Italy and Argentina are the only two countries in the world where wine is considered to be a food; that says a lot when you observe their developing wine industry.
Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world and the 2nd largest in South America. It has a population of 45 million and a long history of wine-making, Vitis Vinifera was first introduced in 1551, brought by the Spanish colonists. Argentina has a very dry continental climate which is ideally suited for grape production. Most of the wine growing regions are to be found high in the Andes mountains and the altitude of the vineyard is the key to their success. Unlike Chile, where the wine valley’s run parallel with the Pacific Ocean, there is no maritime influence in Argentina. They also have very little rainfall and very dry air, so quality wine production relies on the diversity of the soil and the availability of water sourced from the melted snow on the Andes.
Argentina is the world’s 5th largest wine producing country, behind Italy, France, Spain and the United States (in that order); with 895 wineries and growers working hard to produce enough to export 315.4 million liters of wine, which makes them the world’s 10th largest wine exporter.
The United Kingdom is their 2nd most important market globally after the United States and Brazil is in third place. Sales of Argentine wine have been growing steadily in recent years on this market, driven mostly by the popularity of Malbec. But Argentina has much more to offer than just the Malbec grape as we saw at a recent on-line tasting organized by Wines of Argentina the generic body who globally promote their wine.
The lecture and tasting were given by Phil Crozier, Brand Ambassador for Wines of Argentina. Phil is based in the U.K. where he previously worked as Director of Wine for London’s Gaucho restaurant group. Phil’s role with Wines of Argentina is to bring the message to buyers and sommeliers in key markets about Argentine wine styles and developments. As well as working in the UK wine industry for over 25 years, Phil has also made wine in Argentina and has a great story to tell.
Argentina is the only wine country in the world where altitude is a key factor in terms of their terroir. For every 150 feet of linear rise the average temperature in the vineyard will drop by 1 degree. The other factor is soil; much of it is very low in organic matter which leads to very restricted growth, vines struggle, and yields are low. Argentina’s wines are “naturally natural”, the majority of the vineyards are located in arid areas with plenty of sunshine so there is no need for artificial intervention.
Water is very much in demand and vineyards close to the rivers have an advantage. Meltwater from the Andes is the main source of irrigation in the mountain valleys, there are two methods of distribution, flood irrigation which is mostly used in old vineyards and drip irrigation, introduced in the 1990’s.
Red grapes account for 58% of all production in Argentina, white wine makes up 18% and uniquely Argentina has a category known as “Pink” grapes, which accounts for 24% of all production. These Pink grapes are the native Criolla varietals, the first grapes, brought to the Americas by the Spanish colonists. Research has found there are 18 Criolla varietals native to Argentina (Torrontés is one of them), and they are known as Pais in Chile and Mission in the USA.
In Argentina you will find most of the plantings of the Criolla varietal in Eastern Mendoza where grapes such as Torrontés, Cereza, Chica and Pedro Giménez (nothing to do with the varietal found in Jerez), are to be found. These unique grapes were the back-bone of the original wine industry in the Americas and today they are hailed as indigenous to the regions where they are grown. Phil Crozier explained that Torrontés, the best known of Argentina’s white grape varieties, did not as people assume, originate in Spain, but is in fact a cross of a clone of Muscat of Alexander and Listan Prieto. Torrontés, is a very aromatic phenolic grape and shows more of its Muscat parentage in terms of its style.
The other surprise from the tasting is the quality wines produced from other red grapes such as Cabernet Franc and Bonarda. Argentine Cabernet Franc has the potential to produce world class wines, particularly when grown in the Uco Valley. Interestingly enough the first ever 100-point score for an Argentine wine was for a wine made from Cabernet Franc, which shows the enormous potential for this grape. Its success is due to the big difference between day and night temperatures, with a diurnal difference of 20 degrees, it allows a longer ripening time for the grape which is the main reason for the quality levels.
Malbec is the big daddy though, it accounts for 58.1% of the total plantings, or 38.6% of all red varietals planted in Argentina. Bonarda comes next with 15.9%, Cabernet Franc is still relatively low in terms of its spread with 1.09% of the vineyard areas. Other key red grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Tannat and Petit Verdot.
Before we take a look at a few of the wines it is worth noting some of the key wine making trends influencing the quality of Argentine wine. The poor soil and the regionality is becoming more and more influential as research continues to identify the best vineyard areas. Regionality is becoming more important and within the Mendoza appellation there are distinct sub-appellations, legally recognized as “Indicaciones Geográficas” (IGs). These are new identifiable micro regions, that have been given their own “appellation” for want of a better term; that all the grapes in an IG labelled wine must come the specified sub region.
Many of the producers have also moved away from traditional vinification and the use of foudres as well as concrete and clay tanks has also made a big impact. Precision viticulture also plays a part, earlier harvesting of grapes and use of indigenous yeasts have significantly improved the quality. The rise of biodynamic and sustainable farming is also important, most of the vineyards are in high altitude desert climates, with no humidity, which makes it much easier and cheaper to farm organically. Less intervention results in greater purity of fruit, soil research has had an enormous impact as mentioned earlier, finally there is less reliance on the use of oak, which means fresher more appealing styles of wine.
2019 Susana Balbo Crios Torrontés Las Bodegas
Susana Balbo is one of the most important female wine makers in the world. A pioneer, in 1981 she became the first woman in Argentina to receive a degree in oenology. In 2012, she was recognized as one of the “Most influential women wine-makers” by The Drink Business magazine. Her wines are exceptional and her Torrontés is quite unique. Torrontés as a grape by its very nature is quite phenolic and oily with a lot of aromatic aromas and flavours. In the hands of Susana, it is a very different wine, she makes it in a leaner style, which I personally find much more appealing.
Torrontés is a love it or hate it grape, 20 years ago a typical Torrontés was flabby and oily, Susana’s has aromas of elderflower and flavours of pink grapefruit and is very light in style. The texture is tight and it really shows how in the hands of a great wine maker this grape variety can really excel. A benchmark Argentine Torrontés showing what this grape is capable of.
2018 Bodega Mendel Semilló
In the 20th century, Anabelle Sielecki father was one of Argentina’s most respected winemakers. Today she works in partnership with Roberto de la Mota who now makes the wine. Argentina Semillón orginally came from France in 1853 and was traditionally blended with Sauvignon Blanc to make a Bordeaux style wine. Semillón, native to Bordeaux; originated around St Emilion and is genetically close to Sauvignon Blanc. The Semillón grapes used to make this wine are grown in the Uco Valley and are 76 years old. This is a New World Semillón, surprisingly aromatic with delicate floral tones and citrus fruit with lots of fresh acidity.
2019 Piedra Negra Gran Lurton White
This is one of Argentina’s iconic white wines. Made by Lurton, a French company owned by the brothers Francois and Jacques, they saw Argentina’s potential as early as the 1980’s and started planting grapes one of the Uco Valley’s IG regions Los Chacayes. The wine is a blend of 90% Tockaij and 10% Sauvignon Blanc fermented in barrel without malolactic fermentation. It is aged on the lees with frequent battonage in 3-year-old oak barrels. The wine is remarkably fresh and delicate with stone fruit showing hints of peach with a nice oily finish.
2017 Catena Appellation Cabernet Franc
This is a very affordable way to see the enormous potential that is Argentine Cabernet Franc. The Catena Estate originally founded in 1902 is today owned by Nicolás Catena one of Argentina’s best- known producers. This was a revelation; it is very light in style with lovely raspberry flavours. The wine is aged in new French barriques for 12 months. I loved it; the lighter style will appeal to those who prefer less powerful reds. It had lots of light refreshing summer fruit, yet with a defined structure. I would completely recommend this for a restaurant list and be prepared to see the customer come back for more.
2016 Zorzal Eggo Bonarda
The origins of this grape are French and not Italian as is usually assumed. It is believed to have come from the Savoie region in France and migrated to North and South America in the 19th century. This is a very easy varietal to drink, it makes wine that is soft, jammy and juicy and not unlike a good Beaujolais in style, specially the “cab mac” version. However, Bonarda is also capable of producing a much more serious wine. This is a serious Bonarda, the Zorzal winery is owned by four young brothers and the key to the quality of this wine is early harvesting to maintain the acidity and freshness of the grapes. The grapes are from 60 years old vineyards located in the area of La Arboleda, in Tupungato. Eggo as its name indicates is fermented in concrete eggs, using wild yeasts and whole bunch maceration. They also use less de-stemming to retain some of the greenness, which means that the wine is not over ripe. 2016 was quite a wet vintage but this wine has wonderful blueberry flavours with a nice tannic edge. A grape with a great future, especially in the hands of the Zorzal brothers. A must try.
2017 Zuccardi Concreto Malbec
Argentine Malbec came from Bordeaux in 1853, it was brought by Aimé Pouget and arrived in Argentina before Phylloxera, so the original clone was French. Jose Zuccardi first planted vineyards in Uco Valley in 1963 and were pioneers of new irrigation systems in the region. Today the business is run by his son Sebastian. The fruit for this wine is sourced from a cooler part of the Uco Valley and 2017 was a low yield vintage, but of excellent quality. Whole bunch fermentation in concrete tanks using natural yeasts really show the terroir of the vineyards. The wine takes its texture not from wood but from the chalk soils the grapes were grown on. This is a tense nervous, pure electric wine which oozes class. A Malbec with attitude, elegant and edgy.
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