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By Andrea Gillies
Harper Collins PublishersCopyright © 2003 Andrea Gillies All right reserved. ISBN: 0060534478
Some wine critics say that it's full steam ahead for Argentina now, and watch out world, following the phenomenally good 1999 vintage. Others warn that Argentina is faltering, stuck in a formulaic rut (Chile and South Africa also get this criticism). What's clear is that Argentina has embarked on a season of change, and while whites are perhaps a bit rustic, reds are improving in leaps and bounds, particularly with European varietals like Tempranillo (Spain), Sangiovese (Italy) and Syrah (France). There is, it's true, a lot of cheap dull wine. But there is also lots of cheap exciting wine of a quality hard to find elsewhere - this is still a good country for wine under $8. More excitingly, there is more and more world class red. It's slower to come than predicted, but it's still coming.
There's still a strong feeling that Argentina is a sleeping giant. A few producers with imagination are creating the reputation, but there are also 2000 wineries out there plodding along like they always have, making rustic wine for the home market. In Argentina it's still important to look to the producer rather than the grape variety or region. La Agricola (Familia Zuccardi Q, Santa Julia, Picajuan Peak), Balbi, Bianchi, Catena, Esmeralda (Alamos, Catena, Argento),Etchart, Fabre Montmayou, Lurton, Norton, Trapiche and Weinert are some of the names to keep an eye out for.
Mendoza, the engine room of the Argentinian wine industry, produces 80% of Argentinian wine. It's 1000 miles inland from the Atlantic, protected from the Pacific by the Andes, and only 100 miles east of Santiago, Chiles capital, though mountains over 20,000 feet high separate the two countries. Most vineyards are planted on scrubby rocky soil; there's good drainage, but low rainfall, so irrigation is the key. Some old Inca irrigation systems are still in use. The looming presence of mountains also means that cool microclimates can be used for whites and for cool-climate loving reds, so Argentina has immense vinous versatility. This is, incredibly, the fifth largest wine producer in the world by volume, though the wine industry here is really only five years old as a quality industry, since the rapturous reception given to the 1996 vintage. The home market still tends to prefer its wine oaky and "winey" in an old-fashioned sense, rather than fruity, so producers tend to make wine in two styles, one for home and another, more fruit-driven, for export. The quality of fruit is breathtakingly good and growing conditions, in a good year, so perfect that, as in Chile, grape varieties can have an astonishing intensity.
Another reason Argentinian wine has such fruity purity is the good dean air and water of the Andean foothills - very little herbicide is used here, and indeed La Agricola is in the process of going totally organic. Agricola's vineyards are extraordinary - not only do they use the old-fashioned canopy system in which fruit hangs down freely from its roof of leaves, but they have state-of-the-art anti-hail nets (hail is a big problem in Mendoza) and anti-frost lamps. If the temperature falls below a certain level members of an anti-frost hit squad are called from their beds to come and ward off the cold.
Waves of immigration. have made the Argentinian wine culture the way it is - the French brought Merlot, Cabernet and Malbec, the Italians Barbera and Sangiovese (via 18th century monks), the Spanish Torrontés and Tempranillo. Now foreign input is important again as a huge influx of investment and expertise takes hold. It's beginning to pay off. 1999 was a great year and the way ahead looks very rosy.
1998 was troubled, because of El Niño reeking its customary havoc, but '99 was excellent. 2000 was again troubled by harsh weather at harvest. Quantity will be down but quality good at the better end. Look out for '99s lingering on shelves. 1995/6/7 were excellent vintages.
Chardonnay World class Chardonnay was expected but Argentina hasn't delivered yet, though there are noble exceptions. There has been a tapering-off at the top end, though the mid-range is stuffed with goodies. Argento Chardonnay is amazing value at just $8. Creamy, oaked Chardonnays are the coming thing, with rich, buttery, nutty flavors. More tropical notes are beginning to appear - the trick is to keep these blowsy, ripe exotic characteristics in check.
♦ Lost Pampas Oaked Chardonnay • Argento Chardonnay • Bright Brothers San Juan Chardonnay • Martins Chardonnay
♦♦ Viña Amalia Chardonnay • Alamos Chardonnay • Santa Julia Reserve Chardonnay • Catena Chardonnay, Agrelo vineyards
Chardonnay Blends There's great potential here but very little coming through as yet. Semillon is a big hit in Australia so ought to translate well to Argentinian conditions.
♦ Norton Semillon Chardonnay
Chenin Blanc Argentina hasnt really got to grips with Chenin yet. Retailers have cut their Chenin wines as a result. Whether Argentina will persist with Chenin experiments remains to be seen. Previous attempts have been thin and too cheap, rather like the dire Chenin lake of the Cape. Bad ones are lean and thin, or pointlessly fat and very dull to drink. Good ones are both crisp and rich, perhaps with delicate pear fruit and a hint of lanolin.
Pinot Gris Most Argentinian Pinot Gris underwhelm, but the good ones have apricot subtlety and a delicate fresh dryness.
♦ Bodega Lurton Pinot Gris • Corazon Pinot Gris
Torrontés It was said that Torrontés had the potential to become another Chardonnay but only a few producers seem to be able to make it work. This is surprising because at its best Torrontés is a deliciously creamy, nutty, spicy white. Unfortunately most is overcropped, high yields leading to dilute flavors. Badly made examples abound, many with a curiously synthetic, perfumy note.
♦ Norton Torrontés
Excerpted from Wine Guide by Andrea Gillies
Copyright © 2003 by Andrea Gillies
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.