time to time, unbidden; they’re like the perfect crescent moon I sighted last Thursday night down Houston St., dangling low over the Hudson. (That can’t be real, I thought, pondering the sliver against the obsidian sky. It’s like someone cut it from cardboard and aimed a spotlight at it, like someone contrived this rare vision for my benefit, to stop me in my tracks.) Bits of insight that nestle in shy corners of your brain are my old friend’s business; they lurk; they await their moment. And let me tell you, this guy is an old friend. We go back a decade—a third of my life. My former ballet crony, back in those days when I could afford ballet. He’s bitched about my driving and lived to tell about it. He’s gotten me jobs. He’s sent me postcards from exotic places I’ll likely never see.
At any rate, it was what he once wrote me about summertime that hooked me. It was an embellishment on James. Henry James, you’ll remember, said that the two most beautiful words in the English language are “summer afternoon.” And often I agree—when, for instance, a breeze rushes through the huge tree two houses up from my backyard patio and there’s a rustle in the air that carries the sympathetic tremolo of an affluence that reaches even me, in my shabby luxuriation. The sun vanishes below laundry strung between fire escapes on clotheslines that my neighbors still reassuringly use. There’s a sky as blue as the sky in a Constable. It’s a summer afternoon, and James was right. What my friend thought, though, was that “summer afternoon” has a companion phrase in the language. “Indian summer” was what he landed on, lamenting the possibility that politics—or even discretion—could take it away from us. We fucked the Indians, he realized. Why rub it in?
Indian summer. I gave it little thought until this last week, when the heat wave finally relented and we—soggy misfits without air conditioning—got our reprieve from the funk. It scarred me. Whenever the weather goes mad for a week, my skin revolts. My forehead currently bears the evidence, the healing scabs from humidity blemishes. And so our rainforest metropolis was scoured by the jet stream, the relatively dry winds returned and I thought, What should I call this? And thinking then of my friend and his affection for Indian summer, I considered my people, my hillbilly lineage, and I asked myself: What do we call it when, in the guts of August, a wind arrives to restore civility to the panting mountains of Appalachia? I said to myself, “‘Redneck spring’ is what we call it,” and there it was.
So what does a man drink during redneck spring? Shit, boy, a man drinks whiskey, goddammit. Shit. What do you think a man drinks? But I’ve given up on whiskey, so I needed to find a wine to drink to celebrate the cooling, and I said to myself: Argentina. Because it’s Argentina that’s prodded my imagination for months now. Argentina and surfing. But forget the surfing. Simply Argentina, and the tango, and Astor Piazzolla, whose CDs have lived in my stereo. Besides, Argentina is the redneck backwater of the wine world, only now beginning to return to its former glory. When a dip in the temperature gave me a taste for red wine, my first impulse was to load up on the juice from Argentina. (It helps that Argentina, like Chile a few years back, has become the wine world’s hot topic, its new South American darling. One can go to Crossroads Liquors, on West 14th St., for instance, and find an entire small section conveniently devoted to Argentine reds and whites.) Recent Argentine history goes like this: Juan-Evita-military dictators-the Falklands. Drama followed by repression and cynicism followed by humiliation. But the country—assuming that there isn’t a South American crisis on the heels of the Asian one—is bouncing back, particularly in the areas of viticulture, wine making and wine export. The big red-wine grape in Argentina is malbec, an oddity since this native varietal of Bordeaux has been declining in popularity in France for some time now. Malbec has thus been ignored almost everywhere that isn’t Argentina, especially in places where the cabernet sauvignon/merlot model of Bordeaux-style winemaking has dominated (in Napa, for instance). Down there in the southern hemisphere, however, malbec has flourished, and thank God Argentina’s unleashed it on the world.
If you like Spanish Rioja, chances are that you’ll also like malbec, a wine of invigorating fruity mouthfuls—fat with blackberries and cherries—that still has structure and is generally aged in oak, which adds vanilla tones to the aroma. The color resembles ruby port’s, and drinkers who like their wine to tend toward the qualities of port will probably dig malbec, with the lush burn of its mildly tannic finish. Like petite syrah, malbec is a mouth-blackener, a tooth-stainer. And try to drink the stuff that’s got a few years on it, but not too many. Malbec can age—my recent favorites were ’94-’95 vintages, and I imagine the earlier releases to be slightly better—but as is the case with red Rioja’s, malbec’s style is one that emulates French qualities rather than truly possesses them. In other words, you might as well drink your ’95 malbec now. No sense in putting it up for five more years if it’s not going to develop any more complexity, and is only going to lose its signature fruitiness. What’s in the stores now dates from ’94 on, and though Argentine malbec remains something of a secret, most merchants will, if you ask, be happy to introduce you to the cult. That’s a marvelous thing, really, because malbec is, ounce-per-ounce, cheap by comparison with the payoff. A bottle of the superb ’94 Bodega y Cavas de Weinert goes for $14 at Crossroads.
The Weinert is a smooth operator. Somewhat shaggier, but still reminiscent of malbec in its more youthful temperament, is the ’97 Don Miguel Gascon, which at $9 is so much more interesting than most other reds you’d drop that kind of money on that it makes sense to stock up on it. The third malbec I sampled was the ’95 Valentin Bianchi ($14), and while it reminded me a lot of the Weinert—peppery, oaky, a lot of fruit—the tannins were a little too much for my tastes. In Argentina, Mendoza is the brag-about-it appellation, situated near the middle of the country and shielded from the Pacific by Chile and the Andes. Both Weinert and Gascon have Mendoza on their labels, but Bianchi comes from “San Rafael,” which isn’t a region separate
from Mendoza, but a micro-region within, farther to the south and slightly more inland. This might explain why, at $14, I thought the Weinert was the superior buy. Still, it’s not that big a deal. The differences are slight.
If it’s 65 degrees at night and feet are up on the back porch and you’re watching the dogs gambol on the grass—or even if you’re standing in front of an open window just off Flatbush Ave. in Brooklyn, the final dregs of another blissful redneck spring filtering through the filthy mesh while the local dons of urban signification thump down the block and the weeds sway in the breeze—then it’s a good time to drink malbec. If you’re feeling brave, make sausage risotto to eat with it. Drink an out-of-season red wine that was crafted at the bottom of the world, because when the population up here wilts in the haze, down in Patagonia they shiver. A meaningful difference, if you ask me; an adequate temptation to be not bicoastal, but trans-hemispheric, shuttling across the equator in search of an endless spring. Costly, sure, but in Argentina, they bottle the experience, and sell it.