Vintners who spend their days keeping an eye on competitors in Argentina and Chile must find it tough to keep those eyes shut at night. Sleeplessness would be entirely understandable, as Argentina and Chile are threatening the world wine establishment with a wicked combination of high quality and low production costs.
And wine production from these two countries can still get significantly bigger and better. Two weeks ago, I began assessing that possibility by reviewing newly available wines from Argentina that are made from the malbec grape. All the wines I tasted were in their first or second vintage of availability in the United States, and these new, delicious, high-value exports suggested that Argentina has formidable capacity for expansion and improvement. To round out the review process, I've spent the time since then tasting every other new arrival I could find from Argentina.
The upshot for sleep-deprived vintners is both good and bad news.
On the one hand, those making high-quality white wines around the world should rest easy -- at least for the moment. The newly arrived whites are uniformly unconvincing by comparison with global standards, and in this they are consistent with the white wines that Argentina has been sending here for years. Odds are that this will change someday, as the country has a wide range of latitudes and altitudes for getting white wines right. But I'm not holding my breath.
On the red side, however, the new arrivals from Argentina are remarkably strong. From bargain-basement bottlings to ultra-premium "statement" wines, Argentine producers are proving they can make reds that match most of the world's best in terms of quality while undercutting them in price. And they are proving that they can accomplish this with a range of grapes, not just malbec.
This last point is important, because skeptics might well underestimate Argentina as a one-hit wonder that got lucky with malbec. Malbec continues to be grown in France but has long been regarded as a second-string variety there by comparison with the likes of the cabernet sauvignon grape. However, since being transplanted into the brilliant sunshine in the front range of the Andes near the city of Mendoza, malbec has emerged as the star of Argentine viticulture.
Quality in wine does not arise simply from a grape or a place, but from a complex interaction of the two. It wouldn't be unreasonable, on this basis, to speculate that Argentina's peculiarities just happen to suit those of malbec, and that lightning would probably not strike there again.
But that would be wrong, as Argentina is now capturing lightning in bottles of nebbiolo, petit verdot and tempranillo.
Cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes are also producing excellent results in Argentina, and some real bargains are being crafted from syrah and bonarda. This news may be distressing for Argentina's competitors, but it should delight consumers, who can find delicious deals from $70 to $7 in today's recommendations.
Wines are listed in order of preference, with regions of origin, approximate prices, importers and Washington distributors indicated in parentheses:
Vina Alicia (Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza) Nebbiolo 2003 ($70, William-Harrison): Nebbiolo is notoriously tough to grow even in the famous Piedmontese regions of Barolo and Barbaresco, but elsewhere in the world it has consistently proved downright disastrous -- until now. This wine is by far the best nebbiolo-based bottling I've ever tasted from beyond Italy, with alluring notes of red and black berries, fresh flower blossoms, tobacco leaf, vanilla and light spices. Medium-bodied but packed with flavor, this is a worthy competitor for the best wines of Piedmont -- as well it should be, given the price.
Vina Alicia (Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza) Petit Verdot "Cuarzo" 2003 ($70, William-Harrison): Petit verdot plays second string to malbec in Bordeaux, but this Argentine rendition is a beauty, with great fruit recalling blackberries and blueberries, along with accents of dried herbs, wood smoke and spices. This is simply the best single-variety petit verdot I've tasted from anywhere. Slightly less pricey but nearly as impressive is Vina Alicia's Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($49, William-Harrison).
Andeluna (Mendoza) Merlot Reserve 2003 ($22, Kysela): A giant-killer at this price, as it tastes better than most $40 merlots from California. Deep, dark, rich and expressive, it features dark berry fruit with nuances of cocoa, herbs, toast and spices. Andeluna's Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2003, also $22, is quite close in quality.
BenMarco (Mendoza) Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($28, Vine Connections/Bacchus): Pure, well-defined aromas and flavors of blackberries and black currants lead the way here, with lovely accents of chocolate, vanilla and wood smoke.
Tittarelli (Mendoza) Tempranillo "Reserva de Familia" 2003 ($16, William-Harrison): This is undoubtedly the best tempranillo I've tasted from anywhere beyond Spain or Portugal, featuring ripe, juicy, bright fruit reminiscent of black cherries. The oak component is well integrated, and though I was also impressed by Tittarelli's Tempranillo Reserva 2003 at $12, this bottling is worth more than the $4 difference in price.
Zolo (Mendoza) Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($14, Epic Wines/Wine Partners): This shows impressive depth of flavor but no hints of over-extraction, over-oaking or overripeness. Powerful but pure, this is a great deal.
Finca La Linda (by Luigi Bosca) (Mendoza) Tempranillo 2004 ($9, William-Harrison): With vivid black cherry fruit and perfectly balanced acidity and oak, this tastes as though it should cost $20.
Andeluna (Mendoza) Cabernet Sauvignon "Winemaker's Selection" 2003 ($12, Kysela): Near-great cabernets at $12 are rare. Dark, concentrated and deeply flavored, this shows the complexity of a much more expensive wine. Andeluna's "Winemaker's Selection" Merlot 2003 is also a superb buy at $12.
La Posta del Vinatero (Guaymallen, Mendoza) Estela Armando Vineyard Bonarda 2003 ($15, Vine Connections/Bacchus): The bonarda grape is presumed to be Italian in origin, and whereas it has never distinguished itself in Italy, it is widely planted and often quite successful in Argentina. This rendition shows lots of ripe, deeply colored fruit with good balance and length. Readers looking to experiment should know that Tittarelli (Mendoza) Bonarda 2003 ($9, William-Harrison) is nearly as good and more attractively priced, and that Colonia las Liebres (Mendoza) Bonarda 2004 ($7.50, Bacchus) is also quite tasty.
Also Recommended: Mil Piedras (Mendoza) Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($15, Epic/Wine Partners); Terra Rosa (Mendoza) Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 ($15, Laurel Glen/Country Vintner); Dona Paula (Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza) Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($11, Vineyard Brands/National); Septima (Mendoza) Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 ($9, Vinum/Wine Partners); Septima (Mendoza) Malbec 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon 40 percent 2002 ($8, Vinum/Wine Partners); La Puerta (La Rioja) Shiraz 2004 ($7, J. Cambier); Las Moras (San Juan) Bonarda 2004 ($8, 57 Main Street/National).