Malbec and More?
We should all be drinking more Argentine red wine. Argentina has only a fifth of the sales of wine (by value and volume) of Chile within Britain. The US is the Argentines’ most important export market, and unless we drink more of their wine (which we heartily recommend) we will shortly be overtaken in consumption of Argentine wine by Canada, and even, possibly, Brazil. Why is this? From our perspective there are several reasons. First, Argentine estates can be models of chaos, and shipping from the country can demand Zen-like patience. The wine growing areas, all in the west of the country, are a long way from the Atlantic ports - so it’s either a long haul east, or alternatively a truck journey over the Andes to the Chilean coast (and our wine was held up when the passes were closed by unseasonably early snow!). Then comes the nail-biting wait for the right export papers.....
By far the most successful grape in Argentina is Malbec. It’s original home is in south-west France, and specifically in the appellation of Cahors. There (known as Cot) it makes a strongly flavoured wine which is, all too often, tannic, rustic and needs several years ageing to show its best. Introduced in the last third of the 19th century, Malbec, like Carmenère in Chile, delivers much better wine when transplanted than in its homeland. Malbec gives a forward, perfumed wine with delicious brambly fruit, and with real stuffing, character and ageing potential too. We like offer a number of pure Malbecs, plus premium Malbec blends, which often benefit from the structure brought by a good dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon.
There’s a plethora of other grape varieties grown within Argentina, from the heritage of Italian and Spanish immigrants - Bonarda, Barbera and Tempranillo. Coming up on the rails though is Syrah, especially in the San Juan region, where it is the most widely planted red variety.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of wine scene over the last decade is inward investment by the French: major players like Chandon and the Lurton clan; the grand families - including the Rothschilds and the Cuveliers - grouped under Michel Rolland’s Clos de la Siete project; and also brave individuals, like Philippe Subra at CarinaE.
Notwithstanding the lack of penetration in the UK market referred to above, there is no doubt that quality wine production is on the rise in Argentina. Jay Miller, Robert Parker’s South American colleague, ran a major feature on 227 Argentine reds in the December 2007 issue of the The Wine Advocate. He awarded no less than 135 wines, or nearly 60%, 90+ scores. This was unprecedented praise, but absolutely deserved. The top wines from CarinaE and Walter Bressia, for example, stand up proudly against any fine wine from the Old or New World.
Argentine Wine Regions - north to south
Catamarca & Salta
These zones lie far from civilisation in Argentina’s north-west. Less than 5% of Argentine wine comes from this region, comprising Catamarca, Jujuy, Salta, La Rioja, and Tucumán, which is not surprising in view of the fierce heat (340 days of sunshine a year) and near desert dryness in the region.
The key to producing anything other than table wine here is irrigation and altitude. The vineyards at Vicien, for example, are 1400-1800m. up on the edge of the Andes. The altitude and the clear skies bring cool nights, resulting in a diurnal range of over 25 degrees centigrade. Apparently the diurnal contrast stimulates the production of anthocyanins, the pigments in the skin of grapes, giving lovely deep tones and splendid fruit quality.
Our grower: Vicien
With the more famous Mendoza region just to the south, San Juan is a bit of an upstart in Argentina’s viticultural history. Syrah seems to be particularly at home here, on the low fertility soils on the alluvial wash of the Andes, so that’s why we sourced our first Argentine Syrah right here.
Our grower: Finca Don Domenico
Cuyo: Mendoza, Luján de Cuyo, Uco and San Rafael
The region known as Cuyo - from San Juan to San Rafael - produces about two thirds of all wine in the country and 90% of all quality wine. At its centre is Mendoza, founded in 1561, and actually part of Chile until 1776. Wine production was boosted by a large influx of immigrants, Spanish, Italian and French, who came into the area to repopulate the city after a major earthquake in 1861. This bustling city has recently been named as one of eight wine capitals in the world.
The sub-regions near the city are important: there’s considerable competition here to be perceived as Argentina’s prime red wine zone. Contenders include Luján de Cuyo, just south west of Mendoza, where the vineyards lie at about 900-1,200m. of altitude, abutting the Andes. This is classic Malbec territory, with lots of very old vines, and good soils, often with plenty of stones from mountain wash. Lying further south south-west of Mendoza, the Uco Valley is probably the most fashionable wine region in Argentina now, seeing an influx of investment.
Our growers: Benvenuto de la Serna; CarinaE; and Walter Bressia