Top 7 Argentine Alternative Values
Birth of a Wine Nation
For the better part of the past decade, nearly everything said or written about Argentinean wine has revolved around the Malbec grape and how this French import has propelled the country onto the global stage of wine-producing nations.
But if you’re just now discovering Argentine Malbec and are not familiar with the story of its rise to prominence, here it is in a nutshell: Malbec was brought to Argentina from France in the mid-19th century. Over time, it was planted in the country’s seven wine regions, the most prominent of which is Mendoza. But for more than a century, Malbec was just another red grape capable of quenching the thirst of a committed wine-drinking nation.
However, in the 1990s, spurred by the pioneering vision of Nicolás Catena of Bodega Catena Zapata, wineries began to embrace Malbec. They cut yields, planted at higher elevations to improve balance and acidity, began fermenting in stainless steel, small bins or large Bordeaux-style wooden vats, and started using better barrels for aging. This resulted in a new wave of bold, plush, fruity wines with clean character and international appeal.
Then, in 2001, just as the modern Malbec movement was taking shape, Argentina fell into a severe economic crisis highlighted by a devaluation of the peso. Argentines, battered by inflation, had difficulty affording wine, especially good wine. The same wine, however, was much cheaper for other countries to import, due to the plunge in exchange rates.
Understanding that its target market had changed almost overnight, Argentina’s wine industry began exporting with vigor. Malbec became the friendly, delicious red wine that consumers around the world fell in love with.
Based on Wine Enthusiast’s regular blind tastings of Argentine wines, the answer is an unequivocal no. Examples of Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda, Syrah, Tempranillo and even Pinot Noir have scored highly, albeit not as highly as Argentina’s best Malbecs and Malbec-led blends.
Among white varieties, Torrontés—an aromatic white grape that many Argentinean wineries would like to see have some of the success that Malbec enjoys—Chardonnay, Viognier and the occasional Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio also have scored well.
Here are snapshots of seven varietal categories, spotlighting a top performer and a top value in each.
But a number of wineries in Mendoza are making good varietal Bonarda by following the same improved harvesting and winemaking methods now being applied to Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon. If there’s an issue with Bonarda, it’s that it is prone to rubbery aromas and limited complexity.
Durigutti 2011 Reserva Bonarda (Mendoza); $25, 92 points. Elixir Wine Group. Editors’ Choice.
Cabernet is the third most widely planted wine grape throughout Argentina, trailing only Malbec and Bonarda. Until recently, Argentina’s varietal Cabs were fairly generic in style and undistinguished.
But a number of wineries, including Catena Zapata, Terrazas de Los Andes, Kaiken, Riglos and especially Viña Cobos, which is part-owned by the American Cabernet expert Paul Hobbs, are making good to excellent Cabernet in the moderate- and high-price ranges.
Cabernet is also a fine component of blended wines when matched with Malbec and other varieties. “Cabernet Sauvignon has a big personality, which allows it to combine perfectly with many other grapes,” says Victor Marcantoni, winery director of Graffigna. In Graffigna’s Centenario Elevation Red Blend, Cab partners with Malbec, Bonarda, Syrah and Tannat to yield a deep-red wine with firm structure. “The objective is to show the best attributes of these five varieties,” Marcantoni adds.
Syrah is one of the more prolific red grapes in the wine world; it will grow in almost any place it’s planted.
In the case of Trapiche’s Iscay, a blend of 97% Syrah and 3% Viognier from the Uco Valley (call it the Côte-Rôtie of Mendoza), winemaker Daniel Pi has teamed up with California Syrah specialist Joey Tensley to make a superb, full-bodied yet complex and elegant wine that’s world class.
“We put whole clusters of Viognier at the bottom, 17% whole clusters of Syrah next, and then 80% Syrah berries,” says Pi. “Fermentation is spontaneous, and aging takes place over 15 months in Burgundy barrels. It’s been a great experience co-developing something that goes beyond Malbec.”
For bargain hunters, Trapiche’s Oak Cask Syrah ranks as a consistent Best Buy.
As recently as six or seven years ago, there was barely an Argentinean Pinot Noir worth drinking, let alone buying. Today, the only Argentinean Pinots to rate consistently high have come from a pair of ancient vineyards in the Río Negro Valley in Patagonia.
The winery behind these offerings is Bodega Chacra, founded by Piero Incisa della Rocchetta, whose family owns Sassicaia in Tuscany. Incisa’s wines are, in general, elegant, sturdy, firm in acidity and floral in aromatics. They are not blockbusters made in a New World style, and vintage variation is severe.
As for Tempranillo, there are enough Argentinean grape farmers with Spanish roots to keep this Iberian variety going. José Manuel Ortega, chairman of O. Fournier, says the vineyards used for his B Crux Tempranillo blend sit at 3,600 feet or higher, and most were planted at least 50 years ago.
“Tempranillo from the Uco Valley can be compared to a mixture of Toro and Ribera del Duero in Spain,” says Ortega. “But I think Uco provides an extra level of flavor intensity and exceptional color,” not that Toro or Ribera have ever lacked color or intensity.
When done well, Torrontés is fragrant like jasmine and lychee, with crisp acidity and tropical fruit flavors. But too often, the wines can display funky, oily aromas and bitterness on the finish.
Within Argentina, there is constant buzz over whether Torrontés could be the country’s next Malbec, or at least something different for wineries to emphasize. But only in Cafayate [in the northern Salta region] is Torrontés made with consistency. Mendoza has yet to produce the quality and authenticity that northern Torrontés has shown.
“Some great Chardonnay can be made in Argentina, like in Gualtallary [Tupungato],” says Ed Lehrman of Vine Connections, a leading California-based importer of Argentinean wines. “But the locals don’t have a very high regard for it. Planting at higher elevations is the key.”
Argentine Viognier has, on occasion, shown the convincing floral fruit character and roundness for which the grape is known. An affordable yet good example is Mil Piedras (One Thousand Stones), which hails from the Vista Flores subzone in the Uco Valley.
Other good, unusual Argentine white wines include François Lurton’s varietal Pinot Grigio and a Tocai Friulano-based blend called Gran Lurton Corte Friulano.
- 3Cabernet Sauvignon
- 5The Other Reds
- 8Miscellaneous Whites