Argentina's Must-Try Wines
Argentina first burst onto the global wine scene 15 years ago. Almost exclusively, bold, fruity Malbecs from established warm-weather communes around the city of Mendoza captured international attention.
Since then, the country’s wineries and winemakers have continued to innovate. A commitment to more complex, terroir-driven wines is now literally bearing fruit, with Argentina’s best Malbecs coming from stony, high-elevation vineyards throughout the cooler Uco Valley.
In addition, a new crop of Cabernet Franc and Malbec-led blends are proving to be strong running mates. As consumers have shown a willingness to expand their definition of how pricing constitutes value, Argentina has answered the call with a plethora of excellent wines that retail for $20–30.
Here are the key trends driving the Argentine transition from upstart player to established figure among wine-producing nations.
Seven years ago in Wine Enthusiast, I wrote about the emergence of wines from the Valle de Uco, which begins about 40 miles south of Mendoza’s established Luján de Cuyo zone and extends another 40 miles or so to the south.
It was one of the wine media’s first standalone stories on this rugged region, and it told of what was to come: racy, bracing, highly structured Malbecs grown in alluvial or limestone soils at elevations starting at about 3,500 feet. Today, Argentina’s most impressive cellarworthy Malbecs are bred in prime Uco Valley subzones like Gualtallary, Vista Flores, Altamira and La Consulta.
“Our Adrianna Vineyard in Gualtallary is a Winkler Zone 1, meaning it’s as cool as Burgundy,” says Laura Catena, general director of Bodega Catena Zapata, whose Malbec from the site is a perennial showstopper. “The combination of limestone soils and this very cool climate resulting from extreme elevation makes Adrianna our most ageworthy wine.”
Today in the Uco Valley, it’s largely about location and vineyard management, and little about winemaking techniques, says Martín Kaiser, chief agronomist at Doña Paula, another leader in Uco’s rise.
“The fact that we have stopped talking about brand of barrels, fermentation temperatures or the percentage of bleeding, and are instead talking about microclimates, elevation and soil types, proves how far we’ve come,” says Kaiser. “High-end, single-vineyard Malbecs from Uco are what’s allowing Argentina to be considered a producer of classic wines.”
If there’s one thing that could be Uco’s undoing, it’s the high prices that wineries are charging for their best bottlings. Rarely do they dip below $50, with many pushing up to $100 or more.
Top Wines to Try
Viña Cobos 2012 Bramare Rebon Vineyard Malbec (La Consulta); $90, 94 points. Black-fruit aromas come with strong accents of wood grain, char and desert herbs. Huge from front to tail, with controlled tannins and flavors of blackberry, cassis, herbs and toasted wood. Drink through 2022. Paul Hobbs Imports. Cellar Selection.
Zuccardi 2012 Aluvional Malbec (La Consulta); $90, 94 points. Pitch-dark, with ripe berry, pepper and brushy herbal aromas leading to blackberry, prune, savory spice and oak flavors. Drink through 2022. Winesellers, Ltd. Cellar Selection.
Bodega Catena Zapata 2012 Adrianna Vineyard Malbec (Gualtallary); $150, 93 points. Blackberry, plum and violet aromas lead to a palate that’s tannic and full of kick. Blackberry, hickory and chocolate flavors close this out. Drink through 2030. Winebow. Cellar Selection.
For the past decade or so, coinciding with the onset of the global Malbec phenomenon, a concern among Argentina’s wineries has been what other grape varieties could stimulate consumer interest. Proprietary Argentine varietals like the white Torrontés and the fruity but often awkward Bonarda have mostly failed, while Cabernet Sauvignon has yet to make a serious mark.
What has shown fine results in recent years is Cabernet Franc, a variety prone to being green and full of pyrazines when grown in cool regions like Bordeaux, the Loire Valley or Italy’s Veneto, but which appears to have adapted well to Argentina’s dry, warm environs.
The problem (and isn’t there always a problem with something so new and encouraging?) is that barely 1,500 acres of Cab Franc are planted in Argentina, meaning there isn’t much of this tantalizing wine to go around.
“Cab Franc is a potential rising star,” says Hervé Birnie-Scott, estate director at Chandon’s Terrazas de Los Andes winery. “[Argentina is] producing some amazing wines when grown in our coldest areas. There’s definitely something there. We’re seeing a genuine and elegant varietal expression, which is so difficult to achieve in most parts of the world.”
Of the 21 Cab Francs from 2011 and ’12 rated in Wine Enthusiast, none scored lower than 87, while 15 wines scored 90 points or higher, with Uco Valley zones like Gualtallary, in Tupungato, and Eugenio Bustos, near San Carlos, delivering top-notch examples.
“We have a long way to go with Cabernet Franc,” says Alberto Arizu, owner of Luigi Bosca. “But we are seeing wines with great character, soft tannins and dark fruit with attenuated green notes.”
Top Wines to Try
Bodega Renacer 2011 Punto Final Gran Edición Limitada Cabernet Franc (Mendoza); $70, 93 points. Renacer’s first-ever Cab Franc shows herbal, woody black-fruit aromas. Black cherry, kirsch, mocha and chocolate flavors finish amid a mix of chocolaty oak and spices. Drink through 2021. Winebow. Editors’ Choice.
Andeluna 2011 Pasionado Cabernet Franc (Tupungato); $62, 91 points. Cedary oak, berry fruit and spice aromas seamlessly knit together. Rooty black-fruit flavors offer oak spice, chocolate and pepper notes. Drink through 2020. San Francisco Wine Exchange.
Luigi Bosca 2012 Gala 4 (Mendoza); $38, 91 points. This Cabernet Franc contains 5% Malbec and delivers black cherry and medicinal aromas. A ton of energy is unloaded via cherry, plum and cough-drop flavors. Drink through 2024. Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd.
If the Bordelais have blended stellar wines seemingly forever, and New World locales like California, Washington State and even neighboring Chile also do it well, then so can Argentina, at least in theory.
Blended wines, especially those led by Malbec, may not be Argentina’s flagship—and they may not even be better than some varietal wines, according to multiple sources—but there are strong examples being made each year, with more on the market than ever before.
“Normally I would say yes, well-made blends deliver the best balance,” says Aurelio Montes del Campo, winemaker at Kaiken. “But sometimes not. You can blend only Malbec from different sources and get great results. Other times, a blend of different varieties works best. And there are other times when one variety from one vineyard can provide the best balance.
“Blends are a hot subject, but I’m not sure they are inherently better.”
Paul Hobbs, a shareholder in Viña Cobos who has been consulting in Argentina since the 1990s, says the thought that blends are inherently better is a “quixotic myth.”
“A lot of blending is smoke and mirrors and sold as ‘better’ to an unwitting public,” says Hobbs. “Blending is useful for covering mistakes, yet it can also take a wine from strength to strength, where the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. A soloist may be more compelling than an orchestra. So, too, may an unblended wine be superior to one that’s blended.”
As to whether consumers want more blends from a country best known for Malbec varietals, Ed Lehrman, a partner in Vine Connections, a leading importer of wines from Argentina, says that sales of blends have been shaky.
“I’d say blends do deliver better balance, but better sales? No, not yet.”
Top Wines to Try
Bodegas Caro 2012 Red (Mendoza); $63, 94 points. This blend of 75% Malbec and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon opens with smoke, char, herbs and rooty black-fruit notes. Flavors of coffee, baking spices, blackberry, herbs and mocha finish toasty. Drink through 2024. Pasternak Wine Imports. Editors’ Choice.
Finca Sophenia 2011 Synthesis The Blend (Tupungato); $45, 92 points. This blend of 60% Malbec, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot is ripe but fresh. Chocolaty oak rides on top of blackberry, cassis and mocha flavors, while oak persists on a cuddly finish. Drink through 2020. The Country Vintner.
Proemio 2011 Barrel Selection I (Mendoza); $60, 91 points. The blend is Malbec with Syrah and Merlot, and the nose is earthy, with grainy oak along with blackberry aromas. Lush, rich and supple in feel, with leathery blackberry flavors along with coffee and bacon notes. Drink through 2021. Faropian Spirits, Ltd.
Wine Enthusiast restricts its Best Buys to $15 and under, but with inflation running as high as 40 percent annually in financially troubled Argentina, it’s getting harder to find 90-point value wines.
However, value is a relative term—have you seen how much California wines cost these days? Argentina is excelling in the $20–30 window, courtesy of low land and labor costs, combined with plentiful old vineyards that produce excellent grapes.
“This is the market segment where Argentina overdelivers, and in many ways—color, intensity, complexity of aromas, concentration and depth of flavor can be outstanding,” says Santiago Mayorga, winemaker at Nieto Senetiner. “It’s mostly due to our long growing season—90 to 100 days of hang time—which creates awesome ripeness, deep colors and soft, sweet tannins. I don’t know of any other country that’s doing as many interesting things in this price range.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of legitimate 92- and 93-point wines from France, Spain, Italy and, especially, California that cost less than $30. But it’s arguably Argentina’s strongest suit, even if 80 percent of Argentine wine sold worldwide costs less than $20.
“We used to say our Argentinean wines had to taste as good as California wine at $5 less per bottle,” says Lehrman. “Today, I’d say the advantage is closer to $10. I understand about production costs, but let’s focus solely on what consumers are getting for their money.
“More so than even five years ago, the consumer is better off buying [Argentine] wine in the $20–30 range in terms of quality, flavor and an overall satisfying drinking experience.”
Top Wines to Try
Mascota 2011 Unánime Gran Vino Tinto (Mendoza); $25, 93 points. This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Cabernet Franc offers appealing aromas of blackberry and toast. Dense, layered and hefty on the palate, this piles on blueberry, plum, cassis and toast flavors. Drink through 2018. Saranty Imports. Editors’ Choice.
Bressia 2012 Monteagrelo Cabernet Franc (Mendoza); $27, 92 points. Minty, toasty aromas precede plum, wild berry, dust and malty notes. Chunky weight makes for a broad palate, while baked berry and savory meat flavors more than satisfy. Drink through 2025. Kysela Père et Fils. Cellar Selection.
Finca El Origen 2012 Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (Uco Valley); $23, 92 points. Aromas of tree bark, licorice, fig and blackberry feed into a concentrated palate with plum, blackberry and peppery flavors. Drink through 2023. Carolina Wine Brands USA. Editors’ Choice.
- 1Uco Valley’s Stellar Single-Vineyard Malbecs
- 2The Rise of Cabernet Franc
- 3Tinkering with Blends
- 4Great Values at $30 and Under