“Romantically dramatic” is the phrase that comes to mind when I think about Argentina.
Argentina is a country where deeply rooted colonial traditions and modernism butt heads. Immigration from European countries over the centuries contributed to the country’s cultural richness visible in daily life.
Before and after its inception in 1825, the country experienced a tumultuous history of both social and political changes. Geographically, it offers an intensely diverse landscape with its endless pampas where the famous Argentinian cattle and horses graze, rugged Andes mountains with eternal snow caps, and the 5000 kilometer-long Eastern coastline which runs down South to the frigid waters of Atlantic Ocean surrounding Tierra del Fuego.
And last but not the least, let’s not forget the hypnotic rhythms and movements of tango and the prophetic verses of Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar.
“He is divested of the diverse world
Of faces, which still stay as once they were,
Of the adjoining streets, now far away,
And the concave sky, once infinite.” - J.L. Borges
Argentina has been making wine for centuries – the first vine cuttings were brought from Spain in the mid-16th century, but the industry carried no international importance. It wasn’t until late 1980s when some Argentine wineries decided to make drastic improvements in both vineyard farming and wine-making to produce wines of world quality. It was costly, but worth it, and the results are… palatable.
Argentina’s wine “revolution” can’t be talked about without mentioning the Catena family and its patriarch Nicolas Catena Zapata. They are to Argentina what the Mondavis are to California, the Gajas to Italy, and Rothchilds to France’s wine evolution. They go beyond – contributing to arts, education and social development.
Mendoza is the pride region of the Argentine wine industry with its spectacular scenery spotted with beautiful architecture of some of the winery structures symbiotically incorporated into the mythical landscape. It produces 60 percent of Argentine wine. Mendoza’s saving grace in the production of well-balanced, age-worthy wines is the altitude of the vineyards.
The lowlands are too hot, but the higher we hike, the temperatures drop, especially at night, prolonging the growing season and allowing the grapes to retain acidity, develop better precision of flavors, and extend the wines’ longevity. There seems to be almost a competition among the wineries; who can plant vines higher.
What’s high? There are vineyards with 4,000 feet elevation and higher where cool climate grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir show some potential. Natural irrigation comes from Andes’s boundless snow melt.
Malbec One the most fascinating aspects of wine is the fact that you can take the same grape variety grown in two different macro climates whether across a fence or across an ocean, vinify it using different techniques and it will produce two distinctly, different unique wines. Argentine Malbec is a great example. Brought from France, where it makes a rather rustic, peppery, tightly wound wines in the region of Cahors; in Argentina, its expression is a bold, juicy, hedonistically flavored wine offering a decadent experience.
Bonarda (a.k.a Douce Noir in France, Charbono in California) Argentina’s second most widely planted red grape. It has no relation to Italian Bonarda. With the flavors of black cherry compote, fresh blueberries, and violets, the wines exhibit medium tannins, medium body, and mouth-watering acidity, making it a very versatile food pairing. If you’re not into oaky wines, this is your diamond in the rough, since most Argentine Bonardas are un- or minimally oaked.
Cabernet Sauvignon (interestingly a hybrid between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc) This classic – and considered by some the ultimate – red grape variety comes from France’s Bordeaux region where it produces some of the most coveted wines in the world. Rich and dense with flavors of dark red/black fruit, cassis, pencil shavings, cedar, and leather, the wines age for decades offering a complex sensual experience. In Argentina, it is often blended with Malbec or stands proudly by itself.
Torrontes THE white grape of Argentina. It is almost exclusively grown here. The emergence of Torrontes was the result of the genetic crossing of two varieties brought to the country in colonial times: Uva Negra and Muscat of Alexandria. The wines offer hauntingly intense flavors reminiscent of roses, jasmine, with a touch of honey, white peach, and apricot. The aromas suggest a sweet wine but the taste reveals a refreshing acidity and dryness. It’s an inspiring experience.
Semillion Another French transplant playing the main role in the production of Sauternes. It comes in both dry and sweet version. The dry expression is my favorite. It has an extraordinary depth, density, and lanolin-like smoothness with flavors of tropical fruits of papaya, mango, slight nuttiness and if made right endless finish. It can age for years, even decades.
Chardonnay Another classic Frenchie. Argentina’s Chardonnay is made in cooler areas: at higher altitudes or more southerly latitudes. Here the wines develop an impressive combination of lean citrus, exotic pineapple fruit, a creamy texture with tantalizing minerality, and vibrant acidity. Catena Zapata’s Adrianna Vineyard is the hallmark.
Other white grapes of Argentina are Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier.
But Argentine wine is not just Mendoza region. Patagonia, San Juan, La Rioja, and Salta areas have ambitions of their own and strive successfully to earn international recognition. And since we are down in that part of the world, let’s not forget about Argentina’s neighbor to the West: Chile. It offers similar types of wines in more “coastal” style, in addition to some impressive single varietal Carmeneres.
Be that as it may, considering all its charms and primal magnetism – and now add the wines combined with genuine hospitality of the people of the land, why wouldn’t one want to visit? And yes, it is affordable and abundant in traditional food consisting of Mediterranean influences combined with indigenous fare. “Asado” style grilled meats with chimichurri sauce, empanadas, morcilla (blood sausage), Italian inspired pastas, and the traditional Dulce de Leche for dessert. You might even stumble upon a polo tournament if you visit in the spring.
Some of my favorite and note-worthy Argentinian wineries: Archaval Ferrer, Catena Zapata, Mi Terruno, El Hijo Prodigo, Tempus Alaba, Terrazas de los Andes, Bodega Colome, and Bodega Matias Riccitelli.