Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Wines of Argentina: Twelve Things You Should Know

Since my return from Argentina, I have had time to reflect upon my experiences, to consider the wine industry of Argentina. Though the trip was sponsored by Winebow, a wine importer and distributor who represents several producers in Argentina, we visited more than just Winebow clients.  In fact, about half the wineries we visited were not Winebow clients, thus giving us a more balanced view of the region. In addition, I have done some additional independent research and reading into the wines of Argentina.

My time in the Mendoza province of Argentina was exciting, fun, compelling, educational and delicious. My understanding of this wine region has also been expanded and enhanced.  I have already written a couple posts about my travel experiences in Argentina, and you can look to even more in the future.  Now, I want to present a list of Twelve Things You Should Know about the wines of Argentina, to give you a foundation to understanding this region. When many people think of Argentina, then generally only think of inexpensive wines, and usually Malbec.  But the Argentina wine industry is far more complex than that, and worthy of your attention. 

Argentina already stands high in a few international wine categories. It is the world's 5th largest wine producer, the 7th largest wine exporter, and the 8th largest wine consumer.  There are over 1300 wineries in Argentina, though only about 400 currently export wine.  Interestingly, only about 3.5% of the land in Argentina is under cultivation, much of the rest being cities, mountains and such. The province of Mendoza is their most important wine region, producing about 70% of the wine in the country. Wine is the main agricultural product in Mendoza with olive oil occupying second place.

1) Argentina has a young wine industry.
Despite the fact that grapes were first planted in Argentina by the Spanish during the 16th century, their modern wine industry is still relatively new, only around twenty years old. They have certainly come far in this short time span, but also have much room for growth and plenty of potential.  There is still a youthful exuberance to be found in Argentina, an optimistic view of the future. They are not bound by hundreds of years of tradition, and thus have a fresh outlook on wine making. Yet they still have historical roots as many Italian and Spanish immigrants helped to develop the wine industry. For example, about 50% of the population of Mendoza is of Italian descent.  It is a combination of the Old and New World, which is often reflected in their wines.

2) Malbec is King.
Malbec is the signature red grape of Argentina, and the grape which has brought much fame to the region. Known by numerous other names, such as Auxerrois, Côt Noir and Pressac, Malbec was first introduced into Argentina in the mid-19th century, prior to phyollexera. The cuttings came from the Bordeaux region of France, not Cahors, the French region most known for its Malbec.  Argentina possesses plenty of old vines of Malbec, including some over 100 years old. It is currently their most planted grape, and there are about 22 recognized clones of Malbec. In 2010, Malbec constituted about 40% of Argentina’s wine exports though exports to the U.S. were about 60% Malbec.

Malbec can often be characterized as having an intense dark color, aromas and flavors of cherry, plum and strawberry, and soft tannins. But Malbec is not a singular grape, and can express itself in many different profiles, especially due to terroir.  Malbec has the potential to age well, and pairs well with meats, pastas, pizza, and other foods.  Until the early 1990s, Argentina mainly used Malbec as a blending grape, but then they began creating single varietal wines, discovering its great potential. Numerous low cost Malbec wines started to get exported and wine consumers embraced them, helping to put Argentina on the international wine map. In the future, Malbec will remain the signature grape of Argentina but you will see more and more different expressions of that grape.

3) Torrontes is Queen.
Though Pedro Giménez is the most widely planted white grape in Argentina, it is Torrontes which is their signature white grape. You should know that plantings of Pedro Giménez are declining, it is a different grape than the Spanish Pedro Ximénez, and that it doesn't make wines of much note.  No one knows exactly when Torrontes came to Argentina, and there are a couple possible origin stories.  Some believe it was an old Spanish grape, which no longer exists in Spain, while others think it may be a mutation from raisins which had been planted by Spanish colonists. Some evidence exists that Torrontes is a cross between the Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica grapes. 

There are three types of Torrontes, each a distinct variety, including Torrontes Riojano, Torrontes Mendocino and Torrontes Sanjuanino. The Riojano variety makes the best wines, and most of the Torrontes in Argentina consists of this variety. Torrontes might remind you of Viognier, but it is more floral, closer to Muscat in nature and often has flavors of apricots and peaches. Torrontes grown in the Cafayate Valley is often considered the most prestigious. Torrontés pairs well with seafood, as well as spicy Asian cusine. I gained a new appreciation for Torrontes while in Mendoza.

4) Bonarda is the Prince.
Argentina is not relying solely on Malbec to carry its wine industry.  The Bonarda is another red grape which is gaining attention, and rightfully so. It is not the same grape as the Italian Bonarda, but is actually related to the French Corbeau, known in California as Charbono. It is a late ripening, high-yielding grape which can be difficult to grow. To produce high quality Bonarda requires effective vineyard management, especially to reduce yields. Currently, many Argentina wineries are producing only inexpensive, entry level Bonarda wines, but there is increasing interest in terroir, higher-end and aged Bonarda. It is a grape to watch, and seems to occupy a similar position to Malbec in the early 1990s.

5) Forget Malbec.
If Malbec is King, then why am I telling you to forget about it now?  I discussed this issue previously, and it was only reinforced by my visits to the wineries in Argentina. As Jose Zuccardi stated, "Malbec should express place, not the grape.” Wineries have started to concentrate on terroir, a sense of place, in producing their Malbecs. They have found that Malbec presents many different expressions dependent upon the terroir. Some wineries, like Altos Las Hormigas, feel the soil is the most important element of Malbec terroir while others, like Bodega Catena Zapata, feel that altitude is the key. Experimentation and research continue into this issue, and it is the future of the wines of Argentina.

Though you will continue to find inexpensive Malbec wines, you will begin to see more and more higher-end Malbecs, those indicative of terroir. This will lead to a greater variety of Malbecs, so that such wines will not seem one-dimensional. It is also thought that this will make wine much less of a generic commodity and more of a specialityh item. And as Malbec becomes more terroir driven, so Argentina will do the same with their other grapes, from Torrontes to Bonarda, from Chardonnay to Syrah. This is an important step forward for their wine industry.

6) Argentina is embracing science.
Science, technology and innovation are all very important to the Argentina wine industry. The wineries are availing themselves of every opportunity to improve quality and diversity. For example, a number of wineries in Argentina have hired the consultant Pedro Parra to examine and advise on their terroir.  Parra (which is coincidentally is the Spanish word for "grapevine") is a Chilean soil scientist and self-proclaimed terroir specialist. His name came up often during my visits to the wineries of Argentina.  Some wineries, such as Familia Zuccardi, are experimenting with a wide variety of grapes, to see which other ones might thrive in Argentina.  For example, Zuccardi is testing over 30 different grapes, such as Greco, Petit Manseng, Caladoc, Nero d'Avola, Ancellota and Sauvignon Gris. In addition, innovation in irrigation, canopy management, and much more also exist in Argentina. It is an exciting time in this wine region. 

7) Wine is made first for Argentina.
First and foremost, much of the wine in Argentina is produced to be drank in Argentina. In addition, 80% of the wine they drink is red. That should be expected due to the prevalence of the asado, the Argentinian barbecue, presenting a diverse selection of grilled meats.  Only about 27% of their wine is exported, with the U.S. being their primary market by a wide margin.  Though Argentina started some wine exporting around 1981, after some economic problems, their exports began to accelerate in the early 1990s. It is very likely that their wine exports will continue to increase each year.

If you visit wine stores in Argentina, you will find many of them carry only wines from Argentina. There are high duty costs for imported wines, which contributes to the sparcity of them in Argentina wine stores.  Thus, Argentinians have few options available to them besides drinking their own wines.  Jose Zuccardi feels that this strong Argentinian consumption is a good thing.  He stated, “Brands need roots in their own market.”  Those countries while rely primarily on exports, and which don't have a strong tradition of consuming their own wine, will have difficulty in the market.  

8) Wine is food.
Argentina has a very European view of wine, seeing it as food and not alcohol.  Even the President of Argentina once said that wine was an integral part of the food and culture of Argentina. Such a view is very different from what is apparently happening in the U.S., where there is a growing movement to divorce wine from food. In Argentina, wine is a natural element of their lifestyle, relished at each meal, not something to fear or require extensive regulation. As such, their wines are usually designed to be best accompanied by food. I believe this Argentinian viewpoint is a healthy one, and helps to promote a strong wine culture.

9) Irrigation is essential.
Mendoza is often characterized as a high-altitude desert oasis, and it only has approximately 200ml of rain annually, about 8 inches. Yet grapes basically need 700-800ml of water so irrigation is essential to the vineyards in Argentina. The Incas understood this need for irrigation for their own agriculture, and created thousands of kilometers of irrigation canals, probably more than any other ancient civilization.  There are four rivers in Mendoza which are used for irrigation, the water originating from melted snow and ice in the Andes Mountains.  In addition, there is an underground river which also can be used for irrigation.  But land in Argentina usually does not come with water rights, and a separate government license needs to be obtained for its use.

10) Hail is a significant peril.
Hail, especially in the Mendoza region, is a constant worry, an annual threat, and can be extremely destructive.  As hail can sometimes be as large as a fist, it can potentially destroy entire vineyards.  As one defensive measure, numerous wineries cover their vines with a variety of different nets.  The problem is that these nets have a negative side effect, decreasing the amount of sunlight that reaches the grapes by about 7-13%. So, some wineries won't use nets, accepting the peril of hail, to maintain their sunlight. Though hail is a danger to other grape regions around the world, Argentina has one of the most significant problems.

11) Altitude is important.
The average vineyard in Argentina is located at over 900 meters above sea level, a unique element to this wine region.  You'll even find vineyards as high up as 3,000 meters above sea level. This has been a fascinating learning experience for the wineries of Argentina, and they have discovered that changes in altitude result in a change in terroir.  It was known that higher altitudes provide a cooler climate, but much more has been learned too.  The famed Nicolas Catena, who has been a pioneer in high altitude vineyards, has done much research into this matter and believes that the most important climatic factor of altitude is sunlight density.  Sunlight density increases with altitude and this has a significant effect on taste, decreases pyrazines, and changes the aromatics from floral to fruit. More study will continue in this area, and the wines of Argentina will only continue to improve.

12) Argentina does not want to be Australia.
Discussions of the crisis of the Australian wine industry arose a number of times while touring the wineries of Argentina. Argentina wineries were clear that they wanted to avoid the problems that have assailed the Australian wine industry. They don't want Malbec to end up in the same situation as Australian Shiraz, extremely popular at one point and then shunned by many. They also do not want to glut the market with their wines, which certainly did not help the Australians.  Thus, avoiding those issues have factored into their decisions, from moving to more terroir driven Malbecs to having a solid base of wine consumers in Argentina. It is good to see that Argentina is willing to learn from the examples of others, and they seem poised to avoid the Australian issues.

I am looking forward to the development of the wine industry of Argentina. They already produce some excellent wines, and they seem on track to continue making even better wines in the future. Wine lovers should keep Argentina on their radar, and explore the new wines coming from this region. You will continue to find many value wines, but you will also find more complex, high quality wines which will excite your palate.

Argentina is just getting started.


stefan michael said...

Informative, first-hand, boots-on-the-ground essay, delving into diverse issues that affect anyone who loves wine in the larger sense, and intrigues the oenophile in the micro sense with just enough esoterica to send us out to the wine store with notes for careful shopping...

I've been enjoying Torrontes for a few years, when I can find them, although consistency has not been their strength, which is my fault for not keeping records of the ones I found superior.

I look forward to going through your archives for more perpicacious glimpses into the wine universe. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, thanks for the insight and History lesson!