This is opinion rather than insight, I’d say it’s a factor, but not as big a factor as price and availability at scale. If Malbec were as expensive in general as, say, Chambolle-Musigny, it wouldn’t be as popular as it is.
That said, I think old world AOC/DOC etc naming conventions (and/or wine snobbery, depending on your point of view) also contribute. For the casual wine drinker, far easier and less potentially embarrassing to know what you’re getting and order an Argentinian Malbec, Aussie Shiraz or Californian Chardonnay, than to know which grapes are in Côte-Rôtie, Chassagne-Montrachet, Brunello di Montalcino etc. How many people know that Cahors is Malbec (albeit a very different expression of the grape to that of Argentina)?
You do see examples of European producers using better known names, presumably for marketing purposes. One that comes to mind is some Spätburgunder producers labelling the wine as Pinot Noir. Also some newer producers in France, Spain etc operating outside AOC/DOC rules, who are following the New World convention of labelling by grape and producer/region.
As an aside, many years ago a French friend gently corrected my pronunciation of Montrachet. Although I’m no great linguist, I try to pronounce words in other languages as well as possible (primarily to be understood), but I was pronouncing the first t, which the French basically swallow, but that isn’t natural for a native English speaker. I got there in the end.
Entry level Malbec is also pretty easy-drinking stuff, which I’m sure helps.
I find this is trickiest with South African wines, but I assume no-one pronounced Loggerenberg or Vergelegen the Dutch / Afrikaans way? It’s also context, if I’m with British people they might find the French r’s and Dutch hard g’s very over the top. I can’t misspronounce Spanish, mind
The vast majority of wine is sold by supermarkets, in which you don’t have to know that you pronounce the ‘c’ at the end of Malbec but don’t pronounce the ‘t’ at the end of Merlot.
It’s been said that the boom in wine consumption is down to being able to pick it off a shelf in a supermarket without having to ask an assistant in a wine shop and have them look at you all snooty because you didn’t pronounce the name they way they thought it should be said*.
What about restaurants, I imagine you asking, well few waiters know how to pronounce the wines and ask for the bin number, or one can point to the desired wine on the list.
So I am not convinced by Will Lyon’s theory. After all, ciabatta and panino have become very popular of late despite few people knowing how to ‘correctly’ pronounce them.
*Lots of people ITB pronounce the first part of Pinotage as pee-no and correct me when I pronounce it as Pinno - which is correct. Speaking as someone whose first wine purchases were, of necessity, at the counter of wine shops I have a dim view of ‘experts’ pronunciation.
I wouldn’t overplay his theory, but I think there’s something to it. Otherwise wouldn’t Pouilly-Fumé be just as popular as Sancerre? But yes, recognition and familiarity are big factors. As well as, as Lyons puts it, the ‘vanilla’ character of Malbec - reliably predictable and unexciting. (He’s talking about supermarket/pub wines here of course).
The problem is, all supermarket/pub wines taste pretty much the same no matter what grape they’re made from.
On a separate note, I think Malbec’s ‘popularity’ is simply the outcome of very clever marketing - ‘Argentinian Malbec and Steak’ is ubiquitous, and without being awful here, a large chunk of my fellow countrymen - and women - are deeply unadventurous and see steak as the big treat/fancy meal/easy thing to order at a ‘fancy restaurant’/etc. Hitching your wagon to that particular cavalcade is a stroke of genius (for the record, I don’t even think it’s that good a partnership!).
I recall a little while ago having to eat in a slightly less salbrious restraunt than I might otherwise have chosen and having a ‘discussion’ with the waiter (no sommelier this one) when I asked whether the Tempranillo wine (no other description - which a was a rather big clue) was a Rioja and him saying, “no, Rioja is a totally different grape.” I gave up in the end! I will not name the chain.