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What’s changing in Argentinian Malbec winemaking

In partnership with Wines of Argentina

Tim Atkin MW on the shift towards more elegant winemaking...

What’s changing in Argentinian Malbec winemaking

In partnership with Wines of Argentina

There’s so much talk about vineyards in Argentina these days – about altitude, soil types, clones and vine age – that it’s easy to forget that someone has to turn grapes into wine. But what has happened in the cellar over the last 30 years has been a vital part of the country’s transformation, not least because many of the best winemakers also have a connection with the land.

Where Malbec is concerned – although this applies equally to other red wine styles – Argentina has been through three distinct phases. The first was what might be termed “traditional”. These were wines that were overwhelmingly aimed at the domestic market: aged in older, often larger oak, invariably with a degree of oxidation. The belief then was that mature was best. Faults were common, even if some of the wines were surprisingly good.

What changed the face of Malbec was the arrival of a four foreign winemakers in Argentina between 1988 and 1998: Michel Rolland, the American Paul Hobbs and two Italians, Alberto Antonini and Robert Cipresso. As well as consulting to other wineries, all four have invested their own money and are still involved with Yacochuya and Clos de los Siete (Rolland), Viña Cobos (Hobbs), Altos Las Hormigas (Antonini) and Mater Vini (Cipresso). There were differences between their approaches, which have also shifted over the years, but this quartet favoured later picking, denser colours, more new oak and cleaner cellars.

Argentine Malbec terroir, Wines of Argentina

Malbec grapes

Many Argentinean Malbecs still favour this “international” style. And very successful it has proved too. But there has been a move towards more elegant, terroir-specific wines in the last decade. This is the third phase of Malbec’s development.

Key figures in this movement have been Antonini (whose opinions have changed radically) as well as group of younger Argentinean winemakers, most notably Sebastián Zuccardi (Zuccardi), Alejandro Vigil (Catena and El Enemigo), Alejandro Sejanovich (Bodega Teho) and the three Michelini brothers, Matías, Gerardo and Juan-Pablo, who seem to be involved with dozens of projects, mostly in cooler, high altitude regions. Once derided as “green” winemakers, because they picked earlier than their competitors, they are now seen as exemplars of an exciting new wave.

These Malbecs, often blended with other grapes, particularly Cabernet Franc, are all about freshness, acidity and perfume. Oak is used sparingly, if at all, with concrete tanks and eggs more likely. The retention of stems for partial or total whole bunch fermentation is also a common technique. These are wines that owe as much to Burgundy or what’s happening in parts of Spain as they do to Bordeaux or the Napa Valley.

Some new wave winemakers argue that these styles are traditional in many ways, with greater respect for vineyard origin and a lighter touch, but I think that’s incorrect. They are radical new direction for Argentina. Will this prove to be the dominant style over the next decade? I think it’s unlikely, partly because major markets such as America and Brazil love riper, oakier Malbecs.

But who says that there’s only one way to make this wonderful variety? Diversity, as ever, is part of the pleasure of drinking wine.

This article was commissioned by Decanter and has been published in partnership with Wines of Argentina as part of a sponsored campaign on Decanter.com.

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