The news out of South America is shocking. Argentina has come from nowhere to challenge and, in my opinion, surpass Chile as the best wine-producing country south of the border.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Supported by an experienced, export-friendly government, Chile sells far more of its wine abroad than Argentina. The Chilean wine industry is a relatively slick operation, seemingly attuned to the intricacies and pitfalls of competing in the world wine bourse.
Chile's success against wines from the more established regions, particularly California, will be apparent to anyone walking by the under-$10 shelves in wine shops and supermarkets. You'll see a only a smattering of California wines, and even fewer French and Italian wines.
But the bad news for Chile is that today you can find far more wines from its neighbor across the Andes. In contrast to Chile, it took Argentina a long time to get the hang of selling outside its borders. Although the wines were often quite respectable, Chilean wineries managed to do something strange. For example, Bodega Weingart produced impressive Malbecs and Cabernets, but it seemed that no two bottles tasted the same. This was nothing compared to Aberdeen-Angus, which labeled its rich, peppery reds with an anatomically correct lithograph of a bull. Other wines were either dowdy, indifferent or tailored primarily to the mammoth domestic market. But that's history.
Although the credit for dramatic improvement belongs to Argentina's own producers, it would be remiss not to point out that Chile has blundered into second place largely on its own. Its promise has been undercut by a haphazard combination of excessive grape yields, robotic winemaking and awesomely nasty grape varieties -- in particular, the red Carmenere, which should be renamed the Ben-Gay for its noxious, mentholated scent. I count only four major Chilean wineries that consistently produce at the top level: Cousino-Macul, Montes, Casa Lapostolle and Los Vascos. Even allowing that I may have overlooked some good names, there should be dozens more reliable labels, considering Chile's natural bounty of fine soil and climate. The simple truth is that way too much Chilean wine tastes like no human being has touched it, except to put it in a box marked "For Sale in the U.S."
While Chile will undoubtedly get its act together again, the real story today is the new pride of the pampas. Attractively packaged, labeled and promoted, Argentina's wines have joined flaming beef steaks and romantic tangos as Argentina's most irresistible exports.
Argentina is hitting the market with fresh new red and white wines from two highly successful vintages, 2002 and 2003. Not only are the wines ripe, pure and attractive, they are value-priced as a result of Argentina's currency weakness.
Here are my tasting notes on the best Argentine wines I have tasted in recent months, listed in order of preference. Prices are approximate.
Bodegas Caro 2001 Red Wine ($40; Argentina): This Cabernet-Malbec blend produced by Château Lafite Rothschild of Bordeaux and Catena Winery of Argentina once again sets the standard not only for Argentina but for the other joint-venture productions from South America (including Lafite's own Chilean venture, Los Vascos). Combining Lafite's aristocratic understatement with the natural heartiness of Argentina's Malbec, the 2001 Caro, is a joy to drink. As good as this is, insiders are saying that the 2002 is even better, since that vintage produced the best Cabernet Sauvignon in Argentina's modern era. I can hardly wait.
Don Miguel Gascon 2003/2002 Malbec "Mendoza" ($11); Don Miguel Gascon 2002 Syrah "Mendoza" ($11): Both varietals offer lots of grip and dimension to accompany their ripe, generous fruit. The superb Malbec is heartier and more complex (especially the 2003), but the Syrah is vibrantly fruity and supple, and perfect with grilled meats. At this price you can't go wrong no matter which you choose, so I recommend buying both. Note: Somewhat confusingly, Don Miguel Gascon also makes a lower tier of varietals. The wines are fine, but the Mendoza bottlings offer considerably more complexity and cost just slightly more.
Los Cardos 2003 Malbec ($8-$9); Los Cardos 2002 Syrah ($8-$9): The Los Cardos Malbec has clearly benefited from last year's stellar harvest of Malbec. Although chunky and full-bodied as in past years, the ripeness of the vintage has smoothed out the tannins on the finish, making the wine far more harmonious. Toast and violets on the nose lead to full, mouth-coating palate. While not as impressive as the Malbec, the 2002 Syrah is supple and smooth. Both are excellent values meant to be drunk now.
Alamos 2002 Malbec Mendoza ($10-$11): Proving that Argentina is the undisputed master of the French Malbec grape, this wine offers impressive levels of soft, opulent fruit and surprising balance. A touch of toasty oak from barrel aging adds considerable polish to the spicy bouquet. Outstanding value.
Trumpeter 2002 Malbec-Syrah ($9-$10); Trumpeter 2002/2003 Malbec ($9-$10): Trumpeter Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 ($9-$10); Popular at restaurants as a wine by the glass, these reds offer outstanding value. The Malbec-Syrah and the Malbec are quite similar, with the latter offering more structure and depth. Though more complex, the Cabernet is neither as fruity nor as appealing by itself, but excels when paired with red meat or grilled poultry.
Ask the Wine Guys
My fiance and I are planning to get married before the holidays. Since we are paying for the reception ourselves, our budget is a bit tight. Can you recommend a good Champagne for the toast, but one that won't break the bank?
For weddings, I use the rule of 25. With fewer than 25 guests, go with a French Champagne. There's nothing like it, and since you will only need three or four bottles, it should run you only about $100 to $125. (I recommend allowing two to three ounces per person for toasting purposes, which equals about eight servings per bottle.) Since this is primarily for toasts, you'll want to go with a lighter, aperitif-style Champagne such as Taittinger or Pommery.
With more than 25 guests, there are so many distractions that it really doesn't matter, as long as you use of a good-quality sparkling wine from the United States or Spain. Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut offers a lot of pizazz for around $10 to $11 a bottle, as do the better Spanish cavas such as Mont-Marcal, Segura Viudas, Freixenet and Codorniu. For something between the price of these and French Champagne, I suggest Domaine Carneros (Taittinger) or Roederer Estate. Both are owned by French Champagne houses and offer outstanding quality for about a third less than true Champagne.
Wondering what to serve? How to grab the wine list first at a business dinner? Send your questions to Michael Franz or Ben Giliberti. By mail: Wine Column, Food Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071. By e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Direct your question to Michael, Ben or both. Questions may be answered in future columns but the volume of mail prohibits the columnists from responding personally to each question.