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Jefford on Monday: Argentina’s white enigma

A faint green stippling the urban trees. Sudden showers, heaping leaves, twigs and rubbish at the drainage junctions. Sulky tango dancers, pale in the bright spring sunlight, flicking their skirts as they wait their turn on the boards of an open-air restaurant in La Boca … Buenos Aires, a week ago, was slowly coming back to life.

I was there to take part in Fabricio Portelli’s Simposium: a meeting of wine minds.

The week, of course, also gave me the chance to catch up with Argentina’s last three vintages. The red wines are better than ever. Who would have predicted that a set of high-sited desert benchlands, whose relatively homogenous pebbly, sandy loams require obligatory irrigation, would turn out to be one of the greatest red-wine terroirs in the southern hemisphere? That’s the way it’s looking, though.

It’ll take us a century or two to work out how those intricate mechanisms of light, wind and stone are geared. Mendoza’s perfume and purity of fruit, so gratifyingly matched to structure and substance, provides ample incentive to roll up our sleeves and get on with the quest. Argentina’s swag of International Trophies at this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards put my Languedoc-Roussillon panel (and the rest of the opposition) in the shade. Why can’t we do that?

Argentina, though, threw up seven red wine trophies to only two of white, both of them Torrontés. Remove that singular Criolla-Muscat progeny from the equation, and Argentina can only manage two white-wine silver medals against 51 red-wine silvers and golds. No nation on earth has, at present, a more lop-sided wine offer. It’s a puzzle.

White-wine regions often flounder with reds (because the warmest sites are already planted), yet most red-wine regions can normally manage a set of worthwhile whites. You just have to find the coolest sites, unless … well, we’ll come to the ‘unless’ in a minute.

Fabricio Portelli kindly put together a tasting of what he felt were 20 or so of the country’s best whites, so that I could see what progress had been made since my last visit in December 2008. ‘A little’ probably best summarises it. The highest sites in Uco are producing some fresh Sauvignon, though nothing I tasted suggests that this variety feels truly happy under the Andes; best was the exuberant 2011 Serbal from Atamisque.

The ever-adaptable Chardonnay is worthwhile, if rather laboriously so (Catena Zapata, Traphiche Gran Medalla, Monteviejo Lindaflor). Viognier can be authentically extravagant (DiamAndes), though hot and salty.

In sum, Torrontés remains Argentina’s most successful white variety by far (Colomé, Etchart, Terrazas), and it may be the Southern Hemisphere’s finest aperitif white (bearing in mind that Australia’s superb Rieslings and New Zealand’s unforgettable Sauvignon Blanc are both ideal food wines). The challenge of finding convincing mealtime alternatives to Torrontés, though, remains.

Unless? Well, Argentine producers could decide to throw caution to the wind and begin experimental plantings of later-ripening white varieties, even if they don’t have the commercial clout of those planted so far. Roussanne and Marsanne look evidently tempting, but why not Grenache Blanc and Gris, Garganega, Vermentino, Bourboulenc, Fernão Pires, Fiano, Greco – and Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo for sparkling wines, too? The world is slowly waking up to the discreet charms of the Mediterranean white. Maybe they can unlock the Argentinian white-wine enigma.

The most intriguing white I tasted in Argentina, as it happens, was Finca Anita’s 2009 Tocai Friulano (labelled Sauvignonasse in Europe). A scent of wax and wet earthenware, with a big, chunky, honeyed, glycerous and low-acid flavour: compelling if singular. Its luscious flesh suggests it will probably never dance the tango … but it might at least point the way for others.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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