In recent months, I've posed a pointed question to about two dozen winemakers from around the world: What is the wine-producing country-on-the-rise that would cause you the most sleepless nights if you owned a big winery in an established spot such as Napa or Bordeaux?
Responses haven't been perfectly uniform, but two places pop up with conspicuous frequency: Argentina and Chile.
If these two countries confronted me as competitors, I'd be scared, too, and for multiple reasons. The first is the high quality of their recent releases. Long known for making solid wines at relatively low prices, each country now exports a full range of wines at varied prices. Consistency has improved markedly in lower price ranges, and the two countries now produce high-end bottlings that challenge the world's best.
A second fact is that both Argentina and Chile enjoy production costs far lower than Bordeaux or Napa. According to Agustin Huneeus, proprietor of Quintessa in Napa and part-owner of Veramonte in Chile, prime vineyard land in Napa can now sell for more than 10 times the price of a comparable plot in Chile.
Of course, Napa could be considered an unfair point of comparison due to its prestige and historical importance, but a striking disparity in costs remains even if those factors are neutralized. For example, Sonoma's Alexander Valley produces outstanding cabernets yet has little of Napa's cachet. However, even vineyard land in Alexander Valley is at least three times more costly than a parcel of comparable quality in Chile, according to Huneeus. He adds that expenses for planting and equipping a California vineyard can cost more than five times what one would pay in Chile.
A look into Argentina should prove equally disconcerting. Current costs for first-rate vineyard land in Argentina are even lower than those in Chile, according to Alex P. Bartholomaus, president of Billington Imports, a leading importer of wines from both countries.
High quality and low costs provide a powerful combination, but the long-term prospects of these countries depend upon a third factor: capacity for continuing expansion and improvement. I believe that both countries' wine industries can get much bigger and significantly better.
Nevertheless, the issue need not be left merely to my beliefs or prognostications. One way to assess whether Argentina and Chile are already played out or still gearing up is to evaluate their newest enterprises and exports.
That is exactly what I've been doing in my recent tastings. Starting with Argentina, I've tasted every wine I could find in our area that is in its first or second vintage. They have proved very impressive and are sure to fortify Argentina's profile here, rather than dilute it.
Today's recommendations are limited to wines made from Argentina's calling-card grape, malbec. In two weeks, I'll review new Argentine wines from other grapes and then turn to Chile.
Recommended wines are listed below in order of preference. Don't be scared by the pricey wines heading the list, as some marvelous malbecs at more affordable prices are also included. Regions of origin, approximate prices, importers and D.C. area distributors are indicated in parentheses:
Vina Alicia (Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza) Malbec "Brote Negro" 2003 ($70, imported and distributed by William-Harrison): This extremely impressive malbec features dark, dense, deeply flavored fruit with lovely accents of licorice and spices. Intensely flavorful but very soft in texture, it is already great with food but will become even more complex and interesting over the next five years. The standard-issue Vina Alicia Malbec 2003 ($49) is nearly as strong, with exceptionally pure fruit and beautifully balanced oak.
Las Moras (Tulum Valley) Malbec "Mora Negra" 2002 ($36, 57 Main Street/National): Most malbecs are rich and generous. Few are "wild" or "forceful," which were my first descriptors for this wine. It shows very expressive aromas and flavors of blackberries, fennel, wood smoke and spices, with tannins that are abundant but well balanced with the fruit.
Andeluna (Mendoza) Reserve 2003 ($22, imported by Kysela and available here from Kysela in July): Dark in color and extremely rich, this deeply flavored wine features appealing notes of dark berries, black cherries, cocoa and spices. With just enough wood to stiffen its spine but not enough to dry the finish, it will prove very pleasing now but can also benefit from another three or four years of aging.
Tittarelli (Mendoza) Malbec "Reserva de Familia" 2003 ($16, William-Harrison): Remarkably complete and complex for the money, this shows soft, sweetly ripe fruit that is also pure and bright. Nuances of cocoa and tobacco leaf lend interest, and though the regular Tittarelli Reserva Malbec 2003 is a very good wine for $12, this Reserva de Familia is well worth the additional $4.
Zolo (Mendoza) 2003 ($14, Epic Wines/Wine Partners): Led by classic malbec fruit recalling dark berries and cherries (thanks to admirable winemaking restraint in oak usage), this wine offers lots of flavor on the way to a soft, silky finish.
Mil Piedras (Mendoza) 2003 ($15, Epic/Wine Partners): A model of purity and integration, this features medium-bodied berry fruit that is vivid and fresh, with just a whiff of oak to add complexity.
Terra Rosa (Mendoza) 2003 ($15, Laurel Glen/Country Vintner): Ripe and robustly flavored but neither chunky nor obvious, this well-balanced wine strikes a fine balance between guts and refinement.
Tierras Altas (Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza) Malbec 2003 ($13, William-Harrison): Blackberries and licorice are the leading notes in this wine, which gains backbone and complexity from a well-measured dose of spicy oak.
Andeluna (Mendoza) Winemaker's Selection 2003 ($12, imported by Kysela and available here from Kysela in July): Packed with dark fruit flavor and nicely accented with notes of smoke and spices, this is remarkably impressive for the price.
Lo Tengo (Mendoza) 2003 ($10, TGIC/Country Vintner): Flashy packaging often correlates with winemaking mediocrity, but not in the case of this soft, juicy, nicely polished wine.
La Puerta (Famatina Valley) 2004 ($7, J. Cambier): Simple but simply delicious, this offers substantial Bing cherry fruit and fine balance at an eye-popping price.