When Luigi Bosca, a top wine producer from Mendoza, made his first appearance at the London Wine Fair in 1993 people shuffled up to his stand, looking curious. “Does Argentina actually make wine!?” one or two of them spluttered into their wine glasses, clearly amazed that the land of Evita, the mighty Pampas and the world’s juiciest steaks also had its own vineyards. Undeterred, he has been back every year and has never been asked since. Instead he has witnessed a revolution in the awareness, scale and quality of Argentina wine. And it has all happened at break-neck speed.
In 2002, Michel Rolland, the French wine consultant extraordinaire, was unveiling the first vintage of Clos de Los Siete. This US$60 million project involves seven of the grandest wine dynasties from Bordeaux who collectively own 2000 acres of vineyards in Tunuyan, fifty miles south of Mendoza. “What we are looking for is to make wines equal to the best in the world, while retaining their own Argentine identity,” Rolland explained. A year later Pierre Lurton, director of Cheval Blanc, launched Cheval de Los Andes, the first time this iconic Chateau had ever ventured beyond its native St. Emilion.
This is not to say the country’s finest wines are all made by Frenchmen – far from it, but the fact that these Old World grandees picked Argentina over anywhere else in the world speaks volumes. Like many others, including the top Californian winemaker Paul Hobbs, they came because there is something here in the soil, the grapes, the clarity of sunlight, and the different altitudes that you simply can’t find elsewhere.
Vines of Mendoza – Photograph by Justin De La Ornellas
What Makes Great Argentine Wine?
So what makes a great Argentine wine? For Santiago Archaval, of the award-winning Archaval-Ferrer winery in La Consulta in Mendoza, it’s not an easy question. After a lengthy pause, he defines it as a wine “that not only demands respect for its quality, but also incites emotion for its ability to reflect its place of origin. A wine whose originality is evident in the nose and the palate. A wine with intensity, complexity and balance, power and elegance. A wine that makes you travel in your mind! A wine that makes the small hairs on your arms rise in amazement!”
There are a few magical places able to produce such wines in Argentina, but until recently the potential was not always realised. It was almost as if the winemakers lacked faith in just how good the land (what the French call ‘terroir’) could be. To justify the status and price of an ‘icon’ wine, it was somehow easier to talk about your cellar packed full of barrels made from the newest and most expensive French oak.
“There may have been an excessive reliance on winery techniques and too little trust in the vineyard,” says Santiago. “But the mere presence of some wines that were (and still are) true to their terroir acts like a magnet for passionate winemakers, and tempts them to risk a bit to gain a lot.”
Malbec is king, as much for fine wines as for everyday wines. But it was not always so. The first love of Nicolas Catena, the man who really helped put Argentina on the world’s wine map with Catena Zapata, was Cabernet Sauvignon, just like most of his compatriots. Up until 1990, Malbec vineyards were being pulled up or abandoned. Today, if they are in a favoured site like La Consulta, such abandoned vines are among the most sought after vineyards in the entire country. No one has any doubts that just because Malbec is so widely planted and able to provide pleasure at £5 it can also challenge the finest wines at much higher prices.
Bodega Luigi Bosca – Photograph by Flopisubmarina
Alastair Viner, the wine buyer at Harrods, recently put this to the test. “We tried some £70 – £80 wines from Weinert from the late seventies alongside some old Bordeaux, and they knocked the socks off Bordeaux.” In September the famous Knightsbridge store ran a successful Argentine wine promotion that stretched all the way up to £100 for the rarest bottles of Vina Cobos from Paul Hobbs. Even at those prices people were still buying.
Viner believes the best wines tend to be blends of some description, whether of different parcels of Malbec grown at different altitudes, or other grapes like Cabernet and Petit Verdot added to Malbec: “I think they have a little more finesse, and there are also some pretty good Bordeaux blends.” Sebastián San Martín, winemaker at Argento, believes the top wines can be from single estates or blends, but either way feels they will only get better as the best vineyards are mapped out in ever greater detail. “It’s amazing the way soil can change in just a 100 metres, and in the past we didn’t have that knowledge.”
If you are lucky enough to try the top wines of Archaval-Ferrer, you can compare Quimera – a blend of Malbec, Cabernet and Merlot, with the varietal purity of the three single cru Malbecs, known as the ‘Finca’ wines. Which is better? Who knows – they are all equally delicious. As are the stunning field blends of Luigi Bosca – Finca Los Nobles and ’Gala 3’.
Archaval Ferrer, Mendoaz:
Luigi Bosca, Mendoza:
Bodega Catena Zapata, Mendoza :
Bodega Doña Paula, Mendoza:
Viña Cobos, Mendoza:
Bodega Noemia, Patagonia:
Bodega Colomé , Salta:
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