Argentina is retreating to the future. During a four-day July visit to Mendoza, its primary wine-growing region, several winemakers told me in almost identical terms how they were moving away from the international style of winemaking of big, tannic, fruit-forward and powerfully alcoholic wines. Instead, they were trying to make wines that express their place of origin, or terroir. Their statements were so similar I began to suspect I was trapped in a viticultural reboot of "The Stepford Wives."
“All over Argentina, we are moving away from the old style, what we call the Parker style, of three things: Overripe, over-extracted and over-wooded,” said Hervé Birnie-Scott, estate director of Terrazas de los Andes, a winery established in the early 1990s by the French Moët et Chandon Champagne house. (He was referring, of course, to the influential critic Robert M. Parker Jr. More on him in a minute.)
“There are three main factors working against terroir,” José Alberto Zuccardi of Bodega Zuccardi told me the next day. “Argentina’s wines have been very ripe, very extracted, and very oaky,” he said, referring to winery techniques that increase the color and concentration of a wine. “We want the taste to come from the land, not the oak.”
I heard similar sentiments throughout my visit. Argentina is pulling away from the dominant international style of winemaking over the past two or three decades, commercially successful but increasingly criticized for creating a homogeneity of wines. By focusing on ripeness and winery techniques to extract the most color and concentration, the counterargument goes, winemakers were sculpting wines to match some universal, platonic ideal devoid of passion or originality. A merlot from here could be indistinguishable from a cabernet from there, but as long as both were dark, oaky and powerful, they’d pass muster.
This style is often blamed, unfairly in my view, on Parker, founder of the Wine Advocate magazine. If you’ve never subscribed, you’ve probably seen his ratings on the 100-point scale reprinted on ubiquitous “shelf-talker” advertisements in retail stores. Parker, dubbed the world’s most powerful critic, has favored the biggest wines, but he never forced winemakers to adopt this style — they were chasing a unicorn market of high point scores.
You may know Argentina wine for good-value Malbec up and down the price scale, and you'd be right. But many of these wines could come from anywhere. Increasingly, Argentina's vintners are trying to produce distinctive wines that could come from no place other than Argentina. Like some of their colleagues in neighboring Chile, they aren't reaching for some international ideal; they want you to love them for their Latin originality. To achieve this goal, they have perhaps ironically embraced a style of winemaking fashionable around the world, from Napa Valley to Bordeaux, to Chile and Virginia and Maryland, known as "precision viticulture."
Precision viticulture involves extensive soil analysis to determine where various grape varieties perform best. On a micro scale, this means isolating small areas within vineyards. Birnie-Scott demonstrated this for me by tapping an app on his iPhone that called up a vineyard map showing the electro-conductivity of various vineyard parcels. That’s catnip for winemakers, but it’s hard to argue with the way the wines of Terrazas have combined intensity and elegance since Birnie-Scott began tinkering with the formula with the 2013 vintage.
On a macro scale, these efforts to define Mendoza’s terroir focus on alluvial areas, where melting glaciers thousands of years ago sent limestone and granite tumbling down from the Andes. Two areas are all the buzz in Mendoza: Gualtallary, about a 30-minute drive from the city at 1,450 meters altitude in the Andes foothills, and Altamira, an hour’s drive farther south and slightly higher in altitude.
In Gualtallary, I toured Catena winery’s Adrianna vineyard with Luis Reginato, Catena’s vineyard manager and a talented winemaker with his own Chaman label. Reginato showed me several soil pits dug into the vine rows. From these vines, Catena produces stunning Chardonnays called White Bones, from soils layered with fossils and limestone from an ancient river, and another called White Stones, from gravelly soils just a few vine rows away. They show complexity and depth to suggest that Argentina can produce Chardonnays to rival some of the world’s best. Catena also makes three impressively distinctive red wines from Malbec grapes grown in the same vineyard.
Farther south in Altamira, the Zuccardi family has built a futuristic winery that seems to meld into the Andes landscape. José Alberto Zuccardi, the second generation, built the family's Santa Julia brand into a reliable source for Argentine value. Today his son, Sebastian, is exploring higher-altitude vineyards to find the clearest expression of Mendoza's terroir. The higher the altitude, the more intense the sunlight, which helps ripen the grapes; also, the rockier the soils, giving more structure and mineral character to the wines.
Martín di Stefano, head viticulturist for Zuccardi, showed me around their vineyards in Altamira, including two soil pits just a few meters apart, one showing stones down several feet, the other mostly clay.
“When we talk of terroir, we are not talking just place, but also time,” di Stefano said, referring to the centuries it took for the melting glaciers to deposit those soils in the vineyard. Then he described today’s focus on precision viticulture and harvesting by individual vineyard lots to express that terroir in pop culture terms.
“It’s like the cover for Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon,’ ” he said. “When you harvest everything together and blend them, you have the boring white light. But if you manage these differences, you see the colors of the spectrum.”
By going higher into the mountains and deeper into the soils, Argentina’s winemakers are bringing those colors to light.
More from Food: