Paint It Red
Q: What ever happened to the Australian wine industry?
A: The Argentine wine industry.
Alright, alright … yes, that’s a bit (maybe a big bit) of an oversimplification of a multifaceted economic issue that resulted not only from a shift in taste preference, but also in currency valuations and weather patterns. Yet from the consumer’s perspective, the appearance of Fuzion was a death knell for Yellow Tail.
Many industry watchdogs will claim that Australia shot itself in the foot by promoting its bottom-tier bargain juice over the truly good stuff (a claim even winemakers like Bruce Tyrell admit to be true. See quench.me/thirst/australian-wines/). But wine drinkers looking for maximum ka-boom at minimum ka-ching (and there are plenty of them out there) have also helped cook the wallaby wine market. I mean, the choice between a $13 Aussie “critter” Shiraz and a $7 Argentine Malbec is a no-brainer. If you can snare two bottles of big, jammy, slightly sweet red for the price of one, then Argentine trumps Antipodean.
So good on the Argentines, right? Well, yes and no. It’s great to see the historically domestic market branching aggressively into that of the export. However, flooding global shelves with inexpensive vino tinto might see Argentine winemakers crying into their (possibly Australian) beer. Having, in a sense, lowered the price bar for drinkable red wine even further, how is the Argentine wine industry to avoid winning (or losing as the case may be) the race to the bottom of the barrel? After all, you can only go so low.
Luckily, Argentina certainly has the potential to create world-class wine (a potential currently being realized), not just commercial plonk. Combine this with the skills of a new breed of winemakers, some with global experience — and global success — and you have a recipe that yields much more than drinkable wine…perhaps much more than Malbec.
Enough has been written in these pages (and others) about the history of the wine industry in Argentina to merit a lengthy dissertation. In a nutshell, wine has been produced in Argentina since the 1500s during the time of the Spanish colonization. For most of its history, the country’s wine industry focused on supplying large quantities of wine to slake the thirst of the local population.
“Until the late 1980s, Argentina was probably the worst wine producing country in the world,” asserts California vintner Paul Hobbs, who, having established a number of successful partnerships in California, has recreated this success in Argentina with Viña Cabos. “Wine was strictly for consuming, not selling in bottle,” he explains, “and for the most part it was all oxidized; there was really no concept of how to make good wine.”
When the game changed radically in the mid to late 1980s, it was thanks in large part to the pioneering efforts of local winemaker Nicolás Catena, whose epiphany came while in the Napa Valley (and who took inspiration from Robert Mondavi’s contribution to the wine scene there). For Hobbs, a similar epiphany occurred on a road trip from Santiago, Chile, to Mendoza, Argentina, in the late 1980s.
“I saw what was possible,” he recounts. “There was a strong culture of wine, but a lack of practical knowledge. The vineyards were poorly farmed. The vines, especially Malbec, were over irrigated and in an effort to mitigate the threat of hail, trained far too low to the ground.” However, he saw a strong work ethic in the people and the potential in the land to support a world-class wine industry. “What I saw,” he says, “was an unpainted canvass.”
Transforming this canvas into a vinous Rembrandt is today still something of a work in progress, but the “big picture” (as it were) is coming together.
First, there was the matter of appropriate grape varieties. This meant finding alternatives to the ubiquitous, high-yielding numbers like Cereza and Criolla Grande. The Grape Red Hope was ultimately to be Malbec. And, like it or loathe it, it’s still front and centre for many winemakers like Gonzalo Bertelsen, General Manager and Chief Winemaker at Mendoza’s Finca el Origen. He feels the rediscovery of Malbec in the vineyards of Argentina has been the most exciting development he has seen in the country’s wine industry “by far.”
“Malbec represents sixty per cent of our total bottle sales,” he reveals, adding that his vineyards also produce a significant amount of the variety for sale to other wineries. Bodega Trivento’s winemaker Germán di Césare is also keen on Malbec. “Malbec is the main actor in our portfolio these days. It is in every wine in our range and to this day remains the most popular grape variety in our country.” When you taste wines like the Finca el Origen “Gran Reserva” Malbec or the Trivento “Golden Reserve” Malbec you start to see why winemakers in Argentina are excited about its future.
The other grape that seems to be gaining a fair bit of traction — or at least a fair bit of attention — is Bonarda (a.k.a. Douce noir, a.k.a. Charbono, a.k.a. a pile of other names). Its potential has yet to be proven and winemakers appear to be of two minds about it. Bertelsen seems somewhat ambivalent, saying that he uses it in some blends, in some years. He puts more faith in the potential for high-end Syrah. Di Césare is a bit more inspired: “We have a lot of faith in that in several years [Bonarda] will achieve the popularity of Malbec.”
Hobbs probably just as happy to leave this variety to the believers like di Césare. He’s staking the future of his South American venture in noble French varietals and is especially excited about the potential for the Bordelais black grape triumvirate.
“Malbec is easy,” he asserts, “it just needs water. We have the promise of fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.” Hobbs is certainly not downplaying the importance of Malbec in his portfolio. After all, it was the first wine made at Viña Cobos and it received tremendous accolades. He just has his sights set beyond the boundaries of this single grape.
Now, you can have the best grape varieties, but unless they are planted in the right places, the masterpiece you seek to create will remain elusive. Like Chile, South Africa and practically every winegrowing country on earth, winemakers in Argentina are becoming increasingly focused on trying to match specific grape varieties to unique terroir.
“In our case [site selection] is the most important thing,” admits di Césare. “The vineyard selection is critical because it is where the whole process begins. Each site provides different characteristics to the wine, so we plant according to the wine we want to produce.”
Bertelsen expands on this idea: “Every vineyard suits a particular vine and wine,” he emphasizes. “And even within the same vineyard we see big differences in how the vines behave depending on weather, grape variety, soil, rootstock, irrigation, canopy management, hang time, and so on.” He notes that Merlot wines made from fruit grown in the eastern part of Mendoza are typically very different than those using fruit sourced from the western part of the region, which is 600 metres higher. Césare concurs with Bertelsen’s assessment of the impact of elevation. “High altitude vineyards provide a wide temperature range. Low temperatures at night and higher temperatures during the day make for perfect conditions for the harvesting of perfectly ripened fruit.”
For Hobbs, site selection is critical for high-quality fruit. The vines for the Viña Cobos wines are planted in numerous high elevation vineyards throughout the Uco Valley and the department of Luján de Cuyo. The soils in these vineyards tend to be poor in organic material and blessed with deep layers of rock and mineral, as well as good drainage, resulting in fruit with concentration, structure, and complexity.
Though the country has a long history of winemaking, the production of premium quality wines that can go head-to-head with the best in the world has been a relatively recent phenomenon. However, judging by the red wines being made by the likes of Hobbs, Bertelsen, and di Césare, the memory of the country’s winemaking past is melting away as a new industry rises in the shadows of the Andes.