Argentina is coming to a close, as is for that matter our entire year long adventure. It has been an epic journey of wines around the world, and it is fitting that we finish with what to my great surprise is the best. I knew the wines of Argentina were decent, after all I had tasted a few before coming here, but I was not expecting what we found.
It turns out that Mendoza is a veritable oasis for wine making. At least for the varieties that do well here. There is well drained soil at high altitudes with enough difference from one region to another to add complexity to the wines. Malbec is the undisputed champ here, and while I have enjoyed other varietals, it is the Malbec that Argentina is rightfully known for.
I am a lover of Zinfandel. Those big jammy wines at reasonable prices that represent for me the best that a drink now style of wine can offer. Malbec is Argentina's Zin. It can be big and jammy, or like Zin in can be made in many other styles. Unlike Zin the other styles are also quite successful.
Style is exactly what makes Malbec so enticing. We have tasted at least 50 different styles from 25 different producers and every one is distinct. Like Pinot Noir in Burgundy, Malbec in Mendoza is very sensitive to the terroir it is grown in, and the hands it is made by.
When Malbec is produced with an eye on structure it is a surprisingly decent candidate for aging. I have tried many that go back seven or eight years, a point to which my revered Zinfandel rarely survives to. More astonishing is the 35 year old example that tasted like a well aged Bordeaux, and still has plenty of life in it.
Big and jammy is what I crave in a Zinfandel, and as it turns out, in a Malbec. Often accompanied by a black pepper aroma and finish, these intense wines are a fruit lover's delight. With just enough structure to keep them from being flabby, they fill the mouth with delicious flavors and keep you coming back for more.
If fruit is your thing, you also want to try a Bonarda from Argentina. Once the most planted grape here and intended only for use in the sea of indifferent red wines that Argentina used to produce, Bonarda is finding its way into some well made and serious wines. And yet, for all the world it tastes exactly like grape juice.
A little too much like grape juice for my taste. Those who are fans of these wines applaud the fresh grape flavors and extoll the virtues of the grape. I don't exactly count myself a fan, although I understand the appeal. I tried a sample that was 10 years old and it had layers of complexity from softening tannins I never even knew were in there. It gave me more respect for the grape, even if I don't exactly love it.
Torrontes is the white grape of Argentina, and here we turn from fruit to perfume. A highly floral wine with a tart finish in most examples, although more than a few I have tasted have had acid added to accomplish the necessary structure. Almost everyone agrees that this grape is best when grown well north of Mendoza in the Salta region, but I suspect as more cool growing areas open up, Torrontes will find a new home.
Espumante, the local phrase for sparkling wine is another winner in Argentina. The quality is decent, and the prices are very good. This is not Champagne, but it does easily rival anything made anywhere outside the august region of France. The low prices may not survive the many hands involved in exporting and selling abroad, but if these wines ever do make it to your shore, make a point of trying a few.
Then there are the up and coming grapes. Merlot here is hit or miss, but I have tried a few versions with potential. I know of at least one producer that is convinced that Merlot is the future, and he may be right. Certainly Cabernet, which is as ubiquitous here as anywhere, is not the answer. They are decent enough, but nothing to write home about.
Pinot Noir is mostly relegated to the sparkling wines, and rightly so for the most part. I have tasted a few that are not bad, but Pinot is a tough grape and a tough wine. Energy may be best spent elsewhere. The Pinot I have tried tends to be light, but with a dark component that doesn't so much add complexity as it changes gears abruptly.
Sauvignon Blanc is another hit or miss example. Without acidification it is hard to get a decent balance, and with it it is hard to get a decent wine. I have had a few very good examples, so it is possible, but I think t requires more attention and patience than some are willing to give. Above all it needs the cooler growing regions.
I have tasted a few bottles of Tempranillo here, and they were good. Not once did a any of the score or more of wineries I visited present their Tempranillo for tasting. I think it is a red headed step child of the country. Full of potential but a completely different style of wine than they are used to handling or enjoying. That is a shame, because from what I tasted it has possibilities.
Hot and dry makes me think of Grenache, and judging from the few test plots here and there, I am not the first. Alas, the extremely cool nights interrupt the ripening and it never quite gets the color or intensity here that make it so interesting in the south of France or the north of Spain.
There you have it, my look at the wines of Argentina through the lens of three months of living among the natives and visiting their bodegas. The tiny glimpse I had from tasting the few examples that had made their way to the US was far from complete enough for me to see the full picture. The Argentinean spectrum of wines is diverse and complex even while relying on just a few choice grape varieties.
Run down to your local wine shop and put together your own tasting, or even better yet, call up your travel agent and start working on your own visit down here, below the equator and nestled up against the Andes. Plan on escaping the dreary winter of 2010 with a trip to sunnier climes with even warmer people and fabulous wines to explore. They will be waiting for you.