Argentina: Magnet for the Wine World

Lured by affordable land and old vines, investors and winemkers from all parts of the globe have been pouring into Argentina.  Now the fruits of their labor are appearing.


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Lured by affordable land and old vines, investors and winemakers from all parts of the globe have been pouring into Argentina. Now the fruits of their labor are appearing.

While Spanish remains the language of choice throughout Argentina's winemaking provinces, in recent years the locals have been hearing a lot of French, Italian and English—even some Danish and Portuguese.

And it isn't tourists who are speaking in these foreign tongues. No, the foreigners we're talking about have come to Argentina to make wine, either as new owners of established or upstart bodegas, or as consulting winemakers. Mendoza, the heart and soul of the Argentine wine industry, as a melting pot? Maybe not yet. But the job of an immigrations officer at the nearby international airport has definitely become more hectic.

In the last 10 years, outsiders have pumped more than US$1 billion into the Argentinean wine community with overwhelmingly positive results, according to Bernardo Hoffman, marketing manager with the Wines of Argentina trade association. In general, xenophobia and protectionism are nonissues, he insists, because the influx of international investment and winemaking talent has created jobs and improved the overall quality of Argentinean wine by leaps and bounds. It is these better, more internationally styled wines coming from Clos de los Siete, Jacques and François Lurton, Alta Vista, Altos Las Hormigas and Viña Cobos, among others, that have allowed Argentina to grab its share of what is a very competitive global wine market.

"Beginning in the 1990s, foreign investors started to arrive, attracted by Argentina's enormous potential. Of course, being business-oriented, cost was a factor," says Hoffman. "Between the price of the land and the fact that building new wineries in Europe would have cost four or five times more than in Argentina, the attraction was clear."

Another attraction, maybe one that is less clear to those with their eyes on bulk-based profits, but easy enough for those eager to make world-class red wines to understand, has been the availability—whether through purchase or lease—of old-vines vineyards, predominantly those planted to Malbec. Like the century-old Zinfandel still surviving in parts of California, or the ancient Garnacha and Cariñena stumps that dot the hills of Priorat, Spain, grizzled Malbec plants offer tiny amounts of high-octane, highly cherished fruit. To quality-minded winemakers and bodega owners, access to such grapes is a ticket to ride, the equivalent of unearthing a hidden treasure.

A Case Of Argentina's Top Internationally Influenced Wines

93 Cheval des Andes 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec (Mendoza); $75. A serious wine for serious wine drinkers. It's 60% Cabernet and 40% Malbec. Deep, deep and deeper is how to best describe the chewy, fruit-saturated palate. It has guts, balance and aging capacity. Best to hold this joint-venture red from Château Cheval-Blanc and Terrazas de Los Andes for another three years. Cellar Selection.
93 Viña Cobos 2002 Cobos Malbec (Mendoza); $60. This inky Malbec comes from an American-Argentine partnership that includes Paul Hobbs, and while you cannot argue with the wine's density, purity and power, it probably isn't for everyone. With 14.8% alcohol, a ton of color and loads of clove-packed oak, it's giant. It needs three years of bottle age, or several hours of air if you're drinking it now.
92 J. & F. Lurton 2002 Chacayes Malbec (Mendoza); $75. This is what full-force, high-elevation Malbec is all about. The color is opaque, the nose a potent brew of mint, blackberry and earth. It's wall-to-wall in terms of strength, with layers of warmth and depth on the finish. Can hold through 2008. Tasted in April after an initial sampling last winter; it's improving. Editors' Choice.
92 Altos Las Hormigas 2002 Reserva Viña Hormigas Malbec (Mendoza); $25. Saturated in color. Smells rugged, like tire rubber and tar mixed with blackberry. Beautiful flavors, with black cherry, licorice and minerality on a firm, no-flab palate. Big tannins create structure; a touch of crushed pepper and burnt toast darken up the finish. Best wine yet from this Argentine-Italian outfit. Editors' Choice.
92 Bodega Noemía de Patagonia 2002 Noemía Malbec (Rio Negro Valley); $140. Exotic and refined, with a stately bouquet of violets, mineral and cassis. Sensational quality for a wine from rugged Patagonia. It bursts with black raspberry propelled by firm acids. Then it folds back into a darker space, where fudge and pepper notes make for a warming, spicy finish. Shows off the skill of Danish winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers.
91 Clos de los Siete 2003 Malbec (Mendoza); $16. Pure and inky, but neither chunky nor jammy. The nose offers graphite, earth and a huge amount of blackberry. The ripe palate is deep and defined, with a layer or two of complexity. Finishes with oak shadings, a splash of mint, and chocolate. Hats off to Clos leader Michel Rolland and his gang of seven. Editors' Choice.
91 Kaiken 2003 Ultra Malbec (Mendoza); $23. The inaugural premium Malbec from Montes' fledgling Argentinean venture displays round, attractive aromas of concentrated black fruit and hefty oak. The palate is bold, chewy and rich, while fine tannins and lively acidity keep any potential holes well plugged. Tastes sweet, dark, fruity and ripe, with vanilla and coffee on the finish. Hard not to like.
91 Alta Vista 2002 Alto Malbec (Mendoza); $60. Begins with smoky bacon aromas that are followed by ripe black cherry and blackberry. Very plump and earthy, with a flush mouthfeel and lively acidity. Severely oaked, but with quality wood, so it yields vanilla and pepper rather than resin or sawdust. A blend of 85% Malbec and 15% Cabernet.
90 Fabre Montmayou 2002 Gran Reserva Malbec (Mendoza); $15. This you really have to like—and look at the price. Starts with graham cracker, kirsch and black cherry aromas before transitioning to chocolate, vanilla and coffee. It has subtle French touches reflective of the Joyaux-Fabre ownership but a lot of Argentinean power and fruit. Restrained but ripe; robust yet suave. Editors' Choice.
89 O. Fournier 2002 B Crux (Mendoza); $21. Intense and almost saucy, with strong aromatic hints of barbecued meat, marinade and crushed red pepper. Deeper down there's woodsy cherry and baked plum. Smooth but just racy enough, with excellent acid-tannin balance. Finishes with vanilla, pepper and fresh tomato. It's 60% Tempranillo, 20% Malbec and 20% Merlot.
88 Achaval-Ferrer 2002 Finca Altamira Malbec (Mendoza); $85. The nose is all bacon, game and leather along with graphite and berry fruit. Surprisingly firm and juicy on the palate; the acidity is sharp, which manufactures a racy, hard mouthfeel. No complaints with the exotic flavors coming from this old-vines wine. But the feel is astringent, and the finish has some heat. Unconventional.
87 Laurel Glen 2003 Terra Rosa Malbec (Mendoza); $14. Pure and linear, without a spot of funk or wayward oak. The nose is beefed up with aromas of tar, smoke, leather and blackberry, yet the palate is a bit candied. Easygoing enough to rank as a top-shelf everyday wine. And you'll never say "corchado" after opening it; it's sealed with a screw cap.

Bienvenido a Argentina

Corporations and large brands comprised the first wave of Argentina's international investors. In the mid '90s, among the arrivistes were Chandon, the global sparkling wine giant, which started Terrazas de Los Andes in the Vistalba area. In recent years, Terrazas has teamed up with Château Cheval Blanc to produce a sensational ultrapremium blend called Cheval des Andes.

Also getting into the game was Austria's Swarovski Crystal, which bought the established Bodega Norton. In addition, Sogrape of Portugal latched onto Finca Flichman, while Pernod Ricard acquired Bodegas Etchart in the northern Cafayete region. From Chile, wine industry superpowers Concha y Toro (Trivento) and Santa Rita (Doña Paula) got operations up and running in Argentina. And from the United States, Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson started up Viña Tapiz, which struggled for several years before being sold about a year ago.

Individual winemakers and consultants, too, are carving their own spaces in Argentina. Robert Pepi, of Pepi wines, is a consulting winemaker for Valentin Bianchi in San Rafael, and the quality of the wines has improved since he came aboard. Pioneering Californians Paul Hobbs and Patrick Campbell have been making wine in Argentina since the early to mid 1990s—Hobbs at Viña Cobos, and Campbell with Laurel Glen.

"For me it's never been about pure dollars and cents," says Campbell. "No, I cannot make my [$14] Terra Rosa wine at the same price and quality in California. But Argentina forces me to shelve my type-A personality and slow down. There's a spirit of hardship and survival that I appreciate about Argentina."

Having traveled to Argentina several times myself over the past few years, I can second what Campbell is saying. Argentina, apart from the bustling intensity of Buenos Aires, is indeed a calm, unpretentious place. You may think that "mañana" does, indeed, mean tomorrow, but to an Argentinean you will be lucky if it registers as "this week." Nevertheless, when March and April roll around, the grapes do get picked and the wine does get made.

Bonjour, Buongiorno, Buenos Dias

Since the first groundswell of outside investment, the pilgrimage to Argentina has not slowed. As the 21st century dawned, a number of Europeans, and not necessarily the big corporate types, shifted their gazes toward Argentina, bent on starting their own wineries, or brokering joint ventures.

Clos de los Siete, for example, is a joint venture with seven partners (hence the name); among them, French heavy hitters Michel Rolland, Jean-Michel Arcaute, Laurent Dassault and Patrick d'Aulan. The partners purchased a 2,500-acre piece of raw land in Vistaflores, a burgeoning Mendoza subregion. After the deal closed in 1998, the property was subdivided into individually managed plots, then planted. Each finca contributes grapes to a single wine called Clos de los Siete, which is made and managed by the worldly and now controversial (assuming you've seen the documentary Mondovino) Rolland.

Several years into the project and after the first two vintages of Clos de los Siete (2002 and 2003) hit the market, some of the venture's founding members, like d'Aulan—who owns Alta Vista, and whose family owned a stake in Champagne Piper Heidsieck before selling out in 1988—are branching off.

"Our goal with Alta Vista, which we bought in 1997, is to be a top-10 producer in terms of quality," says d'Aulan. And in what should come as no surprise, the Alta Vista red wines are made by a Frenchman, Didier Debono, who also consults for the d'Aulans' wine properties in France.

In the case of Laurent Dassault, whose family is probably best known for making airplanes like the Mirage fighter and the Falcon private jet, now is also the time to move forward. With Benjamin de Rothschild as his partner, Dassault has built a new ultrapremium operation called Viñas de las Flechas. A high-end Malbec-based wine from the 2004 vintage, to be called Flechas de los Andes, will arrive on the market in 2006. ("Flechas," which means "arrows" in Spanish, says Dassault, "are the Rothschild insignia. We hope this will connote quality.") In the meantime, some of his grapes, like those from d'Aulan's Vistaflores vineyard, still go into Clos de los Siete.

Other Frenchmen have made their marks in Argentina, including the brothers Jacques and François Lurton, who arrived in 1992 as consultants to the godfather of modern Argentinean wine, Nicolas Catena, and later moved on to start their own winery.

"When we bought land in the Uco Valley in 1996, it was nothing but a desert. Now we have 15 neighbors," says François Lurton. The brothers planted their first vineyards in 1997, and since then "many people have asked us for our point of view, and quite a few have approached us about buying our winery and vineyards," says Lurton.

What's particularly interesting is that most of these commitments in Argentina were made before the 2001 currency collapse, after which point the Argentine peso, which was worth roughly one dollar, slid to one-third its previous value. "Today we are much more confident in our ability to make a profit in Argentina," Lurton admitted.

Along with the French, several prominent Italians, including Countess Noemi Marone Cinzano, and consultants Roberto Cipresso and Alberto Antonini, have made commitments to Argentina.

Cipresso is the principal winemaker for Achaval-Ferrer, a high-end, small-volume winery in the Uco Valley. Partners in the operation, which was founded in 1998, include the Argentineans Santiago Achaval and Manuel Ferrer, and Cipresso's Tuscan friend and business associate, Tiziano Siviero. "Friends, dreamers and partners" is how the members describe themselves; their top-level Finca Altamira Malbec is a serious, almost confounding wine priced at $85. It is made from 80-year-old vines that yield less than a pound per plant, which is only enough to fill roughly one-third of a bottle. So at three plants to the bottle, it is the polar opposite of the overcropped wines Argentina was once known for.

Antonini, renowned for his work in the Chianti region (see Wine Enthusiast's April 2005 Chianti tasting feature), is the winemaker for Altos Las Hormigas, a joint venture among Argentineans and Italians that also includes broker/importer Marc de Grazia. Located in Luján de Cuyo, the winery has about 100 acres of densely planted vineyards dating back to 1996. The wines, and there are but two Malbecs, are succulent and very reasonably priced, especially the Reserva Viña Hormigas. It competes with the best wines of Argentina, at about one-third of the price.

One of the loftiest international ventures is a project based far outside Mendoza, in a section of Patagonia called Rio Negro. Here, Noemi Marone Cinzano, heiress to the Cinzano fortune, and Danish traveling winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers have staked their claim on the back of a 72-year-old, 3.7-acre Malbec vineyard, which Vinding-Diers found while he was consulting for another Patagonian winery called Humberto Canale. The winery, Bodega Noemía de Patagonia, makes just two wines, Noemía and J. Alberto.

Dry, unpolluted and rustic as any wine region in the world, the Rio Negro section of Patagonia, described by Vinding-Diers as an "oasis," yields fresh, crisp, floral wines that are not as bulky or overtly fruity as those from Mendoza. The 2002 Noemía Malbec isn't dainty, and it surely isn't cheap ($140). But it is unusually elegant. In crafting this wine, Vin-ding-Diers, who also makes wines for Argiano in Montalcino, has exhibited a gentle touch while still extracting a ton of exotic berry flavors. With only 3,000 bottles produced, you might label it a rich lady's fancy. Regardless, the wine is excellent.

Not to overlook a couple of native Spanish speakers, there's José Manuel Ortega Fournier, a former investment banker in Spain who has chosen to channel his life's savings into Bodegas y Viñedos O. Fournier, which specializes in Tempranillo. And there's also Montes S.A. from Chile, whose Kaiken label showed nicely in its first vintage (2002). Kaiken is now releasing a pair of premium wines called Ultra.

In explaining why he chose Argentina, Aurelio Montes used the old Mt. Everest analogy: "Argentina is so close. We had to climb it because it was there." In truth, Montes and business partner Douglas Murray felt they had pushed Montes S.A. about as far as it could go in Chile. "We weren't about to get into private labels and the like, so we had to look abroad," Montes said. "But what's different than when we started from scratch 15 years ago is now we have our networks of sales and distribution. Argentina made sense."

When José Maunel Ortega bought into Argentina, in 2000, he wasn't sure if it made sense or not. "In 1999, I knew nothing of wine. I barely drank wine. But then one of my banking contacts approached me about investment options in Valle de Uco and San Rafael. We determined that San Rafael was too prone to hail. So we chose Uco."

Five years later, Ortega is out of banking altogether. Today he is spending all his time and money on O. Fournier, which also has a winery in Ribera Del Duero, Spain. In homage to the home country, O. Fournier's two Argentinean wines, A Crux and B Crux, are Tempranillo based. "There is more Tempranillo here [in Argentina] than most people think," Ortega says. "A lot of it is fairly old, and in Uco we feel it has a lot in common to what's grown in Ribera Del Duero and Toro" in Spain.

Almost as an afterthought, Ortega points out that his winemaker, José Spisso, is Argentinean, not an import. "We want only the best people," Ortega says. "We don't check passports."

But at airport immigrations back in Mendoza, they do. And those responsible are busier than ever.

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