One visit and you’ll be entranced. A complex and richly compelling country, Argentina defies easy analysis. Wine, though, plays a huge role in defining the nation’s culture.
Only recently overtaken by the United States, Argentina stood as the fifth largest wine producer in the world — imagine that. And the wines were rarely seen outside the country. The main reason for this is that Argentines just drank it all themselves. Buenos Aires, which translates as “good winds,” numbers some twelve million inhabitants — known to the rest of their countrymen as Porteños, meaning “from the port” — and they’re all clearly thirsty.
The culture of the city and most of southern Argentina is almost entirely European, with Spanish and Italian immigrants everywhere. And these ordinary folk brought the vines of their homelands with them. Far more than anywhere in the New World, wine became the everyday beverage of the people. Local wines were consumed in copious quantities and for the most part, quality took second place to quantity.
All of this has changed. Spurred on by the successful example of neighbouring Chile, the wines of Argentina have rapidly improved. It is becoming clear that Argentina’s vast wine regions are capable of producing some of the finest wines in the world.
My first destination, though, lay further afield.
Up on high
Cafayate, in the remote and breathtaking Calchaquí Valleys, is about 800 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, close to the borders with Bolivia and Paraguay. From historic Salta City, the drive to Cafayate covers 100 miles or so through a winding, increasingly stark landscape reminiscent of Colorado or Arizona. As the green valleys all around unfold, you get the unreal sense of having arrived in another world.
Here, surrounded by vineyards some 1,700 metres above sea level, is the beautiful Spanish colonial Bodega El Esteco, a winery and hotel/wine spa owned by Michel Torino. The unique location boasts nearly 340 days of sunshine per year. The high altitude and dry atmosphere is extremely healthy and the usual vineyard pests and diseases are almost non-existent. Days are very hot and sunny, and temperatures cool off rapidly at night. This combination produces remarkably ripe fruit, which is also vibrantly fresh. The unique qualities of this remote region have attracted the likes of celebrated French oenologist Michel Rolland and Donald Hess, of California fame, both of whom have established wineries here.
During my visit in early March, harvesting was underway at Michel Torino’s certified-organic vineyard. The grapes are picked by hand, and rigorous organic standards carry through from harvesting through vinification and aging. The vineyard itself is much less manicured than the rest of the estate. This is part of the organic design. The wines from this vineyard are also made in a natural style, which helps retain a certain rustic character. Most of Cafayate’s vineyards are now switching to drip irrigation, which conserves water and provides better control over vine growth. The organic vineyard, though, continues to use the ancient “flood” system. Water comes through irrigation channels from the nearby mountains, a technique that dates back to the Incas.
Alejandro Nesman, the assistant winemaker at El Esteco, guided me through a tasting of barrel samples. Most interesting were the reds, which had been in the barrel for some time. I could glimpse the wave of the future for Argentine wines. Bonarda, a widely planted grape in Argentina, has so far largely been used for blending or to produce easy-drinking, fruity young wines. As the 2005 barrel sample clearly showed, it is now being treated more seriously and obviously has great potential. The 2005 will be included in the top Torino blend, Altimus, but it should also, I hope, be bottled as a single varietal. Even more impressive was the 2005 Tannat. More austere than the attractively fruity Bonarda and very tannic, it had great structure, powerful fruit and long ageability. The 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, which had been in the barrel for only three months, showed plenty of elegant fruit and excellent varietal character. All this bodes well for the potential of Cafayate.
One grape, two grape
Argentina’s signature white is Torrontés. Cafayate’s unique conditions have fostered some of the finest examples of this variety to date. The grape is related to Muscat and, at its best, is light on the palate, with an attractively floral, citrusy and lightly honeyed character. Poorer wines can lack acidity and tend toward bitterness. Cafayate producers Quara, Laborum, José Mounier and Michel Torino’s Don David are among the best.
About 60 miles south of Cafayate lies Santa Maria. Here, modern irrigation techniques are only just beginning to turn arid desert soil into vineyards. Andrés Hoy, Michel Torino’s Danish-born production manager, showed off a now-thriving vineyard that was completely devoid of organic material before planting. Andrés is also a keen amateur historian of the region. In planting the new vineyards, workers uncovered ancient ritual burial sites. He showed off one such site that the winery has carefully protected while archaeologists complete their excavation.
A star in our midst?
Some 600 miles west of Buenos Aires lies the semi-arid Mendoza region, bordering the the Andes that separate Argentina from Chile. Mendoza is considered the Bordeaux of Argentina, accounting for some 60 per cent of the country’s vineyards. Here, near-arid soils are extensively irrigated using glacier melt waters from the high Andes. Without this liquid gold, agriculture of any sort would be impossible.
During my visit to the giant Trapiche winery, chief winemaker Daniel Pi stressed that Mendoza’s climate is so reliable that vintage differences are less influenced by weather than by the rapidly growing knowledge of how to handle the vines.
Malbec is now well-established as Argentina’s signature red varietal. Tannat and Bonarda are also clearly starting to make waves. Trapiche has even sponsored DNA research into Bonarda’s origins and discovered its parentage in Italy’s Piedmont region and in a couple of French varieties as well.
The 2005 Broquel Bonarda has smoky tobacco notes on the nose and is loaded with ripe plum, crushed berry and currant flavours, backed by firm tannins and finishing with cocoa butter and spice. Definitely a crowd pleaser!
The 2004 Medalla comes from the Cruz de Piedra vineyard, which lies at 850 metres above sea level. The wine is hugely complex, rounded and perfumed with plum-cake richness on the palate and is seamlessly integrated throughout. It sells in the $50 range and is well worth it.
The 2004 Iscay is the fruit of a collaboration between Daniel Pi and Michel Rolland. The bouquet has Bordeaux-like elegance, although the fruit shows more opulence and intensity. It needs at least three years in the cellar.
Starting with the 2003 vintage, Daniel Pi and his winemaking team set out to find the best single-vineyard Malbec they could lay their hands on. Trapiche relies on many independent growers whose vineyards span the entire range and diversity of Mendoza. They selected the best three from each harvest, which were subsequently bottled and released as single-vineyard wines.
The 2004 “winners” were extraordinary wines that demonstrate that Mendoza Malbec ranks as a true international classic.
Viña Carlos Gei Berra in Lunlunta, in the Maipú department, showed great complexity — deep plum and dark berry and deeper brooding notes of cassis, dark chocolate and a dusting of cinnamon and some clove spiciness; rich, thick chocolate texture encased sweet ripe fruit with chewy tannins and plum-cake fruit, spice and oak on the finish. This aging-worthy wine should be cellared for seven to ten years.
Viña Pedro Gonzales from El Cepito, San Carlos department, which, at 1,038 metres, is one of the coolest areas of Mendoza. On the nose, this one was more grapey, with raisiny dried-fruit character and dry spice, quite subtle, but reminiscent of southern Rhône wines. On the palate, intense dark plum and prune flavours were backed by firm dry tannins, smoothed out by rounded chocolate and lingering raisin and spice on the finish. This wine, however, had less volume in the mouth and felt a bit one-dimensional.
Last of the trio was Viña Victorio Coletto in El Peral, located in Tupungato in the Uco Valley, one of the finest sites in Mendoza. Altitude at vineyard-level is 1,127 metres, resting on the edge of the Andes. The bouquet was the most elegant of the three, showing deep, developed black plum, cedary pencil box, tobacco smoke and a confection of subtle spices. Plum and cherry fruit were partially obscured by stiff youthful tannins with well-integrated dark plum, chocolate, sweet spice and subtle embracing oak on the finish. It needs eight to ten years.
Big & beautiful
The San Juan region lies 100 miles due north of Mendoza, along a sun-baked flat plain with the Andean foothills, or “pre-Andes,” always visible to the west. It gets oppressively hot here, and large areas are very arid — the area experiences an amazing 330 days of sunshine every year.
San Juan’s Finca Las Moras, in the Tulum Valley, is a modern winery that belongs to the giant Penaflor group. I tasted the Las Moras range with winemaker Eduardo Casademont and viticulturist Claudio Rodríguez. Among the wines were several pre-release 2006 samples that had been specially bottled for the occasion — a real treat for me. Of the several Black Label–level wines, the 2005 Syrah really stood out as a refined, complex and aging-worthy wine, demonstrating the obviously great potential for this grape in San Juan. The 2004 Mora Negra, a blend of Malbec (70%) and Bonarda (30%) is aged fifteen months in new French and American oak. An impressive and powerful wine, it needs a bare minimum of three years’ cellaring, more likely seven to ten years before showing its best.
The Mora Negra, and the world of wines I tasted on this trip, gave me a good idea of what Argentina is coming to. We could hardly imagine it before, but now the floodgates are truly open. And when it comes to good wine, the best thing to do is let it flow.