From the Andes to the Cellar: Argentinean Wines

For a wine region to earn a position as a major player in the world of seriously fine wines, it must produce a substantial volume of high-quality wine that is regarded by leading wine critics as such, and it must be exported to the United States and other major markets. This new-found respect is usually the result of a small group of passionate and talented individuals who (1) recognize in their specific environment the rare combination of attributes (soil, climate, sun exposure) that enable one to make great wine; and (2) possess the relentless devotion to making it. Following success, their neighbors begin to follow their path until there is a critical mass of production and the critics and public take notice. This is what happened in Priorat, Spain and Central Otago, New Zealand in recent years. And now enters Mendoza, Argentina.

Argentine wine is not a new phenomenon, but the wide-spread quality is. The vast majority of its wine is produced in the western province of Mendoza, located at the base of the Andes at an elevation of 2,500 feet or higher. The principal grape here is Malbec, but an increasing amount of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is produced here as well, and some excellent blends are made from all three.

The flag bearer of the region has been, and continues to be, the illustrious Catena family (think Mondavi), which has been devoted to deep-flavored, well-balanced red wines for decades. Robert Parker included Bodega Catena Zapata in his excellent book, The World’s Greatest Wine Estates. However, in the last ten years, an ever-growing number of dedicated vignerons have developed a significant number of world-class premium wines, many from very old Malbec vines that previously were farmed for optimum quantity, with quality a secondary consideration. That has changed dramatically.

A good example of this new breed is Santiago Achaval, a graduate of Stanford Business School who with his partner, Dr. Manuel Ferrer, created Bodega Achaval-Ferrer in 1998. They produce three single-vineyard Malbecs from very old vines (some over 80 years old), and a blend, Quimera, comprised of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Through intensive vineyard management, grape selection, and non-interventionist winemaking, the wines have modest levels of alcohol (~13%), moderate oak, supple tannins, rich and deep flavors, and silky textures. This combination of characteristics enables them to pair well with a broad spectrum of food, ranging from broiled salmon to herb-roasted chicken to a variety of beef dishes. They are increasingly available in the U.S. and I highly recommend them.

Another intriguing source is Bodega Weinert, located in a 19th century facility which Bernardo Weinert purchased in 1974. Contrary to modern cellar techniques, their wines are aged in huge, old oak casks, sometimes for more than seven years. They eschew the fruit-forward, fat “international style” in favor of the more refined and balanced approach; yet the top wines are blessed with a purity of flavor and freshness that makes for wonderful food pairings. Weinert makes a lot of wine, more than 50,000 cases per year, covering the full range of prices from $12 to well over $100. The top wines also age exceedingly well, as evidenced in a recent tasting of the 1977 Malbec, Weinert’s first vintage. It was still full of life, with subtle notes of tobacco, old leather, cassis, and dried herbs. Through the energetic efforts of the lovely Iduna Weinert, Bernardo’s daughter, the availability of these wines in the U.S is growing. They are imported by Bartholomew Broadbent.

Other premier producers in Argentina who export to the U.S. are Alta Vista, Cheval des Andes (owned by Bordeaux’s legendary Cheval Blanc), Vina Cobos (owned by Paul Hobbs), O. Fournier, Luca, Luigi Bosca, Monteviejo, Poesia, Tapiz, Trapiche, and Vina Alicia.