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Argentina shows change in the wine world comes gradually, then suddenly


Malcom Jolley, co-founder of, is joining The Hub as our resident epicurean and wine columnist. Twice monthly, Malcom will be providing readers with a tour of a different wine growing region globally and his recommendations for wine selections available in Canada that capture the terroir of locales, personalities and cultures featured in his column. Hey, it’s Friday and 5 o’clock somewhere. Enjoy!

While the wine world is certainly subject to trends and fashion, winemakers move much more slowly than most creative makers.

After all, the shortest turn around in a vineyard is a year, and many wines take years more in the cellar before they are released to market. In this way, change in the wine trade follows Ernest Hemingway’s line about going broke: “Gradually…” as plans are slowly executed, “then suddenly…” when over one or a few vintages the changes take hold.

Something like this is happening to the wines of Argentina, and its been causing me to re-evaluate, for the better, their position in the market.

Whether the wines of Argentina have been changing gradually I don’t know for sure. I do know that I have suddenly in the last few months become aware of a change in at least some of the wines being exported from that country that is verging away from heavier jammy wines towards fresher, fruit forward and food-friendly ones. These wines are challenging my preconceptions of Argentine wine and, in talking to some of the young(ish) women and men who are making them, this is both the result of a purposeful act and a natural progression.

What I am seeing is an influx of “affordable premium” wines at around $20, or little bit more, that are meant to compete with a higher price point, and this is good news for Canadian consumers of fine wines.

Argentina has always been a big wine producer, but until the mid-1980s nearly all production was for domestic sales. In fact, the Argentines drank so much wine (an average of about 100 litres per person per year) that domestic production couldn’t keep up and the country imported wine to keep up with demand. With political and economic reforms in the 80s and 90s came an emerging middle class and a change of habits: less wine, but of better quality. And as the Argentine political economy opened up so came access to capital and foreign investment. The industry was poised to pivot to exports.

A recent report cited Argentine reds as the big winner in UK sales in the pandemic year of 2020.

One of the pioneers of the new Argentine wine movement of the late 20th Century was Nicolás Catena Zapata. 1988 he lured away, from a job in rival neighbour Chile, a young Californian winemaker named Paul Hobbs. Hobbs was trying his hand at new kind of job “winemaker consultant” after having established himself working for, arguably, the most famous wine producer in the world at the time, Robert Mondavi. Mondavi’s Napa Valley style of wine, especially expressed in Cabernet Sauvignon, was the style of the moment, garnering high scores (another new invention) and high sales. At the same time consumer demand for wine, especially big red wines, began to grow exponentially in the world’s traditional export markets of North America and Northern Europe as drinking habits changed there too.

As Catena Zapata and Hobbs rode this perfect storm, they made a crucial and influential decision to continue keep growing and making wine from Argentina’s number one red grape, a Bordeaux variety that was more or less obscure elsewhere, called Malbec. From the 1990s through today, Malbec is by far the biggest and most popular exported wine from the country, and the prevailing style is in the big, slightly hot with high alcohol, slightly sweet flavour that launched Argentine exports.

This style is still very much in demand, and a recent report from Wine Enthusiast magazine cited Argentine reds as the big winner in UK sales in the pandemic year of 2020. I assume those sales were driven by supermarkets and my guess is they were mirrored in places like Canada where wines priced around $10 are still the big retail sellers. I would venture that in most of the English speaking world the word Malbec is a perfectly well understood metonym for Argentine red wine.

But here’s the thing about Catena Zapata: he didn’t stop at the export revolution. The Catena Zapata label would go on to make some of Argentina’s highest rated and highest priced wines. At the same time his eponymous winery began to invest increasingly in their vines, especially Malbec vines that were decades old and often grown at altitudes of over 1,000 metres at the foot of the Andes.

The next generation, in the form of Nicolàs’ daughter Dr. Laura Catena began a new project in 2002, with Catena Zapata head viticulturist Luis Reginato, that focused on old vineyards owned and farmed by the company’s long-time growers.

Meanwhile, other Catena Zapata alumni are contributing to this second wave, like Alejandro Sejanovich, Jeff Mausbach and Jorge Crotta who make high altitude wines from Malbec at specific soil sites at TintoNegro. Or winemaker Juan Pablo Murgia of Argento, a winery that originally created as a joint venture of Catena with a British wine importer, and is now the country’s largest producer of organic wine. Or Iduna Weinert, who’s family’s Weinert Bodegas y Cavas makes Malbec in the old fashioned way before the export revolution.

All these brands, which are widely distributed in Canada, are making lighter, fresher wines, with higher acid levels from being picked earlier. They’re still big on fruit, but not jammy. They’ll still match a grilled steak, but they’ll also pair with a red sauce pasta, or even a roast chicken. And they’re hitting that $20 sweet spot, when they could go up against Old World wines at $10 or $20 more.

Garnett Genuis: On nationalism, globalism and what we can learn from ancient Athens


Conflict between ideas about “nationalism” and “globalism” are shaping many contemporary debates, here in Canada and throughout the world.

Globalization is breaking down more and more barriers, and global problems increasingly point to the need for global solutions. But we are also seeing plenty of failures in terms of global common endeavour and the ability of global institutions to actually deliver positive results. Increasing numbers of people on the left and the right are reacting to the inequalities associated with globalization and demanding that their leaders focus on the wellbeing of their own countries.

As we debate our response to various global crises and the degree to which our responses should be local, national, or global, it is important that we set clear categories and make clear distinctions between the different competing outlooks.

For me, a useful jumping off point for thinking about these very 21st century questions of nationalism and globalism has been the trajectory of Athens from its golden age of empire through its defeat in the Peloponnesian War and then into the subsequent era of Athens’ greatest philosophers. These are the circumstances that gave us the ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It is a fascinating story, and one that is particularly relevant today.

Ancient Athens itself does not really have a modern analog. It was a procedurally democratic society in which many were still excluded, populism was rampant, and the city itself formed the democratic center of an empire which was unapologetically exploitative of its periphery. In this sense, Athens was in reality what America’s most virulent far-left critics imagine America to be. Athenian democracy, in which the people voted to put Socrates to death, is frequently and legitimately invoked as demonstrating the problems with unbridled populism and the need for checks and balances. Ancient Athens is a warning about what democracy can become. And it was Athenian colonialism and abuse of its allies that sparked the Peloponnesian War.

In light of modern Sino-American competition for global dominance, the Peloponnesian War is most often invoked in the context of the notion of the “Thucydides Trap” — the idea that conflict is inevitable when a new power emerges to challenge another for dominance. Importantly, no such hypothesis about the inevitably of violent conflict between Athens and Sparta (or America and China) was actually advanced by Thucydides, the Athenian General after whom the term is named. The Thucydides Trap has about as much to do with Thucydides as modern Confucius Institute have to do with Confucius. Unlike the Thucydides Trap, though, there are lessons to be taken from this era that do draw from actual events.

Pericles’ Nationalism and Alcibiades’ Globalism

The two most important players during the war on the Athenian side were Pericles and his nephew Alcibiades.

Pericles, a brilliant strategist and orator, effectively led Athens in the early years of the war. He was what we would today identify as a devoted nationalist. For him, Athens itself was something like a great Homeric hero. Pericles saw his duty as being solely to the good of Athens and he saw justice itself as being whatever was good for his city.

Pericles would likely have led Athens to victory in the Peloponnesian War, if he had not died of a plague that devastated Athens in the second year of the war. Athens was protected by walls and maintained access to the sea. This allowed it to access vital necessities during a siege, but also left it very vulnerable to disease. Today’s pandemic is another element that makes the Peloponnesian War feel more resonant.

In always seeking the good for his city, Pericles was a true nationalist as opposed to a crowd-pleasing populist. He always sought what was in the Athenian interest, rather than indulging the public will. He initially convinced the Athenians to retreat within and stay behind their walls rather than face the Peloponnesians in open country, and he avoided calling a subsequent public meeting for fear that passions would drive the assembled people to an unwise course. He did all this for the sake of Athens, not for himself.

Like Pericles, Alcibiades served as an Athenian general and was recognized for his tactical prowess. Alcibiades also presented himself as a nationalist, though of a very different sort. During a debate about whether Athens should seek to conquer Sicily, Alcibiades was accused of only favouring the expedition in order to strengthen his own position. In his response, he argued that the glorification of a great man like himself carried with it the glorification of the city. The Sicily expedition championed by Alcibiades was ultimately disastrous and was the catalyst for ultimate Athenian defeat.

Alcibiades was also notable for defecting multiple times during the war when sensing personal danger. Facing allegations of sacrilege in Athens, he switched to the Spartan side, and then defected again to the Persians after his liaisons with the Spartan King’s wife put him in an awkward position. From his Persian perch, he managed to scheme and deceive his way back into the Athenians’ good graces and return home. In modern terms, if Pericles was a true nationalist, Alcibiades turned out to be something of a globalist, preserving a soft spot for home while plying his considerable talents and pursuing all manner of conquest under any flag.

The Great Philosophers

Following its defeat in the Peloponnesian War, Athens entered a period of declining geopolitical influence. But this political decline would happen alongside significant intellectual dynamism, marked by the emergence of great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Ross Douthat argues in The Decadent Society that civilizational decline is often associated with a decline in creativity, but these great philosophers (as well as people like Augustine and Boethius who lived during Rome’s decline) show us that civilizational decline can actually provide great fuel for creative reflection. Thank goodness.

Is there a connection between Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War and the ideas of the great philosophers that followed? It seems to me that there is. The end of Athenian dominance in Greece necessarily forced a re-think of Periclean nationalism. It was no longer attractive for Athenians to contend that “might makes right,” since they had just lost most of their might. Perhaps, therefore, this loss of national power made new models of justice that were universal as opposed to national more necessary. These are the models of justice that we hear proposed by these great thinkers. For example, Plato recounts in The Republic how Socrates effectively refutes the idea that justice is simply “the advantage of the stronger.” In this, he opposes the most extreme expression of an “Athens first” nationalism.

Both Alcibiades and Socrates rejected the extreme form of nationalism represented by Pericles. But it is important that they did so in different ways and for different reasons. Alcibiades discarded his attachments and loyalty to his community in order to pursue a lower ideal — his own self-interest. Though Pericles’ faults are easy to identify in retrospect because of his ill-treatment of foreign peoples, Alcibiades was still clearly a lesser man. Pericles at least loved his country, but Alcibiades only loved himself. In debates about nationalism and its alternatives, we often miss that traditional nationalism is a kind of middle course. It is possible to do worse than Periclean nationalism, and also to do better.

In the 21st century, there is more than one way to be a citizen of the world. One path involves pursuing wealth and opportunity everywhere, working for and with any country or company that serves one’s own private interests, disregarding the interests of one’s own nation or even the people in other nations along the way. This sort of personal selfishness can easily dress itself up as open-minded cosmopolitanism. This is the road of Alcibiades. An alternative way to be a citizen of the world is to draw on the insights of Socrates, building on a love for one’s own community and nation by seeking to advance the common good of all peoples as well as one’s own. This commitment to the universal pursuit of justice builds on a patriotic commitment to one’s own nation by expanding one’s sphere of concern instead of narrowing it. The cosmopolitanism of “I can make it anywhere” is not the same as the cosmopolitanism of a commitment to universal human wellbeing.

These three men from antiquity, Alcibiades, Pericles, and Socrates, were characterized by differing views of the world and differing views about justice. For Alcibiades, justice was whatever served his own interests. For Pericles, justice was whatever served his country’s interests. For Socrates, justice was a universal concept. For those concerned about the tension between nationalism and globalism, Socrates offers a kind of synthesis, emphasizing both fidelity to immediate commitments and the enlightened cosmopolitanism that comes from universal solidarity.

Today’s debates about nationalism and globalism would be somewhat clearer if we recognized the existence of three distinct positions instead of just two. And the particular circumstances of our present challenges, the need for both sacrificial local engagement and universal global solidarity, should point us back to a consideration of the path of Socrates.