There was virtually no knowledge or understanding of viticulture (in Argentina), but my grandfather chose Malbec because even at that time it was considered the best, most reliable variety.’ – Nicholas Catena
Wine from Argentina is easy to find in most any wine store. For the most part, it is less expensive to buy, and it is usually made from Malbec. Can the whole of Argentinian winemaking be looked upon as a one trick pony; cheap, all Malbec, and vinified to be drunk immediately? Hardly. In the last three decades, the world of winemaking in Argentina has moved from producing large quantity, poor quality jug wine, to becoming the fifth largest exporter of wine in the world, with the demand ever growing. Even though Malbec is still the most commonly grown grape in Argentina, their wines have become so much more. I recently was in Argentina and was fortunate enough to visit two excellent growing regions: the Province of Mendoza, and also Cafayete, a winegrowing region in the Northwest Province of Salta.
Argentine wine production has its roots in Spain, from both the Spanish colonization of South America during the mid 1500s, and also from Jesuit missionaries who always seemed to bring wine along with the Word when bringing enlightenment to the heathens. It was quickly found that the western part of the country, along the Andes Mountains, has proper soil compositions and weather to grow excellent grapes. The major growing regions include Mendoza, San Juan, Salta, Catamarca, Rio Negro, Northern Patagonia, and just south of Buenos Aires. These regions are semi-arid, and irrigation from the perpetually snow capped peaks has been a part of vineyard management from almost the beginning.
These areas seldom have frost, but late summer hail can be a problem, and as a result, many of the vineyards, particularly in Mendoza, have complex netting to protect the vines from the potentially devastating effects hail can have on a crop. The soils are mostly alluvial and sandy, with some substrates of limestone and clay. Argentina’s most highly rated wines originate in two celebrated regions southwest of Mendoza. These regions are Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. These districts are located in the foothills of the Andes, with the majority of vineyards planted between 2,800 and 5,000 feet. There are two wineries in the more northern region of Salta that are actually planted between 7,000 and 9,900 feet! High altitude growth tends to focus Malbec with better balance, greater aromatics and excellent fruit forward character.
Argentina’s most important and widely planted red grape varietals include Cereza, Criolla Chica, Criolla Grande, Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Temperanillo, and Malbec. These are all influenced by years of Spanish, Italian, and French immigrants. While Malbec is born in Southwest France, and is a part of Bordeaux blend French Claret, and is still widely grown in Cahors, Malbec is king in Argentina, and actually looks and tastes differently than when grown in other parts of the world. French Malbec is one of the Noble grapes, and is usually more of a blending varietal, used for its inky color and intense fruity flavors in Bordeaux style wines. The Malbec of Argentina is a softer, less tannic, velvety manifestation. Its grape clusters have smaller sized berries and smaller clusters than those grown in France. Argentinian winemakers often have to closely manage the proper balance of 100% Malbec wines because the warm growing regions often produce riper tannins and lower acidity that have the potential to make the wines taste flabby and weak.
So why Malbec? How did this blending grape from France become the dominant varietal in Argentina? Malbec was introduced to Argentina in the mid 1800s by a French agronomist named Miguel Pouget, who had been hired to improve the overall quality of the winemaking industry in Argentina. Malbec was one of many vines he brought from France. In France, Malbec is difficult to grow. The vines are at a higher susceptibility to suffer from frost, rot and Coulure (a failure of grape berries to develop after flowering secondary to cold, damp weather, and extreme out of season temperatures). In the dry heat of Argentina, Malbec flourished and adapted to the varied terroirs, and altitudes. Argentina subsequently began to produce a wine from Malbec that was better than that produced in it’s original country. Malbec’s classic flavor profile includes intense dark color, red fruit aromas (cherries and strawberries), cooked fruit, non-aggressive tannins, and excellent fresh fruit character.
Argentina is unique in the major wine growing regions of the world in that Phylloxera has never been a major problem. The Phylloxera aphid-like insect is actually present in the soil, but it has been shown to be a particularly weak biotype that does not kill the vine roots. Reasons for Argentina’s protection are varied, meaning no one really knows, but explanations range from Argentina’s relative geographic isolation, to flood-type irrigation, to the weak Phylloxera biotype being able to successfully out compete its more devastating relative for dominance in the soil.
Nicholas Catena is a third generation winegrower in Mendoza, and the 2009 Decanter magazine Man of the year. His pioneering Catena Zapata Winery sets the standard for Argentinian wine production. In the early 1980s, Catena consulted with French vintner Jacques Lurton for help in taking his wines to the next level. After sampling one of his Cabernets, Lurton noted, “This wine is from a hot region. It reminds me of the Languedoc. You have the same problem as they do in Australia.” Catena came to the conclusion that to have great Argentinian wine, he would need vineyards growing at much lower temperatures. Establishing vines at higher altitudes was the answer to the temperature problem. He went against conventional wisdom and planted at different altitudes across varying microclimates, finding that at higher altitude, the lower temperatures and more intense sunlight seemed to smooth out tannins, and increase blue violet aromas. Today, Mendoza’s Uco Valley is the promised land of New World terroir in Argentina. For more on Nicholas Catena, check out the Decanter Man of the year interview with Nicholas Catena, from where much of this information was sourced at (http://www.decanter.com/people-and-places/wine-articles/484979/interview-with-nicolas-catena-decanter-man-of-the-year-2009#rTF0SbTsPuBWYya8.99).
I went to three wineries in the northern Salta province of Cafayete. This area boast of some of the highest elevations in the world planted with vineyards (3,050 meters). The climate has ultra low humidity-, and the soil is quite sandy. We went to three medium sized vineyards – the largest (Domingo Hernandez) produces 4 million cases per year- yes, in Argentina, that is medium sized. The Bodegas (wineries) specialize in the white Torrontes grape. It is interesting in that Torrontes is very aromatic and floral on the nose, but quite dry in the mouth, and has a short finish. Overall, I did enjoy them, and I think they are worth the price down here ($5-10 US dollars). They remind me of Riesling, and they produce quite a few off-dry Torrontes wines that would really remind one of a California Riesling– not really my cup of tea. Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Bernardo, with Malbec being 90% of what’s available, dominate the red wines produced in Cafayete. I find these wines to be sharp, not complex table wines. My wife came up with baked beans as a descriptor. Now to be fair, we were not able to go to the top producers in the region in terms of reputation for quality, but we had some of these wines at various restaurants. Every “top quality” wine we have had from this region has been good but not great.
We effectively visited five wineries in Mendoza, and we found some truly outstanding Malbecs. We started out at Bodega Alto Vista, and had many excellent wines, including by far the best Torrontes I had on the trip. Alto Vista is a very modern winery with a clearly high level of quality control. We worked our way up through their list of wines- each one better than anything I have had anywhere else in Argentina. Their flagship wine “Alto” was a blend of 75% Malbec, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, and a smattering of other grapes (Bernardo). Parker rated this one a 95. Needless to say, I bought a case.
The next winery was Casarena, and this was my favorite winery to visit in all of Argentina. Their winemaker used to be assistant winemaker at Catena Zapata, but left for Casarena because he was allowed more flexibility in winery experimentation and individual expression.
Casarena’s “Jumilla’a Vineyard 2010” Malbec was awarded “Best Malbec in the World” by Decanter Magazine… I bought three cases.
The third winery was “Domingo de la Plata “. The wines were quite good, but what was great was the incredible lunch we had- paired with their wines. Really excellent! This is something unexpected about Argentinian wines; they are great with food. Slightly lower in alcohol than most New World wines, many of the wines we had on our trip paired excellently with the Argentinian cuisine.
The fourth winery was Catena Zapata. As previously mentioned, Catena has been a part of the winemaking landscape in Mendoza for over 100 years and four generations. This winery is one of the largest importers to the USA. Their main winery building was fashioned to look like an Aztec pyramid. Catena Zapata is known for some of the highest vineyards planted in the world (5,000 feet). The tour was decent but somewhat sterile- given actually by someone from British Columbia, and they poured their middle of the road wines-, which were still excellent. I bought three of their high end Malbecs. The last winery was actually the winery at our boutique hotel (Finca Adalesia), located in the region of Lujn de Cuyo. Every evening they would serve complementary wines from their small production, with Tapas. I have now had several of their Cab blends and their Malbec– both quite good, better than I expected for their production size. Unfortunately, their wines are not available in the US, but I do recommend Finca Adalesia as a great place to stay for anyone who is travelling to Argentina.
Malbec was a relatively unknown quantity until the demand in the 1990s woke up Argentina to the true value of its star grape. In Argentina, Malbec has come into its own, with a style, flavor profile and texture unique to Argentina and it’s high altitude vineyards. Argentinian wines can easily compete with the best of the wines in the world, and continue to benefit from enhanced vineyard and winemaking techniques. I look forward to increasing the presence of Mendoza wine in my cellar. That’s all for now