Argentine Wines Have Mile-High Taste, Rock Bottom Prices

After nine years of economic boom, Argentina again teeters on its own fiscal cliff. Yet the one continuing bright spot in the country's economy is its wine industry, which has record sales abroad based on high quality wine at remarkably modest prices.

According to the Wines of Argentina, sales of the country’s malbec, the dominant varietal here, grew by double digits worldwide from 2004 through 2011, while the number of cases exported to the U.S. more than doubled from 2007 through 2012. At a time when the global market is glutted, Argentina is the world’s fifth largest wine producer.

The country’s last financial crash in 2002 gave the wine industry a boost when exports benefited from a weaker peso and falling land prices made it cheaper to plant vines.

Seventy percent of Argentina’s wines come from the Mendoza region, whose 900 vineyards occupy 370,500 acres spread across desert-like terrain as high as 5,800 feet. The altitude, dry soil and low humidity help protect against the effects of global warming. The influence of warm and cold ocean currents el nino and la nina are mitigated, and phylloxera blight is kept at bay.

Wine Pioneer

A number of highly-praised labels are now coming out of Argentina, including Bodegas Salentein and BenMarco. But none has the pedigree or clout of Nicolas Catena Family Estates, founded in 1902, with vineyards throughout Mendoza.

His great granddaughter, Laura Catena, is both managing director of the company and a physician. She graduated magna cum laude in biology from Harvard and earned a medical degree in emergency care from Stanford. The mother of three (her husband is also a doctor), Catena splits her time between her San Francisco medical practice and her family’s winery in Mendoza.

“My personal motto is ‘Hard on issues, soft on people,’” she told me during a visit to the Catena Zapata winery. “We constantly work on quality through rigorous blending. A bottle of wine is like an orchestra: the instruments are all wonderful on their own, but together they create a truly beautiful sound.”

The family was also a pioneer, starting in 1994, in growing malbec, a grape used for softening cabernet blends in Bordeaux, which is now Argentina’s most admired varietal.

Beginning in 2001, Catena brought her scientific knowledge to bear on improving malbec to the point where it replaced cabernet sauvignon as their principal varietal.

Catena Zapata’s high altitude vineyards now produce some of the most prestigious wines in Argentina, none exceeding 14.5 percent alcohol levels. “We hate high alcohol,” Catena insists, as we sample some of her wines.

Bold Malbecs

The Nicasia Vineyards Malbec 2009 and the Adrianna Vineyard Lot 9 Malbec 2009 were outstanding, big and bold but softer and fruitier than the inky, malbec-based Cahors wines of France.

Catena also owns two less expensive lines that really hit the sweet spot in the current global market. Don Miguel Gascon wines use malbec along with grapes like bonarda, syrah and cabernet sauvignon to make bold, tannic wines with fruit up front and a fine balance, just the thing for the Argentine beef that dominates every meal here. These wines sell for $15 a bottle and taste like they cost twice as much.

Catena’s third winery is Alamos, whose winemaker, Felipe Stahlschmidt, contends that his mountain climbing in the Andes sharpens his senses for blending grapes from different vineyards. “The mountains are always there to remind me of the nature of the place,” he says.

Clean Chardonnay

The Alamos wines include a well-rounded Seleccion Malbec 2011 ($20), along with a remarkably complex Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 and a good clean Chardonnay. The Torrontes 2012, a white varietal, is a real delight, with delicious spice, layers of stone fruit flavors and a marvelous bouquet.

This formerly negligible grape widely grown in Argentina could well become the next big white varietal, in the style of viognier or gruner veltliner.

What’s remarkable is that apart from the Seleccion Malbec, all the Alamos wines sell for just $13. True, you can find good, similarly priced white and red wines from Italy, Chile and even Bordeaux. But these Argentinean varietals are very distinctive, with unique flavors and styles that fully express their location and show how modest grapes like malbec and torrontes can become revelations in the glass.

(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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