Argentina is counting on its robust Malbecs and lusty Chardonnays to grab the attention of savvy wine drinkers.

Generally speaking, Argentina’s 37 million citizens are passionate, giving people. They love their soccer, their steak—and their wine—and they are happy to share these passions with the world. But while Argentina’s best footballers star in foreign leagues and Argentinean beef is famous wherever meat is sold, the planet’s fifth largest wine producer is just now beginning to scratch the surface of the burgeoning international wine market.

Last year, a mere 5.6 percent of total wine production in Argentina (roughly 8 million cases) was sent overseas, with the United States being the leading export market, followed by the United Kingdom, Canada and Brazil. The lion’s share of the more than 130 million cases of wine produced in Argentina stayed within the country’s borders, a quencher for a thirsty population with deep southern European roots.

But to understand where Argentina is headed in terms of its wines requires putting the raw numbers aside. During the 1990s, Argentina’s wine industry watched closely as Chile, its neighbor across the Andes, went for the gold (and largely succeeded) with moderately priced exports. With this sort of neighborly competition, not to mention a struggling domestic economy, it is no coincidence that the Argentineans are now committing themselves to snaring their piece of the export pie.

Argentina’s Piece—Rather, Pieces—of the Export Pie
There is already ample evidence that this movement is in full force. Today you can find a number of Argentinean wines in American wine shops, many more than you would have seen five years ago. And while the majority are moderately priced at $8 to $15 a bottle, a number of these wines, mostly high-end, oak-aged Malbecs from gnarled old vines as well as reserve-level Cabernet Sauvignons, are selling for more than $20 a bottle. Some push the envelope and sell for more than $50.

Covering all the bases—from value wines through the prestige-level cuvée—is a bold approach for a country striving to earn its international stripes, but the bet here is that Argentina has what it takes to achieve greater prominence in the global marketplace.

Argentina’s best wineries, the ones concentrating on the U.S. and beyond, are thoroughly modern enterprises. In their favor, they have nature working for them. Mendoza province, located at the eastern base of the Andes and home to virtually all of the best vineyards in Argentina, may be desert-like, but snow in the mountains provides ample water for irrigation. Temperatures definitely run hot during the summer, but the thermometer reads cool at night, something the grapes love. Ultimately, Mendoza is well-suited to grape growing.

Winemakers with Wanderlust
Not to be overlooked in Argentina’s push forward is the contribution being made by foreign talent currently working in the country—either on personal wine projects or as consultants—including renowned Californians Paul Hobbs (Cobos) and Robert Pepi (Valentín Bianchi). Also working in Argentina are the esteemed “flying” consultant Michel Rolland of France (Trapiche, and, more recently, Salentein), Jeffrey Stambor (on loan from Beaulieu Vineyard, and working at Navarro Correas) and Alvaro Espinoza, formerly the award-winning winemaker at Viña Carmen in Chile (Tapiz). With valuable input from influential outsiders, Argentina is making more wines that will satisfy the global consumer.

Malbec the Magnificent
While good terroir and imported talent are advantages, nothing is more important to Argentina than the fact that it has one wine in particular that its wineries make better than anybody else in the world. That wine is Malbec, a rich and juicy Bordeaux variety that the French brought to Argentina more than a century ago. If you have ever sampled Malbec from France or California (Malbec, often called Côt in western France, is the leading grape of Cahors; some California wineries, such as Geyser Peak, have made stand-alone Malbec) and weren’t overwhelmed by it, try forgetting that experience. Argentinean Malbec is a bird of an entirely different feather.

For starters, the Argentinean rendition of Malbec is infinitely friendlier than that of overly tannic Cahors, and its texture more velvety. Argentinean Malbec, often the fruit of vines planted more than 50 years ago, grows well in Mendoza’s dry heat, and features massive berry flavors, a precise but subtle spiciness, soft tannins and incredible depth.

Malbec from Argentina is usually made in a forward, fruity style. Top examples of fruit-packed Malbecs include those from Catena, Luca, Terrazas de Los Andes and Altos Las Hormigas. But it can also be made in a reserved, age-worthy fashion (Fabre Montmayou is one of the best from this school). Regardless of style, Argentinean Malbec tastes great and goes down easy, especially with hearty meat dishes.

If Malbec eventually turns out to be Argentina’s black gold, as veteran Virginia-based importer Alfredo Bartholomaus predicts, there are other reds that could ride on Malbec’s coattails. Argentina has a handle on Cabernet Sauvignon, largely because Cabernet thrives in much the same terroir as Malbec (Bianchi’s $50 1996 Famiglia Bianchi Cabernet from the San Rafael section of Mendoza is a terrific wine, as is the new Nicolas Catena Zapata Cabernet; $80). But with so much Cabernet from all parts of the world from which to choose, will consumers take the time to add Argentinean Cabernet to their list of must-try wines?

Syrah is now Argentina’s number-four red grape variety, behind Malbec, Cabernet and Bonarda (the latter is an Italian variety that is popular on the domestic market). Several Argentinean Syrahs display robust gamy flavors and genuine rustic character (the Luca 1999 Altos de Mendoza Syrah is dynamite; Finca Flichman, the first Mendoza winery to bottle Syrah, makes a nice affordable Syrah [for about $13).

Finally, there’s Chardonnay, many a drinker’s favorite white wine. When grown at higher elevations—on Andean foothill terraces at least 3,500 feet above sea level—Argentinean Chardonnay shows a natural richness akin to the better Chards from California’s North Coast. The best Argentinean Chardonnays (the 1999 Catena Alta and 1999 Luca) are soft and honeyed; they take to new French oak just as a top-level Napa or Sonoma Chardonnay might.

If you prefer a more crisp and streamlined Chardonnay, Salentein, a one-year-old winery owned by Dutch businessman Mijndert Pon, brother of Bernardus owner Ben Pon, makes a tasty Burgundian-style version that’s scheduled to make its U.S. debut late in 2001 or sometime next year. The wine comes from the Tupungato subsection of Mendoza, which has cool high-elevation vineyards.

Mendoza: The Heart of Argentina’s Wine Industry
Earlier this year, during the April harvest, I traveled to Mendoza, the heart of Argentina’s 140-year-old wine industry. There I spent a week admiring the Andes, touring the arid countryside, and visiting a number of wineries, all of which boast state-of-the-art equipment, air-conditioned barrel vaults brimming with French and American oak casks and enthusiastic winemakers and owners. The commitment to modern winemaking techniques and producing wines that will succeed outside Argentina is palpable.

Most of the wines I tasted were from the spectacular 1999 vintage, unanimously viewed by Argentina’s wine community as its best vintage in decades.

“The 1999 growing season and the month before harvest were cooler than usual,” explains Laura Catena, vice president of her family’s winery and the founder of Luca, a new line of premium Mendoza wines that are being made by Alejandro Sejanovich. “The grapes ripened slowly and hang time was optimal. The resulting wines are very intense aromatically. They are full-bodied as well as soft and supple. It’s one of the best harvests of the decade.”

Based on my tastings, I’ve concluded that 2000 is an above-average year as well. Looking ahead, the 2001 harvest, though marred by some rain and a streak of unusually cool, humid weather should ultimately turn out to be a winner. (On April 5, Bodega Norton, owned by the Austrian family that also owns Swarovski crystal, hired an Air Force helicopter to fly over its vineyards in Luján de Cuyo in an effort to quick-dry the vines so its already ripe Malbec could be picked.)

More than 70 percent of Argentina’s 700-plus wineries are based in the province of Mendoza, a high desert some 600 miles west of Buenos Aires and almost directly across the Andes from Santiago, Chile. The land here is parched, but ample snowmelt after winter means plenty of water for irrigation. Overall, Mendoza is an ideal region for agriculture, including apples, pears, lettuce and more.

Mendoza province currently boasts more than 160,000 acres of “fine” red grape varieties, led by Malbec, while there are nearly 90,000 acres of fine white grapes in the ground. Torrontes, a white grape with Spanish origins that is more popular in Argentina than it will ever be elsewhere, is the leader among whites, followed by Chardonnay. Interestingly, more than 80,000 acres of new vineyards have been planted in the past three years alone, all with fine grapes.

The vineyards in Mendoza begin at about 3,000 feet and extend westward up the mountains to about 5,000 feet. In general, the temperature falls by about two degrees Farenheit for every 400 feet of increased elevation, explains Pedro Marchevsky, the long-time vineyard manager for Catena. (He and his wife, Susana Balbo, are also private growers.) What this means is that growers can literally go up and down the mountains in search of the perfect microclimate for the grapes of their choice.

While altitude is a key element in Mendoza’s terroir, and one that is generally beneficial to the grapes, it also facilitates the only perennial threat Argentinean wineries face, and that is hail. Hail, which can strike at any time during the growing season and in haphazard patterns, can be a winery’s worst nightmare, as it can literally decimate entire vineyards.

To combat hail, some wineries—Norton and Flichman among them—have taken to placing black-mesh netting over their vines, and the gain has been twofold: Not only are the grapes protected from the ravages of falling ice, but the entire canopy is shielded somewhat from the searing summer sun, almost as if the grapevines were wearing sunscreen. “Like anywhere, vineyard management is so important if you want to make good wines,” says Carlos Tizio, vineyard “liaison” with Bodega Norton.

Most of this knowledge of the land and Mendoza’s terroir isn’t new. Since the 1860s, when Italian, Spanish and French immigrants brought vine cuttings with them from their homelands, Mendoza has been ground zero for Argentinean wine. But time and progress have allowed growers and winemakers to discover the virtues and shortcoming of various Mendoza subsections.

For instance, Maipú, located just south of the city of Mendoza, is a low-lying, warmer area that produces rich, opulent fruit. A few kilometers further south are the Luján de Cuyo, Pedriel and Agrelo districts, where one finds wineries like Catena, Norton, Fabre Montmayou, Flichman and Terrazas de Los Andes, among others. Even further south, and heading west toward the Andes, are Tunuyán and Tupungato, subregions favored by Lurton, Salentein and others committed to Chardonnay. And two hours south by car is San Rafael, home to Bianchi, Balbi and others. Each district has its own microclimate and individual characteristics, much like the Napa Valley floor in Rutherford or Yountville differs from the neighboring hillsides.

Argentina, like Chile and Australia before it, is one of those emerging wine producers that has the potential to make a great impact on the global wine market. It has a qualified breadwinner in Malbec, overall wine quality is relatively high and quantity is plentiful. Whether Argentinean wine ultimately develops a reputation equal to Argentina’s soccer players and beef remains to be seen. At this point, the giant is just awakening.

A Selection Of Top Wines From Argentina

Red Wines

92 Nicolas Catena Zapata 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendoza); $80. This Cabernet (with 5 percent Malbec) is the most polished Argentinean wine on the market today, and also the most expensive. It’s made in the California style, with intense cassis and plum fruit that absorbs all the fine French oak it receives. This is the first-ever vintage of this prestige bottling, which performed admirably in a blind tasting that included two Bordeaux first growths and Opus One.

90 Fabre Montmayou 1997 Malbec (Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza); $13. Reserved but highly aromatic. The bouquet is flowery and full of orange rind and clove. Very different from more burly Malbecs; an example of Old World style trumping New World fruit. Gorgeous balance.

90 Luca 1999 Malbec (Altos de Mendoza); $35. This extracted, exuberant wine is the king of the all-new Luca quartet (from Laura Catena, daughter of Nicolas Catena Zapata). The huge bouquet brims with blackberry, game, cedar and smoke. It’s massively rich, the product of a year that yielded muscular and ripe grapes. This is a stellar Malbec that’s all power and purity.

90 Catena 1999 Malbec (Mendoza); $20. From the Lunlunta section of Mendoza, this is the perfect bottling through which to get acquainted with Argentinean Malbec. It’s big, beefy and heavily saturated with black fruit, licorice notes, potent oak and full tannins—definitely for fans of muscular reds.

90 Terrazas de Los Andes 1999 Reserva Malbec (Mendoza); $17. This Chandon-owned winery excels at Malbec grown in the Vistalba region of Mendoza. The main reason for Terrazas’ success is the skilled hand of winemaking director Roberto de la Mota (formerly of Cavas Weinert). This bottling is viscous and rich, but entirely balanced. It shows immense fruit, the perfect influence of oak and a Zinfandel-like spiciness.

89 Trapiche 1999 Iscay (Mendoza); $50. Iscay is a 50/50 blend of Malbec and Merlot, which makes sense being that it’s the top effort of Trapiche’s resident winemaker Angel Mendoza and renowned consultant Michel Rolland. It’s a juvenile that needs some cellar time, but with piercing fruit, smoky oak and mouthfeel galore, it is already showing its virtues. Iscay means “two” in the Incan native language; this deserves two thumbs up.

88 Tikal 1999 Jubilo (Altos de Mendoza); $45. Like all of the Tikal line (from Ernesto Catena, Laura’s brother), this Bordeaux-style blend is very dark and dense. Jubilo offers aromas of black cherry and wet rubber to go with mounds of cassis and blackberry flavors. The girth of this Cabernet-dominated heavyweight fits the ponderous bottle it comes in.

87 Finca Flichman 1999 Malbec Reserva (Mendoza); $11. Fruity in the nose, maybe even a bit flowery. Tastes fresh, featuring mint and sugar beets in addition to black plum and raspberry. Slightly lighter than most Argentinean Malbecs, but with textbook tannins and fine balance.

White Wines

90 Luca 1999 Chardonnay (Altos de Mendoza); $30. New World aromas of butter, banana, coconut and toast are all blended attractively. Hefty, with potent tropical fruit and toasted oak flavors running all the way through the finish. This is a model modern wine, but of a particular style. It’s for those who appreciate fat Chards.

88 Salentein 1999 Chardonnay (Mendoza); $NA. A ripe Chardonnay that maintains elegance from bouquet through the finish. It’s mostly a tank-fermented wine with no glaring malolactic notes, yet it’s rich, round and loaded with pear-like fruit and a natural creaminess. Salentein is a new Dutch-owned winery with lofty goals and ample resources (Michel Rolland consults). Worth seeking out, once Salentein selects its U.S. importer.

87 Familia Zuccardi 1999 Q Chardonnay (Mendoza); $22. This buttery New World-style Chard is the cornerstone of the winery’s top-level “Q” line. It’s full of tropical fruit, particularly banana and papaya, but also some lemony citrus. A long finish carries things to a satisfying conclusion. A good match with appetizers and salads.

86 Don Miguel Gascón 2000 Viognier (Mendoza); $11. A nice value for what boils down to a cocktail-style wine. The acid-driven raciness makes it excellent with seafood hors d’oeuvres, guacamole and the like. Warm peachy flavors on top of a flowery bouquet, but not heavy or sticky. A good wine to serve at parties.

Published on October 1, 2001

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