By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
South America is on the rise as a wine-producing region, and Argentina is its fastest-rising star. Some of the country's best wines are achieving startling levels of quality, representing remarkable values.
Argentina is the fifth-largest wine-producing country, behind France, Italy, Spain and the United States. Yet only in the past decade has it shifted its focus from quantity to quality and to producing fine wines for export on the world market, especially to the United States, the largest importer of Argentine wines.
Mendoza is Argentina's most important wine region, producing about 70 percent of the country's wine and most of its malbec. Mendoza's major sub-regions are Lujan de Cuyo, Maipu and the up-and-coming Uco Valley, in the foothills of the Andes. Other leading wine regions include San Juan, La Rioja, Salta, Catamarca and Neuquén. Watch the continuing rise of Patagonia's "vineyards of the winds" in Rio Negro, Argentina's southernmost wine region.
Sixty percent of Argentina's wine exports are reds, and chief among them is malbec, which has become virtually synonymous with Argentine wine. This powerful, tannic varietal has demonstrated a stronger affinity for Argentine terroir than for its own homeland of Bordeaux, where its popularity has been waning. If you're a fan of big, spicy reds with soft, lush tannins, you can find extraordinary bargains among non-reserve malbecs.
Argentina's most widely planted white wine grape, torrontes, is experiencing a much-deserved rise in popularity. The best torrontes are reminiscent of Alsatian whites, with fresh, floral aromatics and peachy fruitiness that make them excellent food-pairing wines. If you're already a fan of Gewuerztraminer, muscat, pinot blanc or Viognier, try torrontes next.
Other grapes that have long been vinified successfully in Argentina include chardonnay, chenin blanc, Moscatel de Alejandria, and native cereza and criolla; and bonarda, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and Italian varietals. And a couple of recent efforts with pinot noir are definitely worth seeking out.Torrontes
If you're new to Argentine wines, Karen's pick offers a great place to start. The 2007 and the just-released 2008 Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes ($15) are the work of celebrated winemaker and mother of two Susana Balbo, who pays tribute to her "crios" (or offspring) via the wine's label, depicting an adult hand enveloping two small hands. While that might suggest wines that aren't as advanced in style or maturity as those at her reserve level, plenty of loving attention clearly has been given to nurturing the ripe peach flavors and a creamy finish of this one.
In addition to the varietal's characteristic floral quality, the refreshing 2007 Alta Vista Premium Torrontes ($14) from Salta boasts a lively acidity and more-notable minerality.
Food pairing tips: Sip as an aperitif, with Mexican food (especially guacamole) or with Thai and Vietnamese food (especially chicken and seafood dishes).Malbec and Malbec Blends
When the occasion calls for red meat, especially off the grill, as during a traditional Argentine barbecue, opt for the 2005 Bodega Norton Reserva Malbec ($18). The wine is aged 12 months in French oak and additionally in the bottle before release; its delectable blueberry and blackberry flavors are balanced by smoky notes.
The 2005 Alta Vista Grand e Reserve Terroir Selection Malbec ($25) won us over with its rich black-fruit flavors and gentle tannins. Over time, the big tannins in the 2006 Susana Balbo Signature Mendoza Malbec ($27), which is blended with 10 percent cabernet sauvignon, quieted to reveal a lip-smacking blackberry finish.
The elegant 2005 Norton Privada ($25; $18 at Total Wine) from Mendoza is a steal for the price. This full-bodied blend features 40 percent malbec plus equal parts merlot and cabernet sauvignon, resulting in a wine of fascinating red berry, dark chocolate and black pepper flavors plus beautifully balanced structure.
Food pairing tips: Drink these wines with all manner of red meats, especially beef and lamb; and with barbecue, cassoulet, hamburgers, and sausage and mushroom pizza.Pinot Noir
A country that made its reputation with thick-skinned malbec didn't seem a likely candidate to excel with a temperamental grape such as pinot noir. But then we tasted Andrew's pick this week: the 2006 Luigi Bosca Reserva Pinot Noir ($21; $15 at MacArthur Beverages) from Mendoza. This family-owned winery that has been operating for more than a century managed to create a delightfully earthy pinot with gentle tannins that cries out, "Bring on the lamb!" Best of all, its luscious body can accompany grilled lamb this summer and still meld with lamb stew as temperatures fall.
The runner-up in this category was the 2003 Salentein Reserve Pinot Noir ($20) from the Uco Valley. This mellow, light-bodied pinot's earthy elegance is the result of malolactic fermentation in French oak followed by a year of barrel aging and another six months of bottle aging. Its flavors include black cherry fruit and hints of sweet pipe tobacco.
Food pairing tips: Pour it with all types of red meat, especially lamb and beef; with roasted pork, duck, game and game birds; and with mushroom dishes.
All of the Argentine wines we recommend this week boast a long finish. We'll spare you the same.