Anyone looking for value in wine, up and down the price range, should look to Argentina. The country produces wines of high quality at low prices, and the more expensive bottles — even those stretching into the triple digits as if they were grasping the Andes’ peaks — often perform as well as, if not better than, similarly priced trophies from more classic regions.
Anyone interested in exploring wine beyond the simple buzz of the grocery store quaff should also look to Argentina. Although winemaking there dates back to the Spanish colonial era, Argentina’s modern story is still relatively young. Winegrowers are still exploring the heights of the Andean foothills in Mendoza, Patagonia to the south or Salta to the north, testing the extremes of altitude to produce the best wine possible. We consumers can, without spending a mountain of moola, use Argentina as our personal laboratory to explore the nuances of terroir and understand how two wines made from the same grape can taste subtly but distinctly different because they were grown on different soils, at different altitudes, just a few miles — or even meters — apart.
And anyone exploring Argentina should begin with two names: Catena and Zuccardi. These family wineries, now in their fourth and third generations, respectively, have been setting the standard, especially in Mendoza, the country’s main wine region. Not only do they offer wines of great value, but they have been Sherpas, leading the region’s explorations up the Andes foothills to develop higher-elevation vineyards.
Argentina’s wines burst onto the U.S. market in the 1980s, thanks to three people. Nicolas Catena, the third-generation head of a winery that fueled the tango bars of Buenos Aires, realized that he could improve the quality of his wines by planting vineyards at higher altitudes. He brought in Paul Hobbs, an up-and-coming winemaker from Napa Valley, to consult. They teamed up with Alfredo Bartholomaus, a Chilean-born importer based in the Washington area to create the Alamos brand of malbec, a successful brand that is still widely available in U.S. markets today.
Laura Catena, Nicolas’s daughter, now manages the winery and is pushing the exploration of Mendoza’s altitudes, especially in the Uco Valley, south of the city. But it was her father’s intuition about the mountains that set the stage for things to come.
Here’s Argentina’s secret: Every additional 100 meters (about 328 feet) of altitude decreases the average temperature by 1 degree Celsius. That means grapes with higher acidity and softer tannins. But the intensity of the sunlight increases as well, allowing the grapes to achieve maximum ripeness while the cooler temperatures keep the sugars in check. The combination of low temperatures and high-intensity sun yields red wines of high intensity and extraction, soft and almost imperceptible tannins, and impressive structure and balance.
Altitude is only one factor in Argentina’s reach for quality.
“Our wines are wines of the sun, but also of the soil,” says Sebastian Zuccardi, third-generation winemaker at Familia Zuccardi in Mendoza. He is also in charge of winemaking at his family’s Santa Julia winery. It would be easy to say the Zuccardi wines emphasize quality, while the Santa Julia label offers value, but that would be oversimplifying it. Both lines offer value and quality.
The Zuccardi family built a new winery a few years ago in the Paraje Altamira area of the Uco Valley, about a 90-minute drive south of Mendoza. Zuccardi uses concrete tanks for fermenting and aging his red wines, believing that way he can produce malbec that is most expressive of its terroir. Oak barrels, he argues, add flavors that mask a wine’s true character.
Zuccardi has introduced a new series of wines called Poligonos, priced under $30 a bottle, to showcase the different areas of the Uco Valley, such as San Pablo, Tupungato and Paraje Altamira, and their expressions of malbec. This line of wines will match Catena’s appellation series, in the same price range. Together, they offer wine lovers a chance to explore the nuances of terroir at high quality but moderate price.
José Zuccardi, Sebastian’s father, built the Santa Julia and Zuccardi label with an emphasis on quality, value and organic viticulture. “Argentina has never seen the quality that it has today,” he said during a recent visit to Washington. “We are now producing wines with elegance and finesse.”
I could not agree more.