Argentinian wine

Argentinian wine – Argentina is the biggest producer among South America’s winemaking countries (and fifth in the world), with a long and proud history of viticulture and distinctive, signature red (Malbec) and white (Torrontés) grape varieties, both of which can be excellent value. As elsewhere in South America, vines were introduced by thirsty European invaders in the sixteenth century and the Spanish also established the first irrigation systems, which remain vital – in one form or another – to successful winemaking. Low rainfall and long, sunny summers combine with a third factor: cool nights at the altitude of the winemaking regions – the highest in the world at between 700 and 1400m – to complete a unique climatological recipe. The result is that Argentina’s reds (especially Malbec) have a freshness and complexity that other ‘New World’ producers have emulated. The dry growing conditions mean the vines develop deep roots to draw up all sorts of flavourful minerals; the cool nights at altitude also prevent the development of those baked smells and flavours that used to be common in wines from the other side of the Andes.

Malbec has done more to establish Argentina’s standing in the world of wine than all other factors combined. The grape, native to Cahors in south-western France, where it still flourishes, appears to have found its ideal home in Argentina. Its meaty, almost bloody character makes it the perfect foil for the country’s other stand-out product in the food and drink department – beefsteak – and the search for the perfect meat-and-Malbec match is something of a national obsession.

As elsewhere in the New World, leading producers tend to make rather over-extracted, unbalanced luxury cuvées – perhaps with the intention of impressing wine critics and judges, to the extent that the ‘basic’ wines have almost invariably been preferable. Argentine Malbec can produce complex, age-worthy wines on a par with, for example, top Cru Bourgeois claret, and, as such, can be among the best value wines in the world. Originally from north-western Italy’s Piedmont region, Argentina’s other natural red resource is Bonarda, a grape that until now has been underexploited (Colonia la Liebres, Dante Robino or El Retiro).

The distinctive white-grape Torrontés (pronounced with the emphasis on the final syllable) is related to Muscat and there’s certainly a family resemblance in the flowery, grapey aromas and frequently orangey palate. Neither Torrontés nor Muscat is a variety for making grand Vins de Garde but for producing substantial wines that are perfumed – sometimes intensely so – both are adaptable to food matching.

A plethora of international grape varieties thrive in Argentina: Cabernet Sauvignon; Merlot; Tempranillo and – reflecting the large number of Italian families who settled in the country – Sangiovese and Barbera. Syrah, in particular, is worth checking out among the reds. Of the whites, Pinot Grigio, Semillon and Chenin Blanc show the most potential along with some cool, classy Chardonnays, especially from Tupungato.

Geographically the Mendoza region is where it all happens. It accounts for seventy per cent of wine production and the Andes provides the cooling influence that keeps the wines fresh, a lesson that has been learned elsewhere. A varied region in terms of terrain, with vineyards at altitudes ranging from 700–1,700 metres, and of climate, Mendoza is itself divided into a number of sub-regions. The Uco Valley in the south, and especially the Tupungato area within it, and Luján de Cuyo – and its sub-divisions of Pedriel, Agrelo and Vistalba – are where some of the best wines are made. Way up to the north the region of Salta has, at over 3,000m what are believed to be the world’s highest vineyards. San Juan to the south is the second-biggest producer and the vine action goes on southwards, in a small way, right down into Patagonia. Brief mention should be made of the country’s average annual consumption, which peaked at a heroic ninety litres per head during the darkest days of the 1960s and 1970s but is now less than half that amount.

Argentina remains a keen but nervous newcomer on the world stage: whilst growing, exports still account for only twenty per cent of production. Producers bring to their wine a seriousness of intent normally reserved only for the tango. Having seen the potential, however, investors have arrived from all corners – to an extent that most of the high-profile new ventures are at least partly in foreign hands: Moët et Chandon (who have been making large quantities of very good ‘champaña’ for local consumption since the 1960s at Bodegas Chandon); Portugal’s biggest producer, and maker of Mateus Rosé, Sogrape with Finca Flichman ; arguably the world’s most influential wine consultant Michel Rolland with his Clos de los Siete ; and Pierre Lurton of Bordeaux-legend Château Cheval Blanc is producing Cheval de los Andes with LVMH subsidiary Terrazas de los Andes . And these are just the biggest names. Meanwhile, at the other end of the corporate scale, Fairtrade-accredited producers – notably the La Riojana cooperative – appear to be thriving respectably in a fiercely competitive market.

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ARGENTINA PROVES THAT BIG NEW WORLD REDS (ESPECIALLY MALBEC) CAN HAVE FRESHNESS AND COMPLEXITY. THE COOL NIGHTS AT ALTITUDE PREVENT THE WINES DEVELOPING THE BAKED SMELLS THAT USED TO PLAGUE SOUTH AMERICAN WINES AND THE DRY GROWING CONDITIONS MEAN THE VINES DEVELOP DEEP ROOTS THAT DRAW UP ALL SORTS OF FLAVOURFUL GOODIES.

Of the old guard of producers, include Norton (now owned by the Swarovski bangle family); Etchart (by Pernod Ricard); Flichman (by Sogrape); Weinert and Schroeder , only the latter two remain in private hands but all still produce good wines – funny about all those German names though. The price/quality ratio is enviable across the board – from entry level (Bianchi , La Esperanza , Graffigna , Las Moras , Michel Torino , Nieto Senetiner , Schroeder , Chile’s Concha y Toro-owned Otra Vida , Zuccardi ) through Sunday-best bottles (Alta Vista, Altos las Hormigas, prime mover Nicolas Catena , Colomé , Don Domenico , Gougenheim , Luigi Bosca , O Fournier , Pulenta , Renacer , Santa Ana , Trapiche ,Viñalba and Susana Balbo – another prime mover) to the very top, where the wines have chilled out admirably from the rather overwrought efforts of a few years ago (Achaval Ferrer , Alicia , Benegas , Bressia , Don Cristobal 1492 , Viña Cobos ).

Drink like a king with …
Bianchi, Catena, Colonia Las Liebres, Las Hormigas, Luigi Bosca, Nieto Sentiner, O Fournier, Pulenta, Renacer, Michel Torino
... for the price of just drinking.

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