Posted on | February 1, 2012
Written by | Jim Clarke
You might not realize it from scanning the Argentina sections of American wine shops, but only a third of Argentina’s red wine grape plantings are Malbec. Indeed, Malbec has the hot hand; exports to the U.S. have been rising consistently for the past several years, accounting for almost 60% of their wine exports (red and white) in 2010. Nonetheless, Argentine producers are increasingly looking to other varieties, wary of the dangers of putting all their eggs in one basket. “I think what we need to do is give people more chances to try our other varietals,” says Matias Fragas, export general manager for Ernesto Catena Vineyards. “They will certainly find the ‘Argentina’ signature when they taste.”
A signature white makes a logical complement to Malbec, and Torrontés is the most viable contender. Fragas says about three times as much Torrontés is harvested than Chardonnay, their second most-planted white. It constitutes only 4% of exports to the U.S. at the moment, but that number has been growing dramatically. There are actually three varieties using the name, Torrontés Sanjuanino, Torrontés Mendocino, and Torrontés Riojano; the latter is the most highly regarded of the three. It’s believed to be a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica, and the former’s aromatic contribution is quite apparent, supported by fresh acidity when grown in cool, high altitude vineyards in the La Rioja and Salta regions, the small town of Cafayate in particular.
Altitude is Key
A second red is also a possibility. “At Nieto we feel the varietal that shows the greatest potential after Malbec is Bonarda,” says Guillermo Brandariz, regional manager at Nieto Senetiner. With over 50,000 acres, mostly in Mendoza, it’s the country’s second most-planted red. “If we compare Bonarda in Mendoza to its native northern Italy, there are some stark contrasts. In Mendoza, especially at the higher altitudes where Nieto grows Bonarda, the grape gives highly concentrated, full-bodied wines with dark color, ripe red fruit flavors and smooth, sweet tannins.” Some research suggests Bonarda has nothing to do with the Italian variety of the same name but is instead actually Corbeau, a rare variety from the Savoie region of France. In any case, Branariz says high-altitude vineyards and controlling yields are essential to making quality Bonarda.
However, Argentina doesn’t need to rely on specialty varieties to sell wine; so-called international varieties also do well there. Nicolas Catena, patriarch of the family behind the eponymous Catena wines as well as brands like Luca, Alma Negra, and Tikal, says he visited California in the 1980s and was inspired by what he found in Napa and Sonoma; when he returned home he planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay and applied the techniques he had seen in California.
Jacques Lurton consulted for Catena early on, and was unimpressed. “He told me, ‘This Cabernet tastes like Languedoc Cabernet’,” says Catena. “It put me in mind on the topic of average temperature, and I immediately started thinking of planting in cooler climate,” an approach which has since done well for Cabernet as well as many other varieties. “In Argentina, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the varietals that do best after Malbec,” says Fragas. “As far as the difference with Cab and Chards from other parts of the world, I think that the altitude of the vineyards, the lack of rain and the sunlight exposure clearly give distinctive characteristic to our wines, both in texture and aromatics. What most exporting wineries have to agree on is a common strategy to support Cabernet Sauvignon as our second flagship varietal.”
While Torrontés, Bonarda, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon battle it out for the role of Malbec’s sidekick, some wineries are exploring other grapes. Pinot Noir is taking hold in Patagonia, to the south of Mendoza, where it even gets cool enough for sparkling wine production. Syrah accounts for one-eighth of the country’s red wine vineyards, and it, too, has its winemaker at Bodega Vistalba, singles out Syrah from the Uco Valley for spice and herb notes not found in wines from other regions like San Juan.
The Zuccardi family in Mendoza grows over 31 varieties, including unusual ones like Caladoc, a Grenache-Malbec cross, and Tempranillo. They bottle the latter both as a varietal wine and as part of their flagship ‘Zeta’ blend, together with Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. Multivariety blends are relatively uncommon,but Canovas, who makes three blends for Vistalba, says blending is a logical response to Argentina’s terroir:“In Argentina there are various terroirs that suit a wide range of varieties” ranging from Torrontés to lesser known grapes like Semillon and Petit Verdot.
In the end even Malbec itself may not be as monolithic and consistent as it seems. “I think it is more about the terroir, but even we as Argentineans are still learning about it, says Fragas. “A winemaker very close to us always says that we need to put the ‘last name’ to Malbec, and I agree. If in 3 years from now U.S. wine drinkers ask for a Malbec from ‘Vista Flores’ or ‘Gualtallary’ or ‘Agrelo,’ [three sub-regions of Mendoza] then we would have really achieved something exceptional.”
The annual Argentina Wine Awards are organized to help promote exports. The 2011 event featured a blind judging by 12 international sommeliers and seven Argentine experts. Of 17 table wines that earned a Trophy—the highest distinction awarded—only four were Malbecs. Find a complete list of medal winners at winesofargentina.org.
White Trophy Wines
■ Callia 2010 Reserve Torrontés
■ Doña Paula Estate 2010 Sauvignon Blanc
■ Xumek 2010 Chardonnay
Red Trophy Wines
■ Argento 2009 Bonarda
■ Kaiken 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon
■ Amado Sur (Trivento) 2009 Red Blend
■ Broquel (Trapiche) 2009 Malbec
■ La Mascota (Santa Ana) 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon
■ Benvenuto de La Serna 2006 Trisagio Red Blend
■ Trivento 2008 Golden Reserve Syrah
■ Punto Final 2008 Reserva Malbec
■ Bramare (Viña Cobos) 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon
■ Caro (Rothschild-Catena) 2007 Red Blend
■ Las Moras 2006 Gran Shiraz Zonda Valley
■ Bramare (Viña Cobos) 2008 Rebon Vyd. Malbec
■ Lindaflor 2006 Malbec
■ Felix Blend 2007 Red Blend