If Argentines had not dramatically reduced their consumption of wine in the last few decades, the rest of the world might not be enjoying all those Argentinian wines now available in markets as diverse as Europe, Canada, the United States, and China. Fifty years ago, Argentina had one of the highest per capita rates of wine consumption anywhere. It peaked in the early 1960s at more than 80 litres (an average of about 108 bottles of wine) per person a year, but fell to 55 litres by 1991, and since then has shrunk by more than 50 per cent, to less than 25 litres (33 bottles) per person today.
This relatively low level is double the current per capita rate of wine consumption in Canada, but it represents a dramatic contraction in Argentina’s domestic demand that forced the country’s wine producers to look for new markets overseas. Argentina has long been one of the world’s largest producers of wine (it now ranks fifth), and although some vineyards were grubbed up as the local market began to shrink, there was still an ocean of wine available for export.
But much of Argentina’s wine was mediocre in quality and sold in bulk. Tomás Hughes, agronomist at Bodegas Nieto Senetiner for more than two decades, says that until the 1990s, domestic wine was often oxidized and poor quality. “We couldn’t go out with these wines!” So Argentinian producers began to up their game and produce higher-quality wine for the competitive international market. Starting in the 1990s, many wineries brought in well-known consultants, like Michel Rolland, and adopted new winemaking technologies. In the vineyards, they improved vine care and identified new sites. Wineries appeared in regions from Salta in the north to Patagonia in the south. It all added up to a transformation of Argentina’s wine industry in a very short period.
The first success with a mass-market wine was malbec, a variety that originated in southwest France and was planted in Argentina in the 19th century. Made in an easy-drinking style with a soft texture and the fruity sweetness of a little residual sugar, malbec became the new shiraz. Many consumers switched from entry-level Australian shiraz to less-expensive Argentinian malbec, especially the bestselling brand Fuzion. Made by the Familia Zuccardi winery, it was a hit with consumers, and although it was often criticized by wine professionals as being too fabricated, it played a major role in Argentina’s entrance onto the world wine stage.
Malbec comes in many styles other than the low-acid, easy-drinking form that took many mass markets by storm. José Alberto Zuccardi himself makes a stunning malbec (with a dash of cabernet sauvignon) called Aluvional that is structured, measured, and elegant. Meanwhile, at the Dominio del Plata winery, winemaker Susana Balbo’s BenMarco malbec (with 10 per cent bonarda) is rich and concentrated, but also finely balanced and textured.
One of the major contributions to improved quality has been the planting of vineyards at higher altitudes, where cooler temperatures foster the structure and greater levels of acidity that make wine a better partner with food. Although adding tartaric acid to wine is common in Argentina, the altitude of the vines has become so important to perceived quality that more and more labels are showing the height above sea level of the vineyard.
Many Argentinian winemakers set out to make blends—not only of varieties or vineyards, but specifically of grapes grown at different heights above sea level. Bodega Colomé (Argentina’s oldest winery), in the Salta region, blended grapes grown at 2,700 and 2,300 metres for its 180th anniversary malbec in 2010. At Finca Flichman, the Gestos wines are blends from vineyards located at 700 metres, which makes for boldness and intensity, and at 1,100 metres, which produces more structure and finesse. Their 2011 Gestos Malbec—which is both concentrated and dense, yet refreshing and light—shows the synthesis effectively.
Malbec is so closely associated with Argentina, it’s easy to think that it must dominate the country’s vineyards. Not so. Although malbec’s international success has encouraged producers to increase production (often at the expense of other red varieties) it represents just over a quarter of plantings of red varieties, and is closely followed by bonarda and cabernet sauvignon, which together make up more than a third of the red vines planted.
Bonarda is a little-known variety outside Argentina, and there’s some uncertainty about its origins. It does not appear to be the same bonarda that’s grown in Piedmont and is more likely a variety from eastern France. Whatever it is, it was so well liked that it was more widely planted than malbec in Argentina until the late 1990s, and remains popular enough that plantings have grown by about 50 per cent in the past decade. Some winemakers think it has the potential to become the next big red variety.
At Bodegas Etchart in Cafayate, winemaker Ignacio Lopez is bullish about the grape: “I’m very keen on bonarda. It can deliver at different levels of quality and can even deliver complexity at higher crop levels.” His 2011 bonarda is a mouthful of rich, ripe fruit, with a smooth texture and a fresh line of acidity. It fits in with his general approach to red wine, which is critical of blockbuster fruit bombs. “It’s fine to say, ‘Wow, I can’t see my fingers!’ because a wine is so dark,” he says. “But it’s a mistake when you’re with a friend and a wine is so big you can’t finish a bottle.” Right now, bonarda is most often used in blends, but Juan Pablo Murgia, winemaker at Bodega Vistalba, says, “Bonarda is the variety of the future … I’m absolutely convinced that in 10 years you’ll see on the bottle ‘100% bonarda’, and it’ll be very expensive.”
The third major Argentinian red, cabernet sauvignon, is responsible for many stellar wines, but perhaps because it is such a common variety, it has been largely overshadowed by the attention paid to malbec. Yet some of Argentina’s cabernets are outstanding in any company, including the Cadus cabernets from Bodegas Nieto Senetiner. A stylistic theme is easily perceived through the vintage variations: cabernets that are concentrated, finely balanced, and structured, with the optimal ripeness that comes from painstaking work in the vineyard.
Most attention has focused on Argentina’s red wines, not only because their standard-bearer, malbec, is made in few other regions as a single-varietal wine, but also because they fit so well with Argentina’s dominant beef-centred cuisine. Wine consumption may have declined dramatically, but Argentines go through about 55 kilograms of beef each year on a per capita basis, making them the second-biggest consumers of beef in the world (after Uruguay).
At the same time, there’s growing interest in the country’s own white grape, torrontés. It’s a cross between muscat of Alexandria, well known for making wines with telltale aromas of musky spiciness, and criolla chica, probably the first grape introduced to Argentina by the Spanish in the 1540s. There are three subtly different kinds of torrontés, each named for a different Argentinian wine region: Mendoza, San Juan, and La Rioja. True to pedigree, torrontés generally shows fruity, pungent aromas, but although some versions of it carry the spiciness through to the flavours, others are, surprisingly, fairly austere and dry (after the aromas).
Argentina’s wine portfolio is clearly extensive, not only in terms of grape varieties and wine styles, but in vineyard sites. The sprawling Mendoza region accounts for three-quarters of Argentina’s wine, but it is divided into many sub-regions that are only now beginning to seize their own identity. Mendoza and other regions, such as San Juan, are arid, and the vineyards depend on runoff from the Andes for irrigation. Yet farther north, near the border with Bolivia, is the Salta/Cafayate region, where big temperature swings between day and night foster the development of acidity—but it produces a mere one per cent of Argentina’s wine. To the south, Patagonia is a cooler region, and the source of the country’s small production of pinot noir.
Thinking of Argentina only in terms of its two m’s—Mendoza and malbec—clearly fails to do justice to its complex wine landscape. In an age that stresses the regionalism of wine, the use of “Mendoza” as a generic appellation is becoming less and less suitable as an indicator of provenance. And although malbec carries the flag, many of the other reds, whites, and blends—not to mention sweet and sparkling wines—show successfully in the company of wines from anywhere else. Argentina has made the grand leap onto the world wine stage, but it is only just beginning to display the nuances of its performance.
Top photo by Garcia Betancourt.