Argentina is justly known for its malbec, a red wine that can be a great value at any price. But although malbec may be the country’s signature grape, it is by no means the only one that performs well in Argentina’s high-altitude vineyards. I’ve written before about the cabernet sauvignon, bonarda and torrontes, a flowery white found virtually nowhere else; recently, I’ve found myself pining for Argentina’s chardonnay.
And I’m not one to pine for chardonnay, unless the label says Chablis, Champagne or Bourgogne in one of its manifestations. That’s not snobbery, at least not intentionally; chardonnay is the world’s most popular white wine, which means it is produced by the boatload and much of it is undistinguished or worse. That makes it all the more remarkable to find a country or region producing it at such high quality and relatively low price.
Argentina’s great natural asset is the Andes mountain range. Vintners in the primary wine region of Mendoza have spent the past two decades climbing higher in search of terrain suitable for planting grapes. The altitude gives them a potent combination of intense sunlight to ripen the grapes and cool temperatures to preserve acidity and freshness. The highest-altitude vineyards can make some stunning chardonnay.
Chardonnay from Mendoza (and other emerging regions, such as San Juan) features tropical fruit flavors enlivened with citrus. That citrus character reflects the acidity from the cooler climate. Many of the wines display an appealing minerality, suggesting that although the winemakers are reaching for the sun, the wines remain firmly grounded. Their balance also makes them versatile with a wide variety of foods, though you might be tempted to sip even the weightier ones by themselves.
Bodega Catena Zapata has set the standard for chardonnay in Argentina, as it has for malbec. The Catena Alta chardonnay, from a vineyard at nearly 4,800 feet, is consistently top-rate, with deft barrel treatment that adds structure and spice without overpowering the fruit. At about $30, it competes well with top chardonnays from around the world that cost a lot more.
Not content with that success, fourth-generation wine director Laura Catena and winemaker Alejandro Vigil have isolated the best vine rows from this vineyard on two soil types, vinified the grapes using the strictest Burgundy techniques, and bottled them separately as examples of their individual terroirs. The Catena Zapata White Stones Chardonnay is grown on chalky soil covered with gravel, while the Catena Zapata White Bones Chardonnay grows on ground rich with limestone and fossilized animal bones washed down from the Andes by an ancient river.
Those wines, which should reach the U.S. market this summer (and which I have not yet tasted), reflect their lofty altitude in more than just flavor: They will retail for $100 and $135, respectively.
Catena has successfully broached the century price level with single-vineyard, high-altitude malbecs. To challenge that threshold with chardonnay, a wine with much more competition from around the world, is risky — and gutsy. Laura Catena is effectively arguing that her chardonnays — and by extension Argentina’s — belong among the world’s best.
At more down-to-earth price levels, Catena has stiff competition from Bodegas Salentein, a lavishly funded estate in the Valle de Uco sector of Mendoza. Salentein’s wines have improved markedly since the arrival in 2009 of chief winemaker Jose Galante. No wonder; Galante spent the previous three decades making wine at Catena. Salentein’s Reserve Chardonnay 2011 is electric, and an incredible value at $20.
Paul Hobbs, the noted California winemaker, is a consultant at Salentein and a partner at Vina Cobos winery in Mendoza. Hobbs and his winemaking partners, Andrea Marchiori and Luis Barraud, make a delicious chardonnay under their Felino brand and a richer, oakier, pricier one under their Bramare label.
With such good chardonnay, plus cabernet, torrontes and bonarda, Argentina has much more to be proud of than just its malbec.