From 2009 to 2015 I lived and consulted in Argentina. During most of that time I was involved with promoting tourism so I was not writing critically about the region. The following two essays sum up my experience with region, the first an unflinching look at the industry, and the second, my love letter to my favorite wineries.
A look at the state of affairs in the Argentine wine industry
Argentina has a long, but only recently distinguished, history of making wines. For generations the emphasis was on making a huge amount of indifferent wine, the effect of which is still felt. Regardless of the past, the future of Argentina as a player in the world stage is indisputable.
In the mid 1980s growing international demand for quality wines at a reasonable price drove the winemakers of Mendoza to experiment with quality wine making, an experiment that continues to this day. Yields were reduced, oak aging was introduced, and new, cooler, vineyards were sought. This resulting wines drew the attention of winemakers around the world, and an invasion followed.
The high altitude region of the Uco Valley, with its abundant aquifer, was transitioned from apples and walnuts, to high quality vineyards. The altitude offered respite from the heat that plagues those vineyards closer to the City. Even when the vineyards were young, the advantages of the fruit, especially for blending, became overwhelmingly obvious. Wineries who had only before used the high alcohol and low acid fruit from the lower altitude wineries had an easy way to bring acidity and fruit to their blends.
It may be that these traditional wineries had set the bar, defining Argentine wines as being foremost Malbec, and secondly, highly alcoholic and acidified. Certainly the wine press were clamoring for exactly these type of wines at exactly the time they became available. The result has been to cement into the minds of those that sell, that these are the wines to sell.
This would ensure that even in the Uco, and in the rising regions even further to the south, that few other varietals would be planted, and that the style to make is the style that has a track record of selling. Few can fault this conservative approach, wine is a business, but it risks the future of the industry on what can almost be seen as the wine equivalent of a monoculture.
Malbec reigns, especially in foreign markets, but Cabernet Sauvignon is not only widely planted, it is very successful. It is also very different than Cabs around the world. With very soft tannins it is easy to enjoy young. Because of the name recognition of Cabernet Sauvignon, I have oft counseled being prepared to send Cab out into the world when the Malbec bubble bursts.
Sauvignon is not the only Cabernet of note in Mendoza. Cabernet Franc has shown its worth in the hands of several skilled winemakers. And yet another of the carmenet grapes (by association, not relation), Petite Verdot, shows amazing promise in Argentina. Few other regions of the world has been so successful at offering PV as a varietal.
Two of more grapes need to be mentioned, one black, one white. Tempranillo is a workhorse in Spain, and in Argentina it has proven itself capable if not notable. It has a poor reputation and too many examples have not reached the potential, but several producers have proven its worth. So to with Viognier, that white darling of the Rhone that has started to strike out around the world. The acidity of Viognier makes it not only ideal for blending with white wines, but as is traditional with Syrah, it brings the power to propel aromas in red wines, while adding a touch of much needed freshness.
Just as Argentina may end up needing to look beyond Malbec in the future, so too would it be wise to investigate a few of the common vineyard practices.
Green harvest is a term and technique that came into being only in the last few decades, about the same time that Argentina was reinventing itself as a wine superpower. The concept is that by reducing the amount of fruit that a vine produces, the resulting fruit will have that much more flavor and concentration. The practice in most of the world is to prune the excessive bunches of fruit around veriason, the point at which the grapes begins to turn color. In Argentina the grapes are pruned just a few weeks before the actual harvest. These nearly viable grapes are left to rot on the ground.
I would suggest that the efficiency of such a late green harvest be studied, especially in light of recent findings that the entire practice may be of dubious value. Further, in light of the real need for higher acidity in the wines, that these discarded grapes may contain a better way to acidify the wine. Perhaps they could be fermented and used in the blend, precisely because they are sour.
Which brings us to multiple harvests. Almost without exception the wines that I have found to be the most complex, the most to my personal tastes, have been blends of lots picked at different times. Early picking brings you acidity, critical for Argentine wines. Mid harvest grapes bring complexity and a mix of flavor components. Later harvest, what is normal harvest for much of Argentina, brings deep fruit and ample sugars that translate into high alcohol.
For those that can not afford the cost of multiple harvests, especially considering the low retail price they can expect, the middle harvest has shown to be of particular importance. The more traditional, later harvest brings great fruit and an abundance of alcohol, but the result is a wine with a single big flavor (it is not an accident that the food of Mendoza is similar). As pleasing as this can be, it lacks the complexity and structure compared to other regions of the world. Earlier harvests, with more acidic grapes, and resulting lower alcohol may be the key to wines that may not score as well with critics, but bring greater pleasure for the consumer.
Mechanized picking in Argentina is rare. There are enough migrant pickers available to make hand picking cost effective. That hand picking results in higher quality is only true in the case of skilled workers who pick discriminately, and who are prepared to return to the vineyards for multiple harvests. Using people to pick every bunch in one sweep greatly reduces the detritus that mechanic harvesters may incur, but the only other advantage is that it is easier to replace a sick worker than a broken tractor. Indeed, the one great advantage of mechanized harvesting would be a boon to Argentina, night harvesting.
Harvesting grapes during the day, especially when the vineyard is not adjacent to the winery, results in hot grapes. Trucks full of recently picked grapes ply the roads and highways during the hottest part of the day. This necessitates the common practice of using heat exchangers to cool the must and the ubiquitous cold soak before fermentation. Grapes that were picked in the cool of the night would arrive at the wineries healthier and ready to ferment.
There is less to be critical of about the fermentation process. There are plenty of professional winemakers that dutifully oversee every aspect, and yet… Reductive aromas, the rubbery smell that can overwhelm some wines, is all too common. In my regular blind tastings, I find that as many as 10% of the wines have some degree of this fault. At low concentrations these aromas can add complexity, especially if they are sought after and deliberate. At higher, and more common doses, the aroma interferes with and sometimes even ruins the wine.
This is a case of misunderstanding the role of oxygen and the procedures to ensure a healthy wine. It is the careful application of oxygen that prevents sulfur from bonding with hydrogen and creating mercaptans. With my apologies to any winemakers for over simplifying the issue. Keep the yeast happy, keep the oxygen levels in check, and the rubbery aroma will never taint your wines.
Micro-oxygenation is a wonderful buzz word, and one that is often used, again with some misunderstanding. True micro-oxygenation requires expensive equipment that ensures that just the right amount of oxygen with the tiniest bubbles possible, is run through the wine. Too many times in Argentina I have seen a tiny tube placed in the vat, connected to oxygen. The tube, tiny as it is, allows bubbles many, many times larger to bubble through the wine. The whole point of micro-oxygenation is to simulate extended oak aging, in a much faster fashion. This is especially important when oak alternatives like chips are used. Ironically the process was developed to deal with hard tannins in wine, tannins Argentine wines universally lack.
Oak. The turning point for wine quality in Argentina was the implementation of oak aging. For too many wineries this is the main, if only nod to wine quality. It is seen a panacea, with little regard to the many complexities of oak aging. Because of the economic realities of Argentina most bodegas find that they have limited choices in selecting oak barrels. Few realize that they are missing anything, as the concept of various types of oak and their treatment is not well known. Medium toast of whatever French oak they are offered is what they have. When they do try to supplement their barrel selection with American oak it is often Pennsylvanian (with tight, closed pores and little vanillic acid) rather than the Tennessee White Oak (big, open pores, lots of vanillic acid) that "American Oak" is known for.
The rest of the world has the luxury of creating complexity in their wines by mixing and matching the various types of oaks and toasts available. Few in Argentina have this option, and fewer still know they are missing out.
No matter how good the wine is, it can all be undone by poor shipping practices. From vineyard to boat requires a truck to either drive the great distance to Buenos Aries, or the shorter distance, over the immense Andes mountains to Chile. Either way the wine is subject to many changing temperature conditions. Once it does get on a boat, the problems just begin. Much of the wine exported from Argentina will cross the equator, meaning that six months of the year it goes from hot to cold (the usual) or in some cases the reverse. Either way it is one of the world's longest and most impactful examples of shipping wine. For all of that, almost none of it is shipped at any point in refrigerated containers.
Many of the problems of the wine and industry in Argentina can be traced to economics. For much of the world Argentina is somehow related to adjacent Chile (forgetting the huge mountains and completely different climates that separate them) and the prices of the wines are expected to be comparable. This is unfair to Argentina who is much more likely to be medium or even small producers of quality, compared to the factory style that defines much of Chile's exports. People have come to expect Argentine wines to be cheap, and that has kept the prices from reflecting the true economy of production, which in turn has stifled innovation, retooling, and further emphasis on quality.
Argentine wines are good, some are very good. They have amazing potential to become outstanding, especially given the relative youth of the vineyards in the Uco Valley and other quality regions. Economics plays a huge part in retarding the escalation of quality in Argentina, not only in the obvious ways, but in a final, almost nefarious way. The lack of imports into the country means that few winemakers have had a chance to taste other wines of the world, side by side with their own. Competition is the fuel of progress, and Argentina is only competing with itself.
Secret Confession - My Top 10 Argentine Wineries
For six years I have lived in Argentina, writing about the wines and wineries. Most of that written in general terms, in order to advance the state of the art and tourism. My actual preferences were much less widely shared, primarily as a matter of politics. Since I am about to relocate to Asia in a few weeks, that ends today.
I am going to share my top 10 list. These wineries, listed in alphabetical order, are the first ten I came up with when tasked. Given another day, another try, it could easily look differently. My taste and approach rarely matters when I am teaching or writing about wine, but it means everything in this context.
When I got to Argentina I viewed the wines through the goggles of a word palate. My palate memory and exposure to so many wines had created a mold that I expected wines to fit into. Argentina didn't always fit that mold, and so over time I have found a new Argentine shaped mold to judge the wines by.
I like my wines less tannic than not. I was a Zinfandel fan before coming here and on the eternal question of Bordeaux or Burgundy, I came down unequivocally in the Burgundy camp. Although, if served a Bordeaux with time on it so it had softened up, and I wouldn't have been happier. Argentina has few wines with tannin, so it was a good fit.
My main criteria for quality is complexity. I want to keep going back to the glass and finding new things. This leads to my all time favorite metric - how long before we realize with dismay that we have finished the bottle.
I express my appreciation for quality wines by the easiest of all measures. Would I buy it again? The wineries on this list make at least one wine that I would go out of my way to buy, my highest rating. Here then are wineries that should be on your radar, because the only real complaint I have with them is that the bottle always seems too small.
Sparkling wines from a selection of varietals. Espumante, the local name for bubbles, can be surprisingly good in Mendoza, but Alma 4 stands out. The name refers to the three school chums (souls) that got together with a younger Zuccardi son to fulfill their passion for inventive sparkling wines.
While I can recommend most of their wines, the two that I bought the most often where the Reserve Torrontes and the Terroir Selection Malbec. The Torrontes is a wonderful expression of the grape with its huge floral aroma, and crisp clean flavor. The Malbec reflects the owner's French regard for place and exhibits my favorite wine making technique, complexity through blending.
The early vintages from this winery were decent, but they have really hit their stride in the years since. On the edge of the Uco Valley, they have parlayed their years of growing fruits into the much more difficult wine business. They are still relatively new at the game, and it will be fun to watch them mature.
Building underground is just the first of many examples of someone who "gets it." All of the wines are made to an exacting standard made slightly easier by the small scale of production. While many of the wines are made for aging, I just had a magnificent 2005 Cab last week, Dolium is not afraid of whimsy. His slightly sweet white blend is the kind of wine critics like to make fun of, while drinking it down as fast as you can fill their glasses.
The reason I originally came to Argentina. Their amazing price, quality, and expression of the terroir of the Uco Valley floored me. I jumped at the opportunity to work for them as a consultant for a few years. The winery has grown huge, and while I admit that I never buy anything below their reserve level, their Cab is what I am drinking tonight. All but impossible to find outside of the winery, their Late Harvest Malbec is the wine that one of their largest rivals couldn't help but exclaim "should be the one wine all visitors to Mendoza have to taste. It is the concentrated essence of the grape."
I just tasted through their latest offerings yesterday, and it was the consistency of excellence throughout the whole line that prompted me to write this piece. We were delighted with their Moscato sparkling wine, the only one in Mendoza, but we were were completely blown away by their Cabernet Franc. With only a few thousand bottles made, it is a hard one to track down, but you would never forget it if you did.
It is their Late Harvest Viognier that originally brought this winery to my attention. A world class dessert wine, in a land that for some reason eschews dessert wines. Every other wine I have tried from them has been an exceptional value, amongst a sea of values. Not the cheapest, but one of the best price to quality ratios.
The building itself takes your breath away, but their wines have always been on my list. Their top wines astonish, while their middle range amazes. I have had some unreleased wines from them that perfectly demonstrate the advantages of experimentation. Different varietals, different techniques, make for different wines, from a region that is too often too similar.
A huge player, and one of the names that you are most likely to find in your grocery store. Chances are I would ignore the wines you would find, as it is their top few tiers that I drink. Next door to their giant wine factory they have a smaller facility that is in itself broken into smaller facilities, and it is from these boutiques in a behemoth that their best wines hail. Their Petite Verdot is a great example of how well this grape does in Argentina.
Another huge concern, although family owned and run. Their Santa Julia line is decent and consistent, and the best of the bunch in the overall "forgettable" class of wines. Their top tier wines are rarely my favorites, even while I recognize their quality. Hardly the type of recommendation that would land them on this list, except for one huge exception. Q Tempranillo is hands down one of my favorite wines to buy at dinner in Argentina. Not the best wine overall, but it is a food friendly wine that is outside the box from the ubiquitous big fruity Malbecs and Cabs.
There are any number of wines that narrowly didn't make this list. Cassarena because it came to mind too late. La Azul because it is microscopic and hard to find. Paul Hobb's Cobos because while it is impossible to ignore the quality, the wines are not to my taste. Ruca Malen, similarly so. Lurton, just because I had my 10. The list goes on.
There are also all too many forgettable wines in Argentina, but that list would just be mean spirited, and honestly, who am I to dismiss someone else's life work? I may be a seasoned critic, but I like what I like, and chances are there is someone who loves any given wine made here, as in the rest of the world. After all, winemakers have mothers.
I can not stress enough, in this, my last article from Argentina, that you come and take a look for yourself. Not only these wineries, but so many more are worth discovering for yourself. The locals always ask, incredulously, "You are from United States, why would you come to live here?" The answer I give them is the same reason I implore you to come visit: The people, the mountain views and the wine, the wine, the wine.
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