Going The Distance
You’ve heard it said that “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing,”…When it comes to wine, it’s a limiting thing, particularly, for our purposes here, wines from Argentina. Limiting one’s exploration of a region’s vines will simply result in a myopic view of the country’s wines. And, sadly, the only one who loses in that equation is you.
Knowledge Equals Taste
In the next couple of paragraphs you will get a concise explanation of why there’s more to Argentina than Malbec. The intention is that you will be the richer – in taste, anyway – for it.
Argentine Native Vines
You won’t go wrong reaching for a Malbec, or even a Bonarda, from Argentina. You’ll also be in good hands reaching for a Torrontés from Salta or Mendoza, a Pinot Noir from Patagonia, and with some discernment you’re on safe ground with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.
“Wine talks about the people, the region, the country. It brings the country alive,” recently commented Ambassador Julio Miller, Consul General of Argentina to British Columbia, Ontario and several other Canadian Provinces, while he and his Chilean wife attended the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, where Wines from Argentina enjoyed much of the spotlight.
Argentina has been growing vines and making wines since the 16th century. To speak with some of the wineries and winemakers is to get a real sense of the entrenched tradition, of families whose names are synonymous with wine and wine making, and to feel how deeply rooted the wine culture is with the land and Argentina itself.
Surprisingly, it has really only been in the past 20 years that their export market has developed. Clean water from the Andes mountain range, the excellent Argentine climate of prevalent sunshine and little rainfall coupled with advanced technology and up-to-date vineyard management, make it not just the world’s fifth-largest wine producing region, but also a favorite among those with a discerning palate and critical clout alike.
Torrontés: 100% Argentinian
As a varietal, Argentina claims Torrontés as native. There are different theories about the grape’s origin, the commonly accepted one is that it developed as a combination of Muscat and Criolla Chica which is another Argentine native variety.
If Malbec is Argentina’s King, Torrontés is its Queen. “Torrontés is Gewurztraminer in sheep’s clothing,” commented Gismondi who moderated the Going For Gold panel at the recent Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival co-sponsored by Wines of Argentina. “It pairs well with fish, seafood, Thai, Pan-Asian, spicy cuisines,” he added, noting it is a good wine for B.C. and “drinks so well in Canada because it sounds like ‘Toronto.’” He added, reverting to a more serious note, that it also pairs well with empanadas from Salta, the northern-most wine growing region in Argentina as well as the spicier empanadas from Mendoza, Argentina’s main wine growing region, in the middle of the country.
Torrontés Is Not Gewurztraminer
Torrontés as a varietal is more elegant than a Gewurz; it is aromatic but dry in the mouth. It is a slightly suprising wine in that its nose, almost even as pungent as a Gewurztraminer, leads your mouth to expect a splash of sweet, when in fact what you get is a dry, full-flavor profile that is light, elegant and reminiscent of white peaches and roses, even in some instances, geraniums. It is a golden-hued wine, sometimes with a hint of green light, and can be described as “pure fruit salad.”
Much of it is grown in the provinces of Mendoza and La Rioja and is called, respectively, Torrontes Mendocino and Torrontes Riojano. The province to watch for Torrontés, is Salta. Grown at an elevation of nearly 2,000 meters, it is one of the highest wine growing regions in the world. It works because they have so much sunshine. As a point of reference, Salta is at about 23 degrees S. latitude, Mendoza at about 33 degrees S. latitude, and La Rioja is between the two. Argentina is a very big country, spread north to south.
To try: Luigi Bosca, Finca La Linda, Torrontés, ’09. Luigi Bosca is one of the oldest names in Argentine wines. Vineyards were planted in 1901 by the great grandfather of Alberto Arizu who currently oversees the winery and also sits at the head of Wine Industry, Argentina. This wine captured gold this year. Torrontés is a varietal they’ve been making wine from only since ’06. “It wasn’t an easy decision for us to go as far as Salta,” said Arizu recently. “We put all of our name, history on this grape. We see it has a promising future. The consumer is looking for simpler wines, a purer sense of the flowers. We now produce 25,000 bottles of this a year. We want to show to the world the uniqueness of this grape.” Notes: White peach, roses. $13.99 special order
O. Fournier Urban Uco Torrontés ’09. Proprietor Jose Manuel Ortega, a relative newcomer to winemaking and a Spanish transplant to Argentina, grows his grapes in the Uco Valley in the Region of Cuyo just west of Mendoza. “I got into the wine business because everyone has the right to waste their money as they see fit,” he’ll tell you, explaining that he was once a Wall Street investment banker. He names his vintages after the stars of the Southern Cross Constellation. His wife, a chef (now), runs the beautiful “Urban Restaurant” at their winery in Uco Valley, Mendoza. “Gewurz at 1/3 the price.”
Bodegas Etchart, Etchart Cafayate Reserve Torrontés, ’09 The Etchart name is synonymous with Torrontés as a varietal. As a wine in Argentina, Torrontés was “seeded by” Bodegas Etchart. They will tell you that it is the only varietal that originated in Argentina and this has been authenticated by UC Davis. Their vines are at least 60 years old; they’ve been growing in the Cafayate area of Salta in the North, which is “close to the Tropic of Capricorn,” for generations, explained Viktor. The Etchart family has 200 hectares of Torrontés under cultivation, and believes that this wine “will be successful for Argentina in the future.” Notes: Light, elegant; tame nose; rose, grapefruit, citrus, lime; $16.95 special order
For further exploration, keeping with whites from Argentina, Bodegas Trapiche, Finca Las Palmas Chardonnay, Trapiche Single Vineyard Viña Federico Villafañe, ’07. This golden-hued, light, crisp wine was 100% barrel fermented. My taste buds sparked to it even before Gismondi and Robinson both declared it “a sensational wine.” Trapiche is a name in Argentine Wine that dates to 1883. Their winery is located in Uco Valley in Mendoza which is 1,000 meters above sea-level. Their winemaker, Daniel Pi, said that “in ’07, we reinvented the Chardonnay in the winery.” Notes: fruit-forward, minerality, toasted bread; $22.99 special order
Vina Dona Paula Los Cardos, Sauvignon Blanc, ’09 “Best Sauvignon Blanc from Argentina.” These grapes are thriving at the high altitude of Uco Valley. They get 300 days of sun. The winemaker begins his harvesting a bit earlier, does a cold fermentation and then straight to the bottle. 2002 was their first vintage. Notes: blackberry, blueberry, violets; $13.99
Bodega Vistalba Progenie Brut Nature NV This bubbly is full of “new energy, new ideas,” said winemaker Carlos, hence its name “progenie” which refers to the progeny of the winery’s original winemaker, whose children created this celebratory vintage in honor of his 90th birthday. They produced it in ’05, did a second fermentation in ’06. It is a blend of 60% pinot noir, 40% chardonnay and it was made using traditional champenoise method. It is good to note that Bodega Vistalba operates a Relais Chateau designated restaurant and inn on their winery property in Mendoza; they also offer a Progenie Extra Brut that’s equally as delightful. $54.99 special order
Patagonia is Argentina’s southernmost wine-growing region. Its Pinot Noirs have gained in popularity the past six years, since most of the Patagonic vineyard plantings around 2000. The three wine-growing areas of Patagonia are Neuquen and Rio Negro along with Chubut. Rio Negro is the only area in the region that’s been planted for over 90 years.
The Landscape And Terroir
Patagonia is known as cold and windy with starkly beautiful landscapes. It was recently designated as the No. 2 most wished for travel-adventure destination. There’s one inhabitant per square meter in a country whose population is 40 million.
Rio Negro is a valley that has apples and pears, in addition to wineries, and stretches from the Andes to the Atlantic. It’s the name of a river and it’s the name of the wine-growing region in Patagonia.
To travel from Mendoza, Argentina’s main wine-growing region, to Neuquen, in Patagonia, you will cover 800km. The crop yield from the two areas is just as contrasting: Mendoza averages 60 tons per acre, whereas Rio Negro yields approximately 20-25 tons per acre. Hence the phrase, “We are condemned to quality,” explained Federico Boxaca of Familia Schroeder, the Patagonia winery that makes the 100% Pinot Noir vintage, Saurus Patagonia Select Pinot Noir.
North Patagonia’s growing conditions are ideal for Pinot Noir. This delicate, old and noble variety requires an arid climate, short summer and cold winter. The Pinot Noir grown in Patagonia has smooth tannins, a deep ruby color and aromatics of black fruit.
The logistics of Patagonia is what makes it a regional late-comer to the game of grape growing. “It’s long been perceived as too expensive and too unpredictable,” explained Boxaca. In fact, when Chandon started his winery in Argentina in the 60’s, they first looked at Patagonia. They found that it gave great acidity, at the levels necessary for sparkling wines. However, since the train tracks were long laid by the English and span from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, easy access to Patagonia has been a long time coming.
Boxaca illuminates the region’s good qualities even further: “We have soft, well-developed tannins; good acidity and low PH.” This is achieved through good vineyard management, one that has been developed to counter the ravaging of the region’s wind factor.
The wineries of Patagonia have adapted their viticulture technology to the terroir characteristics so as to allow for high-quality wine – in this case Pinot Noir – production. Boxaca explained that growing a healthy vineyard of Patagonia Pinot Noir requires these three main things:
- A wind shield of planted Poplar trees around the vineyards to protect the vines from being overly stressed;
- The night to day temperature drop of about 20 degrees c. which amounts to good acidity, and
- The extra hour of sunlight which works for the harvest in this case. The chalky, Patagonia soil, formed by glaciation, houses deep round pebbles, something the Pinot Noir vine has taken a liking to.
Water To Wine
It is said that in Argentina there are three things to drink: Water, water with wine, and wine. It is also said that a newborn baby, to stop it from crying, is offered a finger dipped in wine to pacify it. In a country where 40% of the population is descended from Italian and 30% from Spanish, it is no wonder that wine is so much in the blood.
The important thing here to consider, is Does the Patagonia Pinot Noir have that “drinkability factor?” That is, when you take a sip does your mouth water, is it appetizing, does it make you want to drink more? The answer is a resounding Yes. “There is much more to the Argentine story than Malbec,” commented Gismondi who toured Argentina’s wine regions and came away with a solid sense of the country’s wines. “The food is fantastic and in Argentina wine tasting is an adventure.”
In Patagonia there are currently a total of no more than seven wineries, including Familia Schroeder, Bodega del Fin del Mundo and Humberte Canale. Over 50% of the wineries have lodges and restaurants, noted Boxaca. Patagonia’s “stunning landscapes” feature steppes, forests, glaciers and lakes.
Familia Schroeder’s Saurus Patagonia Select Pinot Noir ’06 is made with 100% Pinot Noir grapes, aged 12 months in 70% French, 30% American oak and is now showing well and full-bodied. Find notes of Cherries, berries.
Familia Schroder’s Icon Wine features a simple metallic label and is a heavy, thick-glass bottle. They’ve only made 1,000 cases for the world. It’s a blend of 54% Pinot Noir, 46% Malbec and in ’08 their ’04 vintage took gold in Le Mondial du Vin competition in Switzerland. Velvety on the mouth, ripe-red, dark berries.
“Soft tannins is what we have in Argentina,”commented Daniel Pi who is the head professor at the Oenological Department at the University of Mendoza in Argentina. “We can ripen the grapes until the time when we pick them. We don’t have to pick the grapes early. We are far from the ocean and its cooling breezes. We don’t have the pressure to pick the grapes because they are cold.” Wine Harvest, with its attendant pagan expressions and spectacular moments, is in March.
Evocative of Argentina is the image of a mounted horseman, a gaucho, riding across a swath of rural land. The iconic gaucho has long been associated with Argentina and its culture. Its imagery evokes association with freedom, silence, honesty, strength, laziness, melancholy and horsemanship. Since 2001, and despite high inflation, Argentina enjoys economic growth and social stability.