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Malbec Rules in Argentina
By Ed McCarthy
Nov 9, 2010
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I visited Argentina last month to see what changes had taken place in its wine regions since my last trip five years ago.  I came away with three major observations:

Torrontés has definitely become the country’s leading white wine, and it’s better than ever.  Five years ago, I was tasting a lot more Chardonnay than Torrontés in Argentina.  Most of the finer Torrontés wines come from the Cafayate Valley in the Salta region, in the northern part of the country.  Thanks to its very high altitude, this location, clearly a cool-climate region, is producing excellent Torrontés wines.  This is very good news for consumers, because most of these wines retail in the $10 to $15 price range in the U.S.

Patagonia, in the southern end of Argentina, is emerging as an important wine region.  The hope is that Patagonia, the nearest region to Antarctica, will become the best source of the country’s Pinot Noir wines.  It’s still too early to tell how good it will be, but just about every producer in Patagonia is including Pinot Noir in its wine portfolio.  Patagonia also looks to be promising for its sparkling wines.

Malbec is now firmly entrenched as the leading red wine in Argentina, both in popularity and in quantity produced.  Bonarda, a little known variety--indigenous to northwest Italy--used to be the country’s largest-grown variety.  (Less expensive than Malbec, the prolific Bonarda was popular with the locals, and is still also used extensively in red-wine blends.)  Malbec’s success is not exactly big news.  Five years ago, anyone could have predicted that Malbec would be Argentina’s leading red wine.  What is surprising is the degree to which it really dominates Argentina’s red wine scene.  Cabernet Sauvignon, which vied in popularity with Malbec five years ago, seems to be fading in popularity in Argentina.  Merlot is hardly seen at all.  Malbec rules.

It is easy to understand Malbec’s dominance in Argentina.  This variety, which has practically disappeared from its original home in Bordeaux, is thriving in Argentina’s most important wine region, Mendoza, with its warm, dry climate.  Bordeaux’s maritime climate was just too damp, especially during harvest time in autumn, for the late-ripening Malbec.  (Cahors, a region in southwest France that is inland from Bordeaux and dryer, is the world’s only other important Malbec wine region.)

I asked wine producers why Malbec had become so much more important than Cabernet Sauvignon in Argentina.  I was curious because I had always thought that Argentine Cabernet wines were just as good, and sometimes better, than its Malbecs.  The answer, always the same, made sense.  Practically every red wine region in the world makes Cabernet Sauvignon wines.  Many of them are excellent, and it’s difficult for Argentine Cabernet Sauvignons to compete with them in the marketplace.  Argentina is the only place in the world that offers easy-drinking, moderately-priced Malbec wines.  France’s much smaller Cahors region produces a more tannic, more expensive Malbec wine that usually needs time to develop--a very different wine from the typically more accessible Argentine Malbec.

I tasted more than a hundred Malbecs in Argentina last month, and I’ve noticed quite a few changes from five years ago.  I am happy to report that most producers are making more judicious use of oak in their Malbecs.  Five years ago, many Malbecs, especially the more expensive ones, were too dominated by oaky aromas.  On the minus side of the ledger, too many Argentine Malbecs have a sameness about them: fairly pleasant, soft, fruity wines, somewhat simple in style, and easy to drink.

But at the top level, Malbec can shine.  For example, Mendoza’s Uco Valley, which is a huge, gently sloping plateau high up in the Andes Mountains (over 3,000 feet) is the location of some of the country’s greatest wines--Malbec, Malbec-blends, and other wines, including white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.  The incomparable wine consultant, Michel Rolland, is the mastermind of the multi-wine operation called Clos de la Siete, which he founded in 1999 in the Uco Valley.  Rolland consults around the world, but when he decided to build his own winery, he chose Uco Valley.  It was here that so much untouched, desirable wine land remained, at that time.  (Uco Valley is now filling up rapidly.) 

Clos de la Siete is a huge tract of vineyard land (1800 acres), larger than the entire Pomerol region in Bordeaux!  Pomerol is of course Rolland’s home base--specifically the Bordeaux chateau, Le Bon Pasteur.  The “Siete” in the name refers to the fact there are seven owners, all French, friends of Rolland in the wine business, mainly from Bordeaux.  Each owner makes his own wine from his own vineyard, with separate winemakers, but Rolland oversees the entire operation.  I tasted most of the wines; some are 100 percent Malbec, and some are blends, but Malbec always predominates.  All of the wines were among the best I tasted in Argentina, but they are small-production wines, and a bit pricey ($25 to $50, retail). The Clos de la Siete partner-winery wines include the 2008 Flechas de los Andes Gran Malbec, about $25; 2007 Cuvelier de los Andes Grand Vin, $35; 2005 Lindaflor and 2005 Val de Flores, both $45.  All are 100 percent Malbec except Cuvelier de los Andes, a Malbec blend.  All are 90+ point wines.

The group’s collective wine, named Clos de la Siete, is made from grapes from all seven vineyards. It stands out because it’s on the same excellent level as the single-vineyard wines, and yet is reasonably priced--retailing between $15 to $20 throughout the U.S.--and is widely available.  Clos de la Siete is a blend of grape varieties; Rolland  believes that he can make a better, more complex wine as a blend.  The blend varies from vintage to vintage (2002 was the first Clos de la Siete; 2008 is the current vintage), but the wine is always at least 50 percent Malbec, with Merlot next in importance (20 to 30 percent), and usually about 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Syrah rounding out the wine.

The current 2008 Clos de la Siete, with one million bottles produced and available in 40 countries, is a dark-colored, full-bodied wine, more tannic and more serious than the typically softer, fruitier Malbecs.  It is earthy and complex, really closer in style to Bordeaux than to other Argentine Malbec-dominated wines.  Clos de la Siete needs time to develop. I tasted the older vintages; 2003 through 2006 were all impressive, and 2007 and 2008  were equally good but too young to drink right now--rather amazing at this price point.

Other Argentine Malbec wines of note: from Mendoza, Luigi Bosca’s 2007; Doña Paula’s 2009 Estate Malbec and its excellent 2007 Seleccion de Bodega; Catena Zapata’s 2007; Lagarde’s 2009; Trapiche’s 2007 single-vineyard Malbecs (great values). Also, Bodegas El Porvenir de Los Andes’
2005 Malbec blend (from Cafayate Valley, Salta); from Patagonia, Bodega del Fin del Mundo’s 2008 Malbec Reserva; and Bodega NQN’s 2010 Malbec, the six-month old “Malma” Finca La Papay, its 2007 Malbec “Malma” Reserva de Familia, and NQN’s 2007 Malbec Colleccion.

Bodega NQN was generally the most impressive winery in Patagonia. NQN is also making a good Pinot Noir--2010 “Malma” Finca la Papay, and a fine 2009 Extra Brut sparkling wine.  But Bodega del Fin del Mundo’s salmon-colored 2008 Extra Brut was probably the best sparkling wine that I tasted in all of Argentina; Humberto Canale’s NV Extra Brut, also from Patagonia, was very good as well.

Argentine Cabernet Sauvignons that impressed me include Familia Schroeder’s 2005 Cabernet (includes some Cabernet Franc) and 2007 “Saurus” Cabernet Sauvignon Select  (from Patagonia); from Mendoza, Catena Zapata’s 2007 “Alta” Cabernet Sauvignon; Argento’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva; and Casarena’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon  (barrel sample) from 50 year-plus vines.

I happen to like Argentina’s Bonarda wines (very similar to Barbera), even though their DNA is apparently different from the Bonardas that are in Italy.  Like Barbera, they are medium-bodied, have great tart cherry fruit flavors, high acidity, and low tannins.  And they’re value-priced, retailing in the $9 to $14 range.  Bonarda wines that I liked include Serrera’s 2008; Zuccardi’s Series “A”; Argento’s 2009--all from Mendoza; and Vallée de la La Puerta Alta’s 2007 Bonarda Reserva from La Rioja (north of Mendoza).  Bodega Norton makes an excellent Bonarda and Barbera, but neither is currently available in the U.S.

Familia Zuccardi also makes a very fine Tempranillo, “Q” Series. I tasted the 2007 vintage; the 2006 Zuccardi is currently available in the U.S,retailing  in the $18 to $20 price range.  Also, Bodegas El Porvenir de Los Andes’ 2010 “Laborum” Tannat (from Salta) was very impressive.

The biggest surprise for me in Argentina’s wines has been the vast improvement in its Torrontés.  Five years ago, when these wines retailed for less than $10, I regarded them as decent everyday whites, but a bit too sweet and flowery.  Now that most of the better Torrontés wines are coming from the cool Salta region, they demonstrate lively acidity, are dryer, and have captivating grapefruit flavors. Torrontés wines which stood out included the El Porvenir de Los Andes 2010 “Laborum” from Salta; Vallée de la La Puerta Alta’s 2010  from La Rioja; and a brilliant  2010  Doña Paula from its estate in Salta’s Cafayate Valley.

I concluded that many Argentine wines, especially some Malbecs and most of the Torrontés, have moved past the average range, and are now among the best wines of the world--particularly in their price range.