I was having dinner recently at the home of my good friend and local chef David Radwine. The group at dinner was a mix of local restaurant people and serious foodies. It seemed to me a great chance to do some research on what people knew about Argentina and the wines produced there.
Once we got past Eva Peron and Argentinian beef, it was clear that folks knew little about the wines. I then asked what questions they had about wines from Argentina:
Do they make red or white wine in Argentina?
They produce both in Argentina, with more red being produced than white, only natural in a meat-driven food culture. Surprisingly, they also make first-rate sparkling wines and some delicious, full-bodied, dry Rose wines.
Where did the grapevines come from?
Many of the early settlers in Argentina came from Italy, and they brought vine cuttings and knowledge of winemaking with them.
What grape varieties are used in Argentina?
Initially many of the grape varieties used were of Italian origin, grapes such as Bonarda, Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio. During the past several decades more classic French grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Malbec have been introduced.
Where are grapes grown in Argentina?
Grapes are grown in many regions, but the heart of wine country is Mendoza. Mendoza is located in far western Argentina in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. In reality it is much closer to Santiago, Chile, than to Buenos Aires. The Mendoza region has several other unique characteristics in that it is at a high elevation with vineyards often 5,000 feet above sea level. Some are even higher.
Secondly, it is an arid region, basically high desert. Winemaking only exists because of the proximity of the Andes and the snowmelt water that is used for irrigation.
Finally, the ozone layer in this region is thin so the sunlight is intense, allowing full ripening of the grapes.
Because of the high altitude, the evenings are cool, which maintains good balance and acidity in the grapes. Two other up-and-coming regions are Salta, which lies farther north and is even higher with many vineyards at 7,000 feet above sea level.
Farther south we find the vineyards of northern Patagonia, a much cooler climate than Mendoza and a region showing great promise with Pinot Noir.
I have tried several Malbecs. Why do they taste so different from each other?
Malbec originated in Bordeaux, France, where it is often blended in small amounts into their red wines. In Argentina, the growing conditions are perfect for this difficult-to-ripen grape, and it achieves quality levels not seen anywhere else. That said, different producers aim for different styles and, honestly, some are still searching for their style. This leads to some light, fruity wines, some earthy, funky wines and some rich, complex and ageworthy wines. If you don't have time to learn about the producers, make sure your wine merchant does and can steer you to a style you will like.
To me, one of the interesting things about the wines is that they deliver great quality at a wide range of price points, from inexpensive up to expensive, world-caliber wines. A great introduction to white wines is the Falling Star Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon for $6. It's lively and invigorating, and with its bright citrus character it is perfect on a warm summer day.
Los Cardos Chardonnay, $10, is a nicely balanced white with bright fruit, small amounts of oak and a beautiful, creamy texture on the palate. This producer also makes an excellent Cabernet Sauvignon at the same price.
Torrontes is a grape that is unique to Argentina. It produces medium-bodied white wines with distinct floral aromas. Some are sweet, but most are dry. I suggest the refreshing Urban Uco Torrontes, $8, or the more robust Jelu Torrontes, $14.
Finally, do not miss the spectacular Inacayal Pinot Grigio, $15 and worth every penny. This rich, full-bodied wine puts most Italian and all California Pinot Grigio to shame.
On the red wine front, Malbec is the most important grape. However, in the past five years, we have seen excellent wines produced from Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and even Tempranillo. All of these wines are natural matches with the flavorful, grass-fed beef from the vast Pampas of Argentina. We are also beginning to see nice quality Pinot Noir and small amounts of superb Cabernet Franc coming into the U.S. market, in the past several years.
A great start in Argentinian red is the medium-bodied, slightly smoky Trapiche Pinot Noir, $8. Cicchitti makes a brilliant blend of Malbec, Cabernet and Merlot, $15.
This full-bodied, well-balanced wine is a superb value. The Catena Family is an icon of the Argentinian wine world. And its gorgeous winery, designed in the form of a Mayan temple, stands as a symbol of the progress Argentina has made. It produces an entry-level series of wines named "Tilia" after a local species of tree. Selling at $10 they are a great introduction to the Catena style.
Next come the Catena Estate wines, which set the benchmark for all other producers. Their Malbec at $20 is a full-bodied, silky, seductive wine. Catena also produces a higher tier of wines known as Catena Alta, which are priced in the $25-$40 range.
Finally, Catena Alta makes a wine named "Malbec Argentino." This is a blend of grapes from several of its finest vineyards, and it is without a doubt the greatest example of Malbec the world has seen. It has received great acclaim from the top wine critics and while expensive and hard to find, it is worth the effort.
Story published Friday, September 4, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 5 )