JOHN DOWNES investigates Argentinean wine, and realises there is more to their wine varieties than Malbec.
‘Malbec, Malbec, Malbec.’ This is the common call as soon as the word Argentina is mentioned, but although this classic French variety has found its true home in this baking region of South America, the call should really be ‘diversity, diversity, diversity’, as the list of varieties grown successfully there reads like a Who’s Who of grapes. You name it and it’s probably grown in Argentina. With the reds accounting for about 80% of production, the French classics of Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most popular, but again Argentina shows its versatility – and history – by having the best of Spain and Italy in its pack. Sangiovese and Tempanillo are major players and only a fool would ignore Bonarda, the big-volume Italian workhorse that has been rediscovered under the ‘low yield’ flag.The varieties of Chardonnay, Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc are the popular white choices, with Torrontés, the most planted variety, losing ground by the minute as it is grubbed up to make way for the reds. Torrontés is indigenous to Argentina and has a spicy floral character, but it is unloved. ‘People like it but won’t buy it; it’s an enigma,’ says Diego Correas of Bodegas Correas.
Ricardo Bianchi of Valentin Bianchi has another theory for the downfall of Torrontés. ‘People drink wine with food and Torrontés is far too powerful,’ he says. But maybe this aromatic, ‘half-Gewürztraminer’ beauty will be rediscovered a few years down the line.If Torrontés is unloved, then Viognier is the new Valentino, as bodegas expand their plantings and become ever more excited about the South American-Rhône affair. ‘The climate gives wonderful peachy aromas. Our British customers just can’t get enough of it,’ says José Alberto Zuccardi, the president of La Agricola. Its popular Santa Julia range is sourced from the warmer Santa Rosa vineyards and has an attractive oily texture, similar to that associated with the wines of Condrieu. Lagarde is also jumping up and down about Viognier. ‘The soil, climate and altitude of our Perdriel and Luján de Cuyo vineyards are ideal for Viognier,’ he adds. After Torrontés, Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted white variety, and has plenty of fans. ‘It may not produce quality in the north of Mendoza but in San Rafael it gives super wine,’ notes Carlos Fernandez, director of Bodegas Balbi. The clean, crisp, ripe lemon fruit on Balbi’s 2000 vintage proves his point.
The reds are king in Argentina but when it comes to agreeing which variety is best suited to Argentina’s vineyards, it’s not so simple. Even the husband and wife team of Pedro Marchevsky (Catena’s viticulturalist) and Susana Balbo (Anubis’ winemaker) don’t see eye to eye. ‘It’s definitely Cabernet when it comes to quality,’ notes Marchevsky. There’s no doubt about it,’ says Balbo adamantly, ‘for consistency at all levels, and especially at the top, it has to be Malbec.’ Coming off the fence, I have to go with Malbec but Syrah continues to impress.The French remain puzzled. Why should Malbec, an also-ran in Bordeaux, where it leans towards green, stalky fruit, be such a star in Argentina? Deep, often inky coloured wines full of rich damson fruit, balanced by ripe yet positive tannins, not to mention complexity, are generally the quality norm in Mendoza. ‘In France, the climate doesn’t allow the tannins to ripen fully, whereas here this classic variety can go the full cycle, hence the juicy, soft wines,’ explains Laura Santi of San Rafael’s Villa Atuel.
They may be new on the export market but the Argentinians are already fine-tuning the link between quality wine, grape variety and terroir. The word ‘terroir’ has become an integral part of vineyard vocabulary. ‘Given the right terroir, Cabernet Sauvignon may be the most famous grape in the world, but I believe we can make better wines with Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Bonarda. It may be too hot here in Mendoza for Cabernet,’ says Viñas Argentinas’ production manager, José Pero Gomez, displaying typical Argentinian individuality.Bonarda may not be as well known as its fellow varieties but a more detailed look is revealing. Left to its own devices it can produce a staggering 250hl/ha. It’s not hard to understand therefore that, when controlled to a meagre 60hl/ha, the wines are superb. ‘They’re brilliant, with exotic perfumed aromas and dense bramble flavours,’ enthuses Roberto Gonzalez, Nieto Senetiner’s winemaker.
Pinot Noir continues to tease the world’s winemakers who strive to re-create Burgundian success, but the altitude and vineyard control at the fingertips of the Argentinian winemakers could make the slopes of the Andes a second home for this difficult classic. ‘We have Pinot planted at 1,000 and 1,250m above sea level with some success,’ reveals Bodegas Salentein’s winemaker Laureano Goméz, ‘but we’ll be harvesting our Tupungato vineyards way up at 1,500m next year and that looks even more interesting. It’s a passion of mine.’ Moët & Chandon realised the potential of Argentina long ago, not only to produce still reds and whites but also sparklers. About a third of its sparkling wine is made by the traditional method (the other two thirds being produced by the Charmat method), and it also follows its French tradition when it comes to the cépage, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay providing the raw materials. ‘Our best Pinot comes from our Tupungato vineyards at 1,200m,’ says Bodegas Chandon director, Hervé Birnie-Scott.
Diversity is the name of the game in Argentina. Malbec may be seen by many as the star attraction but with super wines being produced from a dazzling array of grapes, the Argentinians would be crazy to hang their hat on just one variety. The Californians tried the same with Zinfandel and the South Africans went down the Pinotage route. Both soon learned the error of their ways. In Argentina, unlike anywhere else, the French classics are joined by the best of Spain and Italy, none of which can be ignored as they climb onto the top shelf and into our cellars.
Written by JOHN DOWNES MW