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It surely can’t be long before Argentina realises its full potential as a great wine producer. For now, Mark de Wesselow visits two regions that are doing much to raise the country’s profile
Sitting in local Buenos Aires restaurant La Brigada on a Sunday night, you can’t help but be uplifted. Laughter bounces off the walls as families and friends see out the weekend over plates of savoury empanadas, hunks of juicy steak and bottles of red wine. It’s a typical scene, indicating the important role food and wine plays in this most European of South American cities.
‘Dios existe!’ shouts the Maradona T-shirt worn by one of the livelier customers. And while this particular homage lives on, you don’t have to be stuck in a 1986 time warp to find plenty of evidence of divine intervention in this beautiful country. The vastness of the pampas, the grandeur of the Andes and the eerie magnificence of Patagonia all raise the spirits. But it’s wine that’s uppermost in my thoughts.
Back in 1986 Argentinian wine didn’t command an obvious place on the shopping list. In fact, too often it was a clumsy, rather crude affair – astringent at one end of the spectrum, over-ripe or stewed at the other. But all this has changed, helped by huge inward investment and a growing realisation of potential. Today, there is plenty of wine from Argentina that is right up there with the world’s best.
The country’s signature grape is Malbec, with its depth of fruit and ripe tannins, while Torrontés, a dead ringer for the highly perfumed Muscatgrape, is another distinctly Argentine offering. Torrontés comes in all shapes and sizes, often as a wonderfully aromatic answer to Gewürztraminer or Viognier, perfect with mildly spiced chicken or medium-strength cheese. There’s also excellent Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and fizz, as well as first-rate Pinot Noir, all scoring for value as well as quality. And beyond these French varieties there are fine examples of Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Bonarda, all originally brought over from Spain and Italy.
Mendoza is the undisputed viticultural heartland, accounting for 80% of Argentina’s wine production. But as knowledge and confidence grow, the geography of wine in Argentina is starting to change. Winemakers are seeking out new regions – in the country’s south and north, and at higher altitudes.
On my recent visit, I discovered two of these ‘new’ regions, which personify the spirit of innovation and the growing elegance of Argentine wine: the Uco Valley and Patagonia.
‘As knowledge and confidence grow, the geography of wine in Argentina is starting to change’
An hour south of Mendoza, in the shadow of the volcanic Mount Tupungato, is the Uco Valley, where vineyards are planted between 900 and 1,500m. To put this into perspective, Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, measures 1,344m at its peak and boasts four distinct vegetation zones from top to bottom.
Although many of Argentina’s top producers have been using Uco fruit for a while – primarily to lift fatter, riper wines from elsewhere in Mendoza – it is only during the past decade that the valley has been discovered by influential winemakers from the wider wine world. Star French winemakers such as Michel Rolland (involved in Uco’s Val de Flores and Clos de los Siete wineries) and Jacques and François Lurton (JF Lurton), José Manuel Ortega (O Fournier) from Spain and a Dutch investment group (Salentein) have all helped to make it one of the most fashionable, forward-thinking wine regions in South America, with showcase, futuristic wineries to match.
But no winemaker has been a more vocal advocate of the region’s fruit than legendary Argentinian oenologist Nicolas Catena. His pioneering research into the effects of altitude on grapes demonstrated that for every 100m of elevation there is a 1˚C drop in daytime temperature, nights become cooler, UV intensity greater and soil fertility poorer. Grapes grow thicker skins to protect the fruit from the sun, and this means more colour, tannins and aromatics.
So, it’s no surprise that wines from different altitudes display different flavours; a Malbec from one vineyard may show strawberry and red fruit, while a Malbec from a lower altitude may offer black cherry and spice. This fascination with height is such that the UK’s most famous Argentinian restaurant, Gaucho, now quotes an altitude figure for every wine on its list.
But what makes Uco grapes, whatever the variety, so special? ‘Soft tannins and nice acidity,’ says Ortega, a banker who worked for Goldman Sachs in London prior to setting up O Fournier in the Uco Valley. ‘I get an amazing balance of perfectly ripe fruit and freshness on the finish.’
It’s the same at Salentein, 20 minutes up the valley. Here cold air slides off the mountain into a dip, giving vines a chance to relax after the heat of the day. This aids the development of the grape aromas, flavours and colour. With water in short supply – rainfall can be as little as a quarter of that in Bordeaux – Salentein has been forced to sink a series of wells to a depth of almost 200m at a cost of US$180,000 each. Add in US$2,100 per hectare for drip irrigation and about US$3,000/ha for hail protection and you start to appreciate not only the levels of investment needed but also the scale of the belief in what these vineyards can achieve.
You might think that all the benefits of cooler altitudes can also be achieved by pushing through the higher latitude bands as you go south, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
Patagonia – 650 miles south of Mendoza – is the case in point. Well known for its polar south, where glaciers and penguins are the norm, and for its fly-fishing, it is the windswept, unfrozen provinces of Río Negro and Neuquén in the north that are currently exciting the wine world. This region is about 200m above sea level (not inconsequential though far lower than the Uco) but, significantly, it lies at a latitude of 39˚ South, which puts these provinces on a par with Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand.
The region is dry, windy and pest-free, with 320 days of sunlight, warm summer days and fresh nights. Add in relatively poor but mineral-rich soils and you have what are pretty much ideal conditions for the (slow) maturation of grapes, which means sweet fruit sugar balanced by ripe tannins. Extreme differences in day-night temperatures (technically known as thermic amplitude) help preserve the natural acidity and freshness in the wines.
Wine has been made at Humberto Canale in Río Negro for 100 years, thanks to a canal system that harnesses water from local rivers for irrigation. Current patriarch Guillermo Barzi confirms that the region is certainly ‘cool climate’, with frost being the most likely problem for the grapes.
‘The UK’s most famous Argentinian restaurant, Gaucho, now quotes an altitude figure for every wine on its list’
But it’s the establishment of the province of neighbouring Neuquén in the past 10 years that has really drawn the world’s attention to Patagonia. And it’s a tale of great entrepreneurial vision. Ten years ago, property developer Julio Viola bought 3,500ha of land and, aided by tax incentives and government loans, dug a 20km canal from the river Neuquén and started planting vines. His plan was to sell off parcels of land for ready-to-go turnkey operations, while keeping some of the vineyards for himself. Seven pumping stations and 6,500km of irrigation pipes later, half a dozen wineries were born. Following their sale, all now boast the latest facilities, including restaurants and even a hotel.
Viola’s own winery, Del Fin Del Mundo, remains the biggest, and if you visit this or wineries such as Valle Perdido, NQN or Familia Schroeder you will start to understand Viola’s faith in the region. The Malbec, Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Noir and fizz they produce are all naturally expressive, aromatic and flavoursome. ‘Our Malbec has a more elegant structure than many examples from Mendoza,’ says Michael Schroeder, a point endorsed by numerous wine experts who are currently heralding Patagonia as one of the most exciting cool-climate regions in the southern hemisphere.
But it is Patagonian Pinot Noir that shoulders the greatest weight of expectation. One of the standard bearers for the grape is boutique winery Bodega Chacra, in Río Negro, where Piero Incisa dell Rocchetta (whose family own Sassicaia in Tuscany) concentrates on Pinot vineyards dating from 1932 and 1955. Supplies are tiny (in contrast to the prices) but results so far are stunning – intense, silky wines with minerality and subtle spicing – prompting commentators to suggest Patagonia may one day be mentioned in the same breath as Oregon, Central Otago (New Zealand) and even Burgundy.
If this is the case, ‘Dios existe’ may become the adopted slogan for Argentinian winemakers up and down the country. And I, for one, wouldn’t bat at an eyelid.
Fruity with soft tannins and a touch of earthy complexity. Balanced and fresh. Serious but not heavy.
£6.99 (20% off as part of mixed case); Oddbins
Benchmark Uco Malbec. Wonderfully aromatic, oozing violets, sweet basil and blueberries. Rich and silky in the mouth – fresh plums, blackberry, cocoa and spice.
Underpinned by distinct
minerality and breezy acidity.
Elegant, linear Chardonnay displaying wonderful citrus flavours with hints of tropical richness. Part barrel-fermentation adds creamy texture. Refreshing acidity
maintains the focus.
Wonderful concentration with lots of ripe cherry and plum fruit, backed with fine, silky tannins, subtle spicing and a touch of liquorice. Focused, mineral
palate. Great acidity.
£49.50; Lea & Sandeman
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2009