Forget the Big Fruit Bombs: The Fresh New Face of Argentine Wine

Red wine with two bottles of Argentine wine
Matervini 2017 Finca Malbec and Michelini i Mufatto 2017 La Cautiva Malbec (Gualtallary)/Photo by Tom Arena

If you’ve been drinking Argentine wine for a while, you know the country’s signature style: a dark-tinted Malbec with aromas and flavors of raisin, blackberry jam and creamy new oak. It may contain upward of 15.5% alcohol by volume (abv) and be infused with searing tartaric acidity that aids balance and allows the wine to live on for decades.

But that style of wine, while very much still in existence, is losing popularity. Consumers, sommeliers and importers are seeking fresher, leaner, more food-friendly wines. Winemakers are happy to oblige, often with fruit from high-elevation vineyards blessed with limestone or rocky alluvial soils.

These wines and winemakers are at the forefront of a movement toward notable snap, zest and vigor. In these wines, alcohol levels are generally between 13% and 13.5% abv. Whether Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon or any other variety, white or red, “freshness” has become the theme of the moment throughout Argentina.

Five red wine bottles
L to R: Durigutti 2018 Proyecto Las Compuertas Cinco Suelos Malbec (Luján de Cuyo), Zorzal 2017 Eggo Tinto de Tiza Malbec (Tupungato), Zuccardi 2018 Polígonos del Valle de Uco Cabernet Franc (San Pablo), Bodega Chacra 2018 Barda Pinot Noir (Río Negro), Chakana 2017 Ayni Malbec (Paraje Altamira)/Photo by Tom Arena

Less is More

Juan Facundo Suárez, co-owner and co-winemaker of Traslapiedra and other labels, knows a thing or two about how to produce fresh-style wines. His great-grandfather, Leopoldo Suárez, literally wrote the book, or Manual Ampelográfico, on how and why winemakers in Mendoza should strive to make bottlings low in alcohol and oak, but high in freshness.

“He knew back in 1911 to avoid over-ripeness,” says Suárez. “He wrote about not using too much oak, about the character of our Malbec and Sémillon grown on calcareous soils. And that is what we are doing nowadays. Most of what falls into this emerging fresh category are terroir-driven wines from defined regions within the Uco Valley. In terms of winemaking techniques, it’s about looking back and making wines in a natural way, without additions.”

Traslapiedra’s 2018 Malbec is a stellar example of a no-intervention, new-wave Argentine wine that almost falls under the “natural” umbrella. It comes from Paraje Altamira, a recently denominated section of San Carlos in the Uco Valley.

The entire region sits well over 3,000 feet above sea level; its soils are full of round rocks that came down countless centuries ago from the nearby Andes. Some are as big as boulders. Most are covered with chalky white calcium carbonate that is said to impart a can’t-miss minerality to the wines.

“We are trying to make an easy-drinking wine with the texture that Paraje Altamira’s calcareous soils can provide,” says Suárez. “We ferment and age in concrete, with a short maceration and without bleeding.”

Five red wine bottles
L to R: Zolo 2017 Reserve Estate Grown Cabernet Franc (Mendoza), Passionate Wine 2018 Via Revolucionaria Hulk Sémillon (Tupungato), Traslapiedra 2018 Vino de Desierto Marino Malbec (Paraje Altamira), Colomé 2019 Estate Torrontés (Salta), Ernesto Catena 2017 Tahuan Siesta en el Tahuantinsuyu Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendoza)/Photo by Tom Arena

Aging Gracefully

Fermenting and aging in concrete, as opposed to using stainless steel followed by extended time in new oak, only helps with freshness, Argentine winemakers claim. At Familia Zuccardi’s Bodega de Piedra Infinita, also in Paraje Altamira, Sebastián Zuccardi eschews small oak barrels and relies mostly on concrete and the occasional large wood foudre.

“The concept of freshness is more related to how a wine smells and feels than the laboratory analysis,” says Zuccardi, whose 2018 Polígonos Cabernet Franc and Malbec, from high-elevation vineyards in the San Pablo and Gualtallary zones of the Uco Valley, shouts with brightness and punch.

“I’m more focused on balance, acidity, texture, length, flower and herb aromas, low or no oak, etc.,” he says. “With the sunny weather that we have, sugar rises quickly at the beginning of the season but then slows down in March [when picking begins]. I don’t like to be higher than 14% to 14.5% because you lose tension. Between 13% and 14%, we can find great balance in our wines.”

That alcohol level is where you will find the bulk of the wines made jointly or individually by Gerardo, Matías and Juan Pablo Michelini. Collectively, they’re behind the Michelini Bros. label that makes terroir-specific Malbecs and other varietal wines and blends.

A Short Guide to Argentine Malbec

One of their standout wines is Zorzal 2017 EGGO Tinto de Tiza, a Malbec from a particularly limestone-rich vineyard in the Gualtallary section of Tupungato. Juan Pablo, the youngest of the brothers, says that they started thinking about its creation in 2012, when more was still more in Argentina.

“The objective behind EGGO has been to show the true and pure character of the most calcareous parts of Gualtallary,” he says. “A key point to making these wines is when we harvest, and in general we do it on the early side; adapting harvest dates to a particular year’s climate allows our wines to show finesse and, above all, elegance.”

Like Traslapiedra and Zuccardi’s Polígonos line, EGGO wines are fermented with only natural yeasts and aged entirely in concrete eggs, hence the name.

“Whether we are using wood or not, we are heavily focused on the aging process and avoiding overextraction,” says Juan Pablo.

Fresh wines that don’t clobber you over the head with overripe fruit and heavy oak, nor burn with tartaric acid. That’s what savvy wine lovers are finding—and enjoying more than ever— from Argentina these days.

What Does “Freshness” Mean in Wine?

Bottles to Try

Michelini i Mufatto 2017 La Cautiva Malbec (Gualtallary); $75, 96 points. Top of the mark, top of the heap is where this Malbec from Gualtallary in Tupungato ranks. Pure blackberry, cassis and plum aromas are impeccably clean and welcoming, while this feels squeaky fresh on the palate. Blackberry and dark chocolate flavors set up a minerally finish that plays out with fruity subtleties and stony infusions. Drink through 2026. Brazos Wine Imports. Editors’ Choice.

Matervini 2017 Finca Malbec (Perdriel); $90, 94 points. Former Achaval-Ferrer principals Santiago Achával and Roberto Cipresso crafted this Malbec from a vineyard planted in 1938. It offers dense a cassis aroma alongside notes of tire rubber, raw oak, graphite and vanilla. It feels structured and juicy on the palate, with firm tannins providing grip. Flavors of cassis, spiced plum and blueberry are notably oaky but never lose their focus. Drink through 2028. La Granja Winery. Cellar Selection.

Durigutti 2018 Proyecto Las Compuertas Cinco Suelos Malbec (Luján de Cuyo); $30, 93 points. This Malbec from five different vineyard blocks is part of a small-batch project from brothers Hector and Pablo Durigutti. Pure aromas of blackberry and cassis come with a herbal accent. It is full in body but not heavy due to bracing acidity and controlled alcohol. Flavors of blackberry, plum and beet root finish with clarity. Enjoy through 2024. The Artisan Collection.

Zorzal 2017 Eggo Tinto de Tiza Malbec (Tupungato); $30, 93 points. This red delivers a full blast of berry fruit aromas along with savory notes of beef stew and fine herbs. Like the nose, this tastes herbal and savory. In terms of feel, it is solid in stature but brightened by bold acidity. Drink through 2024. Brazos Wine Imports. Editors’ Choice.

Zuccardi 2018 Polígonos del Valle de Uco Cabernet Franc (San Pablo); $30, 93 points. This racy Cabernet Franc from Winemaker Sebastián Zuccardi is made entirely in concrete. Plum and berry tones are full and fresh on the nose and palate, while flavors of black fruit, herbs, tea and tomato linger on the smooth finish. Drink through 2024. Editors’ Choice.

Bodega Chacra 2018 Barda Pinot Noir (Río Negro); $30, 91 points. This is an alert Pinot Noir from Piero Incisa della Rocchetta’s Patagonia winery. It is medium-bodied on the palate, showing a light tannic rub. Flavors of cherry and plum are supported by mild wood spice. Drink through 2023. Kobrand.

The Transformation of Uco Valley's Wines

Chakana 2017 Ayni Malbec (Paraje Altamira); $39, 91 points. Ripe aromas of black plum and cassis are topped with an appealing oak tone. This is a fairly tight and fresh style of Malbec that shows black-fruit flavors on the palate aided by toasty oak. It finishes with firm tannins. Drink through 2026. Kysela Père et Fils.

Zolo 2017 Reserve Estate Grown Cabernet Franc (Mendoza); $20, 91 points. French consultant Jean Claude Berrouet is helping Zolo’s team make fresher wines at lower alcohol levels, and this wine fits the bill with its aromas of earth, cinnamon and berries. It’s fully ripe but not heavy on the palate, showing gamy, herbal and berry flavors that are typical of the variety. Vino Del Sol.

Passionate Wine 2018 Via Revolucionaria Hulk Sémillon (Tupungato); $15, 90 points. A bright gold color and waxy aromas of apricot and citrus peel form the nose of this Sémillon from Matías Michelini that spent three months in concrete eggs. It shows plumpness on the palate, with flavors of yellow apple and peach backed by a mild bitterness. Drink now. Brazos Wine Imports. Best Buy.

Traslapiedra 2018 Vino de Desierto Marino Malbec (Paraje Altamira); $20, 90 points. This natural-style Malbec is fermented with native yeast and aged entirely in concrete. It’s lively on the nose in reedy wild berry and red currant aromas. The crisp, racy palate is jolting, while flavors of red plum, currant and cranberry lean spicy prior to a tight, focused finish. Drink now. Regal Wine Imports Inc.

Colomé 2019 Estate Torrontés (Salta); $15, 89 points. Aromas of lemon, lime and pastry dusted with powdered sugar lead to a round palate with citrus-like acidity. Pineapple and melon flavors come with a touch of salt, while the palate feels full with a slight grip. Drink now. Hess Family Wine Estates.

Ernesto Catena 2017 Tahuan Siesta en el Tahuantinsuyu Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendoza); $17, 88 points. Astringent at first then more forgiving, this red offers flavors of red berry, juniper, cola and spice. Clove and plum skin tones steer the smacking finish of this superfresh Cabernet Sauvignon. Drink now. Vineyard Brands.

Published on May 26, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings