Tuesday, April 11, 2023

The Wines of Argentina: Malbec and Torrontés

"Mi Buenos Aires querido, cuando yo te vuelva a ver, no habrá más penas ni olvidos…" says one of my favorite tangos by famous singer Carlos Gardel… what a way to start my post about wines of Argentina.

For a very long time, I wanted to write a post about my country, not only because these are the wines that my father, a true wine connoisseur, used to drink while I was growing up, but also because my family reads my blog, and though they may like and laugh at my stories and occasionally get bored reading about the technical side of wine, it will be good for them to finally be able to purchase some of the wines I recommend.

What to tell you about Argentina? The land of Tango, the land of asados (barbecues), of meat so tender you can cut your filet Mignon with your own fork. The land of dulce de leche and mate and of course, the land of Maradona and Messi, (we are the world champions after all!) but most importantly the land of Malbec and Torrontés.
Argentinians know their wines very well, they produce and drink plenty of it; Argentina is the 5th world producer and wine consumption is estimated to be about 36 liters of wine per person per year. Sadly, the wine we consumed in the past was not always of great quality; for a long time, we were very happy drinking simple quaffs, like Valmont tinto or Toro Viejo (per their website, it is still the second most popular wine in Argentina). But everything changed in the 1980s, when Nicolas Catena revolutionized winemaking in Argentina.  Nicolas Catena is our star winemaker, he was so convinced that Argentina had everything it needed to produce wines to compete with the very best in the world, he started a movement to improve the quality of the wines, by using stainless steel tanks and small French barriques for example, but he also experimented a lot in the vineyards, lowering the yields to obtain more concentration, planting Malbec at higher altitudes to attain more elegance and even creating his own Malbec clones. Today, his amazing work continues with his daughters Laura and Adrianna and with the Catena Institute, where they investigate soils, climates and techniques to produce the finest of Malbecs.

Of course to make great wine, you need to be blessed with ideal conditions. Over 225,000 hectares of vineyards are spread among 12 Argentinian provinces. But 2 of them are the most important, the first one is Mendoza of course! Located on the eastern side of the Andes mountains. Mendoza is the place to make wine in Argentina (our Napa), with more than 1,000 producers specializing in Malbec.  
The key element in Mendoza is the Andes that act as a barrier, providing extremely dry weather with very few rains (only 225 ml per year), good to prevent fungal diseases and have naturally healthy vines. Luckily, irrigation is allowed, with plenty of water coming in the form of melted snow from the Andes, but also some via drip irrigation or transported via channels.  Most of the vineyards are planted at high altitude, some of which can reach from 3,000 to 6,500 feet above sea level, keeping average temperatures between 60-70ºF, this allows sunny loving Malbec a long and slow growing season. Mendoza also has a variety of soils that includes: sand, gravel, clay and limestone, all well drained, poor and infertile, helping to keep yields low.  Also, of note is the pre-phylloxera clones, meaning that Argentinian Malbec clones were brought before phylloxera decimated the vineyards of Europe, this means these vines still have their vitis vinifera original rootstocks. 

There are five zones in Mendoza, the two most important are: Primera zona (1st zone) where the first Argentine vineyards were planted and home to some of the oldest wineries. It includes the subzones of Maipú and Lun de Cuyo. The second zone is the Uco Valley, in the south, that includes subregions such as Tupungato, Tunuyán and San Carlos, home to famous enclaves such as La Consulta and Paraje de Altamira. One of the things Malbec fans love the most is its delicious spicy dark fruit and supple texture, and the way it expands and coats your palate with its sweet and smooth tannins and natural fleshiness. So delicious, indeed!

The second most important wine province is Salta, located in the north west of Argentina. Though here, beautiful and sturdier reds are produced, the star of Salta is a white grape: the Torrontés Riojano, a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla grapes. Torrontés produces a very floral, concentrated and refreshing dry white (featuring similar notes found in Gewurztraminer and Muscat), showing flavors of rose petal, peach, lemon Meyer, citrus zest and geranium. Torrontés wines usually feature a medium to medium plus body with balanced acidity and high alcohol that goes between 13-14,5º %. Surprisingly and in spite of their sweet and floral aromatics, most Torrontés wines are dry and are best consumed when young and fresh. Now, the climate in Salta is even drier than in Mendoza, with very limited rains that keep yields low and  grape skins thick, a result of the extreme conditions. And guess what? The vineyards are even higher here than in Mendoza, featuring elevations up to 10,000 + feet, producing truly wines of altitude. The best vineyard plots are located in the Cafayate and Calchaquí Valleys. Besides Torrontés, Salta also produces wines from other varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, Merlot, Tannat, Malbec, Bonarda, Barbera and Tempranillo. 

Because Mendoza and Salta are so dry and sunny, one may fear of overripeness but this is where altitude helps, bringing elegance. With the years Argentinean producers learned to identify the best spots for Malbec and Torrontés and to give them the proper treatment at the winery, so that the wines express their true terroir. Their hard work and dedication is what keeps their quality getting better and better.

My Wine Recommendations: nothing gives more pleasure than to be able to recommend wines from my country, as there are so many good ones! Here are just some of new releases, I tasted lately:

Bodegas Colomé Torrontés 2022, Salta $14. This Torrontes comes from some of the highest vineyards in the world with altitudes that go from 5,000 to 11,000 feet. It’s full bodied with delicious acidity and very aromatic notes of rose, geranium and grapefruit. Refreshing, and ideal for Spring.

Tilia Malbec 2022, Mendoza $11. Committed to sustainability, Bodegas Tilia produces this 100% Malbec that shows delicious notes of blackberry marmalade, aromatic violet, and bitter chocolate notes. Medium in body with velvety tannins from brief aging in oak.

Tercos Malbec 2021, Mendoza $15. Medium bodied red showing stewed dark cherry and blackberry notes. Super silky tannins give away seductive notes of vanilla and cedar.

Bodegas Caro Aruma Malbec 2021, Mendoza $21. A joint venture of two wine titans: Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) and Nicolás Catena yielded this super round and creamy red with satin tannins and unctuous cassis, blueberry and plums notes. So inviting!

Susana Balbo Signature Malbec 2020, Mendoza $28. A classic from the top female winemaker in Argentina: Susana Balbo. This full bodied red displays ripe blackberries and blueberries blended with sweet tobacco notes. Very elegant with ultra fine tannins and juicy acidity.

Ben Marco Malbec 2020, Mendoza $22. Big and dense tinto showing opulent, sweet plum and black cherry notes, with a touch of dry herbs spiciness and a superb mineral finish. This is also produced by Susana Balbo. 

Ricardo Santos Gran Malbec 2018, Mendoza $34. Chewy and beefy Malbec, featuring prunes and plum aromatics with a touch of black pepper and balsamic hints.  This wine was aged for 24 months in French oak.  Very flavorful!


 Happy Malbec World Day to all! Cheers, Silvina

#winesofargentina #thoughtsoflawina #torrontes #malbec #internationalmalbecday

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