When you hear the words “Argentinean wine,” do you think of anything at all? Chances are your response is “no,” since we haven’t seen much of the stuff in these here parts. After some drinking research, I found out that they’ve been hogging their excellent malbecs, cabernet sauvignons and merlots all these years, keeping the best wines at home. But Argentinean wine is about to launch here.
I landed in the European-infused city of Buenos Aires with a short agenda: to eat and drink the culture. The cafés, crowded until the late afternoon hours when workers drudge back to their jobs, brimmed with Argentineans consuming hefty glasses of wine with lunch. To motivate these thirsty people, wine prices hover around double the wholesale cost (much lower than our obnoxious three- to four-times cost), and feature mainly domestic labels I had not seen before or since.
Seventy-five percent of Argentinean wine stays within their boundaries, but that’s changing. The country has been producing wine since the 18th century, but it didn’t focus on fine wine exports until the late 1990s. Since then, technology has improved both in the winery and in the vineyards, increasing quality. Because of the weather and soil, as well as consumer preference, Argentina concentrates on red grapes like malbec, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot and bonarda (an Italian grape variety thriving in Argentina). When you taste these wines, the first sip packs an overwhelming wallop. It’s the weather’s fault – it rains very little in Argentina, which causes the vines to struggle to establish a regular water source. This “vine stress” in winespeak creates concentrated flavors in the juice and a familiar flavor profile that is distinct to Argentina. Try a few and you’ll understand what I mean.
The appellation system – or the name under which a winegrower is authorized to identify a wine – is still young in Argentina. But there is one cool thing in the largest appellation, Mendoza: the winery must grow, produce and bottle the wine within the confines of the region in order to label it a Mendoza. Exceptional sub-appellations within Mendoza are Lujan de Cuyo and Maipu at the foot of the Andes, with yummy malbecs and cabernet sauvignons. And high-altitude Tupungato produces outstanding malbec and sémillon.
One of my favorite white wines from Argentina is torrontes. A romantically floral grape, torrontes reminds me of fresh, aromatic viognier. They make excellent stand-ins for sauvignon blancs or chardonnays, with softer acidity and luscious tropical flavors. San Juan and Calchaquies Valleys appellations produce excellent torrontes, with the best hailing from the Salta region. Since not many labels of this gorgeous white are exported, they are difficult – but not impossible – to find. But they are well worth the search.
If you’re looking for even more exotic wines from South America, you might look at Uruguay’s tannat grape. A grape originally from northern Spain, tannat’s flavor profile resembles that of a dark, tannin-rich cabernet sauvignon, with prunes, black currant, strong black tea and black pepper as defining fruit. I also heard a rumor that Brazil is kicking their wine quality up a notch. A Brazilian friend of mine calls their wines “shit,” but admits he hasn’t tried them in recent years. Wonder why?
Looks like we have plenty to look forward to from South America in coming months and years. Fasten your seat belt for some rich, decadent reds my friends.
Nieto 2002 Malbec Riserva Mendoza Even textured and soft, this wine bathes the tongue with black cherry and blueberry. Long fruity finish keeps on giving. Sweetness = 1. $11.
Alta Vista 2003 Torrontes Premium Mendoza Very fragrant, full of exotic fruit and flowers in both aroma and taste, yet it’s dry. Great for drinking with anything spicy, or just for drinking. Easy price too. Sw = 3. $10.