Think Argentina and think Malbec. That was the tagline commonly used to get people acquainted with Argentinian wines. While the French originated thick skin inky black grape remains popular for making wines in this South America country, others are blending Malbec with European varieties to create a fresh expression. An expression that potentially might change the market perception of Argentinian wines.
Argentina, the second largest country in the South America continent, famous for its Asado barbecue, home of Maradona and, of course, his notorious la mano de Dios. This is where vines can be found over 2,000 kilometres running from Salta to Patagonia. By contrast, the north to south of France (Reims to Languedoc-Roussillon) is slightly over 700 kilometres. Spanning about 17° southwards from the Tropic of Capricorn, Argentina is a vast wine country with geographical extremities.
Barely south from the Tropic of Capricorn, the low-land of northern regions experience warm continental climate that yield high sugar, low acid grapes that are usually fitting for table wines. To overcome this unfavourable condition, the only solution (and the first extremity) for quality wine-making is to go up. In Salta, it is not uncommon to find vineyards growing at altitude that would have been unthinkable by old world standards. Take the highest vineyard as an example, Bodega Colomé, a property of Hess Family, stands around 10,000 feet or 3,111 metres above sea level.
Down south in the regions of Neuquén and Rio Negro, vines grow at a considerably lower altitude between 1,000 and 1,600 feet. But even so, this is ten times higher than the highest elevation of Médoc. Listrac-Médoc is a mere 129 feet but the highest in Médoc peninsula. The second extremity of Argentina is the vineyards here share the same latitude as the South Island of New Zealand, making them some of the most southerly wine regions in the world.
But the bulk and most reputable of Argentina wine regions lies somewhere in the central. Mendoza accounts for seventy percent of the total acreage and several famous brands like Bodegas Caro, Masi Tupungato, Cantina Zapata, Trivento and many others are found here.
Although Argentina is known as a new world wine country, vine planting started as early as mid 16th century to satisfy the strong demand for sacramental wines. Father Juan Cedrón, whose name is immortalized today as San Juan, brought the “Mission” vine cuttings from Chile Central Valley into Argentina. Before the end of 20th century, Argentinian wines were mainly quantity focused and catered to suit local consumption. In late 1990s, local wine consumption decreased and it became essential to improve quality over quantity. From then, the wine industry began to enjoy increased attention internationally and attracted foreign investments that will shape the wine-scape we know today.
During the recent Wines of Argentina tasting, Masi Tupungato and Cheval des Andes were introduced along with other great producers but I will keep the following short and touched only on three wines.
The Italian Masi family introduced two things to Argentina. One, the Corvina grape used in the red wines of Valpolicella and two, the appassimento method used in the making of Amarone. Two signatures of Veneto added a twist to the traditional Malbec and a new blend known as “Corbec” was produced. Masi Tupungato Corbec Rosso di Argentina 2008 showed strong red berries aroma with hints of dried fruits developed after aeration. Ripe fruit sweetness on palate with smooth tannins. Intense, ripe and highly approachable. This will appeal to our market, if the price is right.
The Bordeaux right bank Cheval Blanc makes a Bordeaux left bank wine “Cheval des Andes”. Possibly with higher proportion of Malbec than Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2007 “Cheval des Andes” presented aromas of earthiness, ripe black fruits and small hint of leafiness. The palate remained firm with both tannins and acid but the lushness is more pronounced than a Bordeaux left bank. The overall balance achieved by masking green pepper of Cabernet with black fruits of Malbec, yet without losing the structure for further ageing is in one word, remarkable.
Shiraz is like an alien in Argentina, a variety seldom come across among South America wines. Although the initial impression from 2009 Finca Las Moras Gran Shiraz resembled the fullness expression commonly found in South Australian Shiraz, the alcohol effect was less pronounced. Smoky, chocolate and sweet spices aromas were presented along with chewy, juicy palate that liven with fresh fruity acid.
To sum it up, Argentina will continue to show great potential as the cradle for exciting and creative wine blends. With recent years of experimentation, the industry and the land have demonstrated its capacity to handle a range of varieties that can greatly change people’s perception.
For now. Think Argentina, think Malbec blends.
Cover photo courtesy of Gerard Zhang