Romance of the Vine

Argentina and its wines are set to take on the world

They say the Argentine is a Spanish-speaking Italian, dressed as a Frenchman, wanting to be a British Lord. As winemakers go, there’s a new wave of them here, as fresh and exuberant as the wines they create – but with an elegance and complexity on a global level that is purely and distinctively Argentina.

Stretching 3,000 kilometres, from the highest altitudes to the lowest latitudes, the Argentine wine regions are known for ripe fruit and sweet tannins. With the thin atmosphere of showering UV rays, the grape’s skin must thicken to protect its seed. Since the antioxidants, tannins, sugars and polyphenols are in the skin, there is more concentrated colour, structure and expression. “Some people say you can feel the sun in the wine,” says Carla Castorina of Trapiche, Argentina’s largest barrel cellar.

Extreme conditions – high thermal amplitudes, aridity and strong winds – enable organic wine production. It takes a long time for these grapes to mature, but while we wait, sugars increase, so we have those soft, sweet tannins, a lot of alcohol and a plummy marmalade character. They’re so delicious that, generally, an Argentine wine will pair very well with…a glass.

Salta

Within a crown of peaks lies the wine region of Cafayate. In the tasting room of Bodegas Etchart, while sampling a beautiful range of wines, the roof begins to clatter, glasses shake, the room convulses: earthquake! We run outside and marvel at the awesome force of nature. This is Salta, the land of Torrontés – a disarmingly floral grape varietal beginning to make waves of its own. Nightfall at the Patios de Cafayate wine spa, I feel like a Roman emperor – sipping an exotically aromatic Don David Torrontés by Michel Torino, while soaking in a bubbling barrel bath of Cabernet Sauvignon. As my skin absorbs the polyphenols, I’m in heaven.

A new style and quality of wine has evolved, from rustic and powerful to fresh and elegant. “All women love Torrontés; they love the fruit, the flower, the perfume,” regales LucÌa Romero of Bodegas El Porvenir. Not just women, I think – Torrontés is the perfect match for sushi, too. A complex variety of blends is stored at El Porvenir. Aged in steel tanks, the fruit of Laborum Torrontés shows with clarity, and the Laborum Syrah is like a deep, rich, ambrosial plum. “When the volume of wine is oak-barrel-aged,” shares Ignacio Lopez of Bodegas Etchart, “the characteristics can be oaky, buttery, grassy, but the more delicate fruits and florals can be missed.” The expression of Etchart wines is a very fresh acidity, ripe fruit and flowers.

Many Argentines travel through Salta to the biodynamic vineyards of Bodega Colomé. As the serpentine road winds around mountains, the scenery changes to dizzying heights, from terrestrial to Martian. At 3,111 metres, Colomé’s Pinot Noir is the highest in the world. Using a constellation chart to determine when to tend to the roots, flowers, leaves and fruit – based on the moon’s alignment with the constellations – they maintain as organic a process as possible, so there is little interference with the quality that already exists – true terroir thinking. The Malbec Estate wine is intensely layered and concentrated with deep, ripe berries and well-integrated oak.

All roads lead to Buenos Aires. At the Palacio Duhau – Park Hyatt Buenos Aires, the ambience encourages us “to think in wine and cheese.” This is where people go to discover new wine. World-renowned, award-winning sommelier Marcelo Rebole introduces appreciation for a wine’s expression: the message inside each glass. “Wine is the most complex product to taste,” he says. “It takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to practise.” Choosing seven of 60 wines by the glass, while his cheese master matches from 52 Argentine artisanal cheeses, is proof enough it takes two to tango. With sommelier and chef collaborating harmoniously, “we don’t only match with the wine,” says Rebole, “we match with the situation.”

Patagonia

When Charles Darwin surveyed Patagonia, he didn’t need a decanter. A land of infinite horizons, where strong winds have eroded mountains to mesas, the developing vineyards of Neuquén have required a pioneer’s imagination to create a wine industry where there never was one. The massive production of Bodega del Fin del Mundo is run with the quality control of a boutique winery. What could be done by machine is done by hand, and the result is sensuous. The Postales Roble Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Chardonnay are fruity, gentle and soft. The Special Blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot has outstanding complexity with an intense bouquet.

While 100 mile an hour winds can barrel across the valley, it is extremely calm with not a cloud in the sky. Bodega NQN is the place to appreciate this panorama. The restaurant boasts its own meat and local fruit, and the Malma Reserva typifies the mineral character and complex aromas of Patagonian wine.

A funny thing happened during construction of Bodega Familia Schroeder winery: discovering some of the largest known dinosaur bones. Construction halted, paleontologists excavated and a deal was struck: rescue the findings, but allow for a special exhibit within the winery to maintain them. Now, in the exact spot, encased in glass underneath the winery’s restaurant, lies the titanosaurus (titanic lizard), along with its petrified eggs! In homage, Schroeder named its first brand Saurus. My instant favourite to reserve for a romantic moment is Schroeder’s Deseado. Its bouquet bursts forth with fresh white peach, orange blossom and notes of Muscat. A unique experiment, there is – unlike many sparkling wines – a subtle, balanced, tropical acidity, without dryness. Think of this as a Moscato d’Asti by way of Argentina, produced by a family known for its sparkling wine production, the winemakers tell me.

When the English first laid railway lines here, they realized the Rio Negro would be an ideal place to harvest fruit in opposite seasons to England, so they began production and shipped back to England. Argentina is now the largest producer of apples, pears and plums in the world. Adjacent to Humberto Canale‘s vast orchards are vineyards, including an exquisite Merlot. Sideways did for Merlot what Jaws did for swimming at the beach, but Argentine Merlot will turn the tides. Rio Negro is Merlot country, and this Merlot is simply decadent. Rich, complex and layered with ripe cherries, it has a luscious balance of tannins and acidity.

Mendoza

By the mid 1990s, a shift to exports, and fluctuating currency valuations, became advantageous. New wineries developed and young apprentices were promoted to jobs that hitherto did not exist, with an emphasis on terroir, rather than on wine so oaky it’s like you’re drinking a tree. Today, Argentina is the fifth leading producer of wine in the world, with most production in Mendoza, the land of Malbec.

What do you get when you cross an accountant, a lawyer, a ski instructor, a pilot and a winemaker? Achaval Ferrer, a small winery devoted to Malbec. Quimera is an elegant and complex blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Using the oldest vines in Mendoza, blending is done at picking and again during or after fermentation – no two bottles are ever alike. Manually harvested, de-stemmed, selected and pinched, the Trapiche Manos Malbec also has distinctively intense plum and black cherry, with hints of mocha and cassis.

Strolling through the Rutini Wines vineyards is like going back in time to its 1885 founding. Their wine museum of relics is, in itself, worth a visit. The Malbec has velvety aplomb and complexity; the Chardonnay is balanced, clean and fruity, not oaky; and the Trumpeter Torrontés has a perfectly balanced nose and smooth mouth feel.

The favourite Argentine blend is Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon. Expresiones, by Finca Flichman, is a very popular export and, having introduced Shiraz to Argentina, its Malbec-Shiraz Rosé is also very popular in summer. Alta Vista’s Alto 2006 is a beautiful blend with bluish tones, embracing deep fruit and spice. The Syrah Rosé of Finca Agostino has a refreshing fruit that exemplifies this winemaker’s creed to “sell wine, not oak barrels.” At Dominio Del Plata Winery, Susana Balbo, the former president of Wines of Argentina, has won numerous trophies for her Crios Torrontés and Crios Rosé.

“What makes a great winemaker,” explains Alberto Arizu, current president of Wines of Argentina, “is the ability to know how to blend – to combine flavours and enhance the structure of the wine.” He knows of what he speaks: Arizu’s Luigi Bosca Reserva Malbec 2007 was a Gold Medal winner at the 2010 Argentina Wine Awards.

The Argentine Cabernet Sauvignon has been called a “quiet overachiever.” At Atamisque, it’s like drinking a lovely blend of berries and flowers. At Ruca Malen, I pair the fresh fruit of a Yauquén Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 with an empanada of sweet-and-sour pork, roasted onions and raisins.

Privada is Bodega Norton‘s rich blend of its best Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot. It exudes fruit, oak and ripened plums in the nose, with strong character and structure in the mouth. Norton wines are consistently excellent. The Torrontés is herbaceous, has typical tropical fruit and a longer citrusy finish.

No visit to Mendoza would be complete without a day at Zuccardi, a family-run business with Old World charm and youthful energy. Wine-related activities include harvest tastings, biking through vineyards, even air balloons with sparkling wine – and my interest, an Argentine cooking class in, particularly, the ubiquitous empanada.


Oases in Mendoza

There is a great diversity of wineries in Argentina’s Mendoza region worth exploring. Between the moon and the Andes, Andeluna Cellars has majestic views. Pasionado is a perfectly balanced, excellently structured alchemy of Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Its name truly reflects its essence. The closest vineyard to the mountains is Finca Decero, where as much as possible is done by hand, in a manner that is sustainable, environmentally conscious and socially responsible. Some of the unique characteristics of their Malbec are the violet aromas, cherry notes instead of cassis and purity of flavour without high alcohol. O. Fournier‘s Alfa Crux and Beta Crux blends are named for the night sky’s Southern Cross constellation. The Malbec-Tempranillo is a chewy, jammy marriage of sweet and rustic tannins. Lagarde‘s Guarda Blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah is very rich and begs to be paired with a juicy steak. The wines of Tapiz have floral and violet profiles that inspire food pairings but are light enough to be enjoyed on their own. Black Tears is robust, opulent and luscious! At Altos Las Hormigas, one would think it impossible to grow anything through the sand and stone, but they produce a very fruity, light and friendly Malbec. The Trivento 2009 Reserve Torrontés, a blend of heavy aromas from eastern Mendoza and fresh florals from the central zones, is fruity and balanced, with a long finish. The 2007 Golden Reserve Syrah has dark cherries, stone fruit and a sweet plum centre, while the 2007 Golden Reserve Malbec is tannic, with wood notes and complex ripe fruit. Argentine soul, Venetian style – that’s the philosophy for Masi‘s Masi Tupungato, where the wine is a blend of one grape from Argentina and one from Italy. The Passo Doble, made up of Malbec and semidry Corvina, represents Masi’s appassimento style, in which grapes are naturally air-dried, causing loss of volume but concentration of composition. The winery at Bodego Catena Zapata is modelled after Tecal in Mexico. Premium wines are micro-blended between vineyards of different altitudes, where, at the highest points, the grapes are 5-10 times thicker. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are intensely fruit-concentrated and blend the minerality and citrus of the high altitudes with the tropical softness of the lower ones. The Pasqual Toso wine profiles are excellent, including the refreshing Malbec Rosé summer wine, and the 2010 Gold Medal winner, Magdalena Toso, with enchanting berries and intense currant flavours. – AW

For more exploration, visit www.winesofargentina.org/en

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