Walking on sunshine

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  • Wednesday 1 October 2003

Argentinian bodegas have finally learned to exploit their natural assets. MAGGIE ROSEN asks if their moment in the sun can last

Argentinian bodegas have finally learned to exploit their natural assets. MAGGIE ROSEN asks if their moment in the sun can last

Once upon a time, winemakers in Argentina had it easy. Every drop of their considerable crop was swallowed up by an appreciative local audience who – as recently as 30 years ago – drank up to 90 litres per person, per year. Grapes were grown in just a few regions – often sharing space with other fruit, nuts or flowers – and the notion of a 'vintage' was all but non-existent.

In those days, Argentinian winemakers didn't have the same worries as their counterparts abroad. The concept of restricting yields (perish the thought); decisions about oak vs stainless steel (not an issue, they used cement); and the myriad other agonising details that factor into modern viticulture and vinification were as far from their minds as the Andean peaks are for a tango dancer in stilettos. Argentines made Argentine wine for Argentines. And everyone was happy.

'Much of our wine was actually quite horrible,' admits Marina Beltrame, who opened the country's first wine programme for professionals – the Escuela Argentina de Sommeliers, in Buenos Aires. 'We'd been making and drinking the same kind of wine for hundreds of years.'

Fast forward to 2003, and how things have changed. During the 1990s, a combination of economic fortune, curiosity, and a realisation that domestic consumers were no longer a captive audience encouraged Argentina's winemakers to seek inspiration – and customers – abroad. They began to think more strategically about the global market, and financial stability enabled them to invest ambitiously in the kind of technology and equipment necessary to compete with their next-door neighbours in Chile, as well as other countries.

'We started to travel, to understand what consumers wanted, and we heard what journalists were saying,' says José Alberto Zuccardi, scion at the eponymous company that makes Santa Julia, FuZion and Q wines. Zuccardi says this was a kind of epiphany for Argentina. 'We tasted wines from places like Australia and California – vivacious, lively, fruity wines, some with oak, some without. And we started asking ourselves why we weren't making wines like this too.' About the same time, foreign investors and winemakers began taking an interest in Argentina, bringing with them international business acumen and oenological insight. For many, it was love at first sight. American winemaker Paul Hobbs was smitten almost from the moment he arrived in 1988 to see Nicolás Catena's operations. 'The raw materials were amazing,' he says. 'And I was impressed by the way the vineyards were planted – the tight spacing, single vertical trellises, on the European model. They were way ahead of Chile in terms of both vineyard practices, and terroir.'

Yet when Hobbs was taken into the winery, it was a different story. 'The wines were rank, oxidised and over-sulphurised,' he recalls. 'Yet the winemakers were well educated. The problem was they had no perspective: they'd never tasted wines from outside their own domain.'

To their credit, rather than resisting intervention, export-minded winemakers listened carefully and acted. As a result, some home-grown companies were sold outright to foreigners, while others have entered into partnerships. Many companies retain the feel of a family business today – albeit an extended one with lots of foreign cousins.

'If our wines were children, they would be bilingual,' says Luz Soldano Deheza, marketing manager of Alta Vista in Mendoza, owned by the French D'Aulan family. 'They would be speaking Spanish and French. That's a good thing, no?' She winks at her colleague, Benoît Berneron, Alta Vista's export manager.

Like their compatriots Arnaud Meillan, the winemaker for Domaine Vistalba, and Michel Rolland, who co-owns San Pedro de Yacochuya and consults for numerous other bodegas, Berneron emphasises that such relationships are two-way. 'We don't have a recipe that we bring from France,' he says. 'We work with the local ingredients, and come up with a new dish.'

This integration of multinational technical, commercial and agricultural influence – along with the endorsement of some of the biggest names in the wine world (Hobbs, Rolland, Donald Hess, Benjamin de Rothschild, Alberto Antonini) – has driven sales of Argentinian wines in the UK and US, the country's most important markets by volume and value.

While not all of them are mind-blowing, a good number are meticulously made international-style wines, at gentle, if not knockdown, prices. Argentina seems to have decided, prudently, to aim for the middle rather than the bottom in order to develop a reputation for reliable quality. Add to this a growing number of 'icon wines' that command higher prices and you've got yourself a contender.

However, even affordable wines don't jump into a shopper's trolley. It's all very well convincing critics, buyers and agents that Argentina is one of the most exciting wine regions in the world, but it's the consumer that spends the money.

The Latin Way

Fortunately the world seems to be embracing all things Latin right now, from food to music to dance. Likewise, the Argentines have learnt a thing or two about marketing. And Argentina itself is undergoing a 'wine renaissance'. Hotels, restaurants, shops and supermarkets are treating their wine with new respect. The Escuela de Sommeliers – at less than two years old – has had to move to larger premises. Glossy wine-oriented lifestyle magazines like Joy and Cuisine et Vins (Spanish, despite its title) have started to capture the public's imagination through awards and recommendations.

Across the country, bodegas have also embraced the 'if you build it' philosophy of tourism. Many have created dedicated spaces for visitors – tasting rooms, cafés, and in a few cases, quite luxurious accommodation. Their selling point is that all activity related to the vineyard is up close and personal. What's more, visitors are treated to enthusiastic explanations, demonstrations and interactive tastings from agricultural engineers and winemakers only too happy to engage.

'Wine doesn't sell itself,' says Andrés Hoy, general manager of Bodega La Rosa in Cafayate, who will literally get down and dirty to explain how the area's unique soil imparts particular flavours to the grapes grown there. 'We want to show people how we make it, what goes into it,' says Hoy. 'And we hope they will remember what makes Argentina so special when they face a shelf full of wine.'

So with so many international style wines comprising Brand Argentina, what is the risk of creating 'bland' Argentina? At the lower end of the price range, it's almost unfair to expect more than decent, if unchallenging wine, much less one that shouts 'I'm from Argentina'. Yet Zuccardi believes that even at the £4–5 range, it's possible to be pleasantly surprised. 'Obviously Argentinian terroir can be found with a stronger accent at higher price points,' he says. 'It's here where the producer can afford to put his best grapes and make his biggest effort. But at any level, the winemaker wants to show the local terroir, and we have our own characteristics which cannot be copied: soil, sun, water, people.'

Hobbs agrees: 'On one of my first trips here, a buyer came in to discuss with the winemakers what he was looking for. The winemaker went off, made it up and presented it to the buyer, later that day. It was incredible – not the best way to show character, I thought. But even in that process, the wine didn't lose the 'vineyard print' of what Argentina's all about.' If Argentina's winemakers no longer have it so easy. it's because of the standards they have set themselves. For the moment, Argentina is avoiding the minefield of an appellation system, with just three Denominaciones de Origen.

Bodegas are starting to favour terms such as 'gran reserva' and 'reserva' to differentiate among wines of different quality within a range. But with no legal implications, the use of these terms is at the discretion of the winemaker and marketing team – and can, therefore, be pretty meaningless. They might do well to agree on certain standards: when one bodega's 'reserva' is another's 'premium', the message may lose impact.

This story is part fairy tale, part cautionary tale. 'Argentina is at a turning point, and it could plateau,' says Hobbs. 'Sometimes I think they have the energy and enthusiasm, that drive for excellence. They've travelled, know what's expected, and like to play the world market. Other times, I'm afraid they won't go the extra 10% that gives consistency in a tough year.' Hobbs adds that he's an optimist. Keep an eye out for a happy ending.

Whites

Las Terrazas, Alto, Chardonnay 1999 ****

Bright, citrussy and exotic fruit aromas of lime and pineapple, with a hint of vanilla. Soft and velvety in the mouth – excellent with a summer stir fry. £5.99; BlB, Bth, Hen, Jen, Nbl, Oxf, P&S, Pgn, Unw, W&B, Wai

Etchart Privado Torrontes 2002 ****

Floral but by no means twee, with wafts of elderflower, calla lilies and lemon verbena. Like most Torrontes, it goes well with mild to spicy food. £4.99; Wai n Santa Julia, Viognier HHH One of the first Argentinian Viogniers – a lovely floral/fruity balance, silky but not greasy, with hints of honeysuckle and apricot. £4.99; All, Sai, Tes, Thi

Estancia Ancon, Chardonnay 2000 ***

Starts with scents of tropical fruits and ends with satiny mangoes and juicy peaches. £9.99; Hsl, VDi

Rosé

Santa Julia, Syrah Rosé ****

Super-refreshing with flavours of raspberry and strawberry mousse, but just this side of dry. Makes an excellent aperitif. £4.99; All, Sai, Thi

Reds

Yacochuya 1999 *****

Stored first in tanks, then in French barrels – and finished on an Italian bottling line, this very small production 100% Malbec from Cafayate is powerful but soft, balanced and profound. £34.45; Hpa

Pascual Toso, Syrah 2001 ****

Zesty, spicy and floral, at once redolent of rose petals, red peppercorns and tender raspberries. £4.99; Den, G&M, Osb, Stf, Tal, WJu

Zuccardi, Q Tempranillo ****

Blackberry and raspberry jam with layers of smoke, chocolate and leather that hint at something more profound. Elegant and somewhat intense. £7.99; All, Tes, Thi

Canale, Merlot Reserve 2001 ****

'Chocolate wine' – solid at room temperature, but melts in the mouth. Wonderful, intense colour and flavour from the green and windy wilderness of Rio Negro. Perfect with a nice stew or leg of lamb. £9.99; HWC, M&S

Terrazas, Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 ****

As intense as rich red velvet with wonderful layers of concentrated black and red currant, and a voluptuous streak of caramel. Could keep for 10+ years but the odds are you won't be able to keep your hands off it. £9.49; BlB, Oxf, Pgn

Benegas, Blend 2000 ****

Big but not overwhelming, this bold blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot has hints of oak, leather and liquorice behind the superb dark red-berry fruit. £12.99; Hsl, VDi

Alta Vista, Alto 1999 ****

A wine to linger over, this inky amethyst blend of 80% Malbec, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon smells of ripe blue- and blackberries and tastes of caramelised plums, chocolate and Lapsang Souchong tea. It has a kind of luxe, calme et volupté that only the French can do – even in Argentina. £29.50; L&W

Alta Vista, Premium Malbec 2001 ***

Liquid summer pudding from juicy Malbec, With thick stripes of raspberry and cloves, and a pinstripe of oak. £6.50; L&W

Rough Guide to Argentina's terroir

With mountains, glaciers, desert and wetlands among its varied geographical features, Argentina's terrain and climate differ dramatically.

Salta's stark, lunar landscape, spectacular rock formations and prehistoric-looking cacti lend it an air of Sergio Leone's American West. In fact, its mere 1,500ha under vine (less than 2% of the country's total) and handful of bodegas make it a paradise of untamed, wide open spaces.

Long, dry summers, an average yearly temperature of 15?C, and diurnal amplitude (day-to-night change in temperature) of up to 35?C ensure that it's the heat rather than the humidity that counts. The bright, relentless sunlight and steady winds help prevent fungal diseases, while the sandy, loamy soils provide excellent drainage; and with less than 150 millimetres of rain a year, there's not much to drain.

Local winemakers claim that tough conditions make the vines work harder. The result is that the region's best whites are aromatic and floral, with tropical, mineral and spicy notes, and surprisingly good acidity for this altitude. The reds develop thick, deeply hued skins and super-concentrated, almost pastille-like, but not cloying, fruit flavours.

Mendoza comprises five wine regions (North, Mendoza River, East, Uco Valley and San Rafael) that account for 75% of Argentina's total production. Vines here grow at elevations from around 450 to 1,200 metres. Dry, warm days and cool nights help growth, while the mountain rivers – both subterranean and man-made – afford excellent control over irrigation.

Soils are varied, with large and small stones, clay, lime, sand and just about everything else. And while growing conditions are by no means as stern as in Cafayate, the slopes still tend to keep vines from getting too complacent.

With so many nuances of elevation come the numerous microclimates that Mendoza's bodegas are learning to harness to the advantage of each varietal. Winemakers have their pick of grapes and Zuccardi alone is experimenting with well over 30. Reds and whites from Mendoza fall at the fruitier end of the spectrum, are medium-to-full bodied and fresh – with soft but present tannins.

At 300 metres above sea level, Rio Negro is cooler and slightly rainier than the other regions, with a longer growing season. Through this, Humberto Canale is one of the few Argentinian wineries in the country to have succeeded in producing decent Pinot Noir. Along with Domaine Vistalba and its Infinitus wines, the bodega has also been channelling the more continental climate and the sometimes chalky soils into white wines, giving the Chardonnays and Semillons, in particular, a distinctive sensual, smoky note.

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