Article By: Sandy Block, MW
Argentina remained the shining success story among exporters of wine to the US in 2O1O. Another year of substantial double digit growth has pushed the fashionable South American country’s export total here to 6.5 million 9 liter cases, representing a 2O% surge in volume over 2OO9. Even more impressive is the fact that during the Recession of 2OO8 and 2OO9 Argentina emerged as the only country to experience an increase in average value of exports to the US market. In 2O1O it is estimated that about 4% of the wines we buy from Argentina sell at over $2O per bottle to retail consumers while another 9% are in the $15 to $2O range. So unlike Australia, which led the import parade here in the previous decade but encountered strong resistance when attempting to move up market, the higher price tier of Argentine wine exports is healthy and growing.
These developments are remarkable in an historical context considering that the Argentines have produced substantial quantities of wine for over a century (they are fifth in the world, having been edged out of fourth place just a few years ago by the US) but remained a non-factor in the US, especially at premium price segments, until very recently. Why? The country’s image as a bulk producer concentrating on low quality wines primarily for the domestic market was largely accurate. Plunging domestic consumption (1/3 of what it was per capita just a few decades earlier) combined with the severity of Argentina’s economic crisis a decade ago, however, to dramatically change the wine industry’s strategy. Suddenly exporting became a top priority and Argentine producers, as a consequence, invested heavily in quality improvements that would enable their wines to compete more effectively.
The natural advantages had been there all along. Like its South American neighbor Chile, the vast majority of the vines growing in Argentina are own-rooted. The advantage of planting without having to graft rootstock translates into substantial savings, as does the significantly lower costs of land and labor compared to other major wine producing countries. Intense sunlight, poor rocky and sandy soils and high altitude windy desert growing conditions combine to promote ripeness, structure and naturally low yields in virtually every vintage. Irrigation is mandatory virtually everywhere in this environment, but the Andes provide a plentiful source of water.
The dry, sunny climate and nutrient deficient soils of Mendoza provide outstanding natural conditions for Malbec which, not surprisingly, has quickly become the country’s signature and most widely planted grape. A minor blending partner in Bordeaux, it thrives in the arid high altitude conditions of Mendoza which enjoys 3OO days of intense sunshine annually and dramatic swings in day versus night temperatures. Argentines theorize that because of substantial holes in the ozone layer over their vineyard areas the stronger ultra violet light Malbec experiences there has helped it evolve a thicker darker skin and smaller berries with consequently richer concentrations of fruit flavor. Now that exporting is a top priority Malbec is being replanted in areas where it had never existed before. The story is well known about how the grape was being uprooted and its acreage had declined by 8O percent until the recent boom in exports. Today higher elevation zones and cooler climate regions in the south of Mendoza, such as the Uco Valley, are being planted extensively with Malbec. The vine is being planted in very tight spacing and drip irrigation is the rule for quality wines now rather than the exception.
A recent trip touring Argentina’s main vineyard regions left me with an indelible impression of extremely high quality production but a troubled feeling about the country’s economic and political well being going forward. Many of the wines I tasted, including those I describe as “icon” wines in my tasting notes, are the equal of those produced anywhere internationally and they represent outstanding value, as the American consumer has discovered. At the same time, 3O% annual inflation and lack of confidence that there is the political will to tackle pervasive corruption are clouds hanging over the wine industry and the economy at large. If prices of imported materials (oak barrels, fermentation equipment) keep rising at this alarming rate will Argentina be forced to dilute quality in order to maintain established price points on the export markets? Right now Argentine wines, and particularly Malbec, occupy a sweet spot, and the continued embrace of the American consumer confirms this, but the future potentially indicates a walk down the path Australia has taken.
These “icon” wines strike me as so unique and competitively priced compared to those from California, Italy or Bordeaux, that they will probably weather whatever storms are ahead. These are the select handful of wines that, in my opinion, are the country’s crème de la crème.
VINA COBOS MALBEC MENDOZA, 2OO7
This is the upper tier wine that famed California enologist Paul Hobbs produces from very old Malbec vines averaging 6O to 8O years at a vineyard in the Perdriel zone of Mendoza’s Lujan de Cuyo. All the wines in the range are outstanding, but this one is truly magical. Aged for a year and a half in new French oak, it is deeply opaque in color with a somewhat smoky, mission fig, almost port-like quality on the nose. The texture is velvety chocolate, the fruit flavors super ripe, lush, smooth, and creamy. There is more than a hint of licorice in the finish and the overall black fruit savory impression of this rich powerful wine lingers for quite a while on the palate.
UCO VALLEY, 2OO7
This is a much earthier terroir-driven wine, medium rather than full in a body, with a substantial acid structure. In many ways it resembles the Vina Cobos (pure Malbec, 8O year old vines, aging in all new French oak for 15 months) but the palate profile couldn’t be more different. The nose is expressively plum-like, with floral, black pepper and herb-laced scents, the cherry-accented fruit is more understated. Yields are impossibly low at less than one ton per acre. A single vineyard located south of Mendoza in the Uco Valley’s Medrano district, the Finca Mirador is the most “old world” in style of the signature Argentine wines I tasted.
NICOLAS CATENA ZAPATA
In the pantheon of great Argentine red wines this to me is the ultimate. With 78% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Malbec, it is aged for over 2 years in new French and American oak. Produced from a blend of four different Mendoza vineyards and, like the Achaval Ferrer, it is unfined and unfiltered. The wine’s silky richness is simply amazing. Tannins are reigned in but substantial. Powerful cassis and black raspberry fruit dominates the aroma which also has undertones of violet, cocoa and smoke. These scents are consistent with the highly extracted flavors you experience tasting the wine. Like the others, this wine has a long aging horizon of at least 15 years.