Argentina: The Cool Years

Current releases from Argentina are strikingly different from the wines of just a decade ago. In recent years, Argentina’s top grape-growers and winemakers have sought out cooler, mostly higher-altitude sites and soils more conducive to making fresher, more complex, better-balanced wines. Moreover, since 2013 Argentina has experienced a succession of cool vintages, and this weather trend has further intensified the shift away from porty, high-octane reds with dried-fruit character. The result has been a greater number of outstanding bottlings than ever before.

Vineyards in San Juan, part of the semi-desert Cuyo region

A Growing Focus on Soils and Terroir

The Uco Valley, located to the south of Luján de Cuyo in Argentina’s dominant Mendoza region, is currently the most exciting wine-producing region in Argentina as this area offers a dizzying range of soils, exposures, altitudes and microclimates. It’s generally cooler than Luján de Cuyo and includes the highest vineyards in the Mendoza region. Particularly wide diurnal shifts in its higher-altitude vineyards bring extra flavor intensity and preserve acidity in the grapes. In recent years Argentina has been introducing a new Indicación Geográfica, or IG, system to highlight locations with special attributes, and it’s no coincidence that many of these new place names are in the Uco Valley.

Increasingly, Mendoza’s best producers are seeking out soil rich in calcium carbonate, the main component of limestone and chalk. Not only does this type of soil produce wines with pungent saline minerality and extra inner-mouth energy and tension, but it can provide a near-ideal combination of drainage and water retention for a hot, arid climate where viticulture depends on irrigation. According to Alejandro Vigil, who is responsible for the Catena Zapata wines and his own label Bodega Aleanna, limestone is critical for getting adequate but controlled water retention. “Limestone can absorb 50% of its volume in water,” he told me, “and this is very important for maintaining the hydric status of the vines.”

The hottest cool spot in the Uco Valley these days is the high-altitude Gualtallary, which was considered essentially too cold for wine production barely a decade ago but is now already producing extraordinary wines from limestone-based soil: not just Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon but also Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and others. Some insiders even describe Gualtallary as a potentially excellent area for Pinot Noir. Other hot zones in Mendoza include Paraje Altamira, the first IG to be officially approved, and other, more familiar names like Agrelo, Las Compuertas, La Consulta and Vista Flores. Of course, the use of place names on Argentine wine labels remains quite confusing for consumers outside the local market, as many producers now promote the most specific place names possible, eschewing better-known subregional names like the Uco Valley’s three departments: Tupungato, Tunuyán and San Carlos. For example, Gualtallary is in Tunuyán, which is a department within the Uco Valley, which in turn is one of Mendoza’s three regions, along with the Central Region (which includes departments like Luján de Cuyo and Maipú) and the South Region.

I also tasted more wines than ever before from Salta, in Argentina’s extreme northwest, more than 800 miles north of Mendoza. The region features Argentina’s highest vineyards (the new Colomé Altura Maximá Malbec is from vines planted more than 10,000 feet above sea level). While it produces the majority of Argentina’s finest Torrontés bottlings, it also excels with Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon and is beginning to turn out top-notch Tannat as well.

The Cafayate Valley in Salta had drier conditions in 2015 than Mendoza

A Succession of Cool Years 

Two thousand fifteen was probably the most difficult vintage for Mendoza since the El Niño year of 1998 (happily, Patagonia and Cafayate Valley in Salta had drier conditions). The growing season in Mendoza was plagued by atypically cool temperatures and potentially damaging rains. Rot was widely an issue, and heavy rain at the beginning of April was especially destructive to the later-ripening Cabernets. Two thousand fourteen was also a trying year, with substantial rains in February followed by warmer but humid conditions in March that also resulted in rot issues. In both of these vintages, many growers opted to harvest early, fearing incipient rot and yet more rainfall. But it must be pointed out that rot pressures are typically much greater in valley-floor vineyards and heavier clay-loam soils, and far less so at higher altitudes and on well-drained sandy alluvial, rocky or gravelly slopes.

A number of winemakers, especially those in the Uco Valley, are a bit more sanguine about 2015 and 2014.  Some claim that 2014 was a good year, and indeed certain areas in the northern part of the valley appear to have done well.  But my tastings suggest that the vintage was seriously challenging and inconsistent: too many meager red wines with green, dry, dusty tannins were produced. The later-ripening Cabernets are apt to suffer in cold, wet, late growing seasons and were more likely than Malbec to make dilute or overly herbaceous wines in both ’14 and ’15. (Incidentally, vintage 2016 will be the latest harvest in Argentina in recent memory, owing to mostly chilly and miserable conditions in spring and early summer.)

Quality varies widely in 2014 and 2015, depending on terroir, yields, canopy management, drainage and other factors. According to Roberto de la Mota, both vintages showed clear differences between favored sites with stony, well-drained soils, like Perdriel or Mayor Drummond in Luján de Cuyo and Altamira and Gualtallary in Uco Valley, and deeper silty, loamy soils like in Agrelo.

Alejandro Vigil pointed out that in some Uco Valley sites in 2014 there were as many as 80 days between the veraison and harvest and that this extended hang time allowed for very good ripeness at moderate alcohol levels. He considers 2014 to be an excellent year for high-altitude Malbec, noting that cold years “are not a problem” but that rains can affect the health of the grapes. He is also high on 2015, but I should point out that Catena owns some of the best-placed vineyards in Mendoza and also has the financial wherewithal and know-how to harvest with great precision.

Enologist Roberto de la Mota, who makes wines under his own Mendel label and consults for numerous wineries in Argentina, noted that 2014 was more humid and rainy than normal but asserted that it was not a particularly cold season but rather warmer, in fact, than 2013.

Consulting winemaker/enologist Alberto Antonini points out that wet years can be hard for Argentina’s growers to deal with, as they are accustomed to doing very few vineyard treatments. So in the recent rain-plagued harvest seasons they have often had their hands full with downy mildew or botrytis and in many cases have had no choice but to bring in their fruit before it was properly ripe. Still, Antonini told me that he actually likes the more humid years because wines made in a desert can lack elegance and complexity. “It’s a lot easier to achieve purity, energy and tension in humid seasons,” he said, “as opposed simply to concentration, viscosity and power.” He is very high on the best 2014 Malbecs but pointed out that 2015 was much more challenging in terms of rain and rot. And he noted that both of these years were difficult for Cabernet Sauvignon, as the variety often struggled to ripen before it rotted.

Two thousand thirteen, which figured prominently in my red wine tastings this winter, was a cool but dry year in which unusually low temperatures in February and March ensured slow, even ripening of the grapes without dehydration. The wines are quite stylish in the context of Argentina: fresh and often floral, with sound acidity, vibrant fruit, mostly medium body, considerable aromatic complexity, impressive delineation and mostly suave tannins. On balance, this should turn out to be Mendoza’s finest and most complete vintage of the 21st century to date. With naturally healthy acidity, relatively low pHs and superb natural equilibrium, the 2013s should evolve gracefully in bottle.

Vineyards in Rio Negro, a region located at the northern edge of Patagonia

Economic Crosscurrents Affecting Argentine Wine

The election last November of center-right politician Mauricio Macri, originally a civil engineer and more recently the mayor of Buenos Aires, has generated a great deal of optimism among wine producers in Argentina—not to mention most of the country’s population—who believe that they will profit from a more stable economic environment in the years ahead, as Argentina eventually reaps the benefits of vastly reduced currency controls. In the recent past, though, an artificial and unrealistic exchange rate and runaway inflation have made doing business extremely tricky.

Exactly a year ago, the “official” exchange rate was 8.7 pesos per U.S. dollar, but the black market rate (referred to as “the blue dollar” in Argentina) was 30% to 40% higher. Wine producers in Argentina could only be paid at the official rate, as their international customers were required to pay them through the Bank of Argentina. In his first week in power, Macri allowed the peso to float, and its value overnight plunged from 9.5 to the dollar to a more realistic 15. Across the board, companies in Argentina raised their prices by 50% or more and crucial commodities like gasoline and electricity went up even more sharply.

In recent years, a shortage of cash and runaway inflation have forced all but a handful of well-capitalized companies to make creative shortcuts in wine production, such as increasing yields or cutting back on their purchases of new barrels. At the same time, with prices for barrels, bottles, corks, other equipment and labor rising virtually every month, many vineyard owners have found it less risky simply to sell off their wine early in bulk in order to stay alive through faster turnover. These bulk wines can be very competitive in international markets, but they are not wines I would recommend to Vinous subscribers, much less want to drink myself. In sum, Argentina’s financial problems have made it extremely difficult for producers to make fine wines.

But now that the new government has ended most exchange controls and moved quickly to repay the country’s debts to foreign lenders in order to regain access to capital markets, many in Argentina are willing to endure short-term pain in the hopes of longer-term stability. The hope is that inflation will slow dramatically, but this will obviously take time; inflation actually rose by 4% in January alone and another 4% in February. Still, Argentina’s wine lands and wineries have suddenly become much more attractive investments for foreign buyers owing to the cheaper peso. Equally important, outside investors will now find fewer impediments to doing business and may actually be able to make financial projections with some degree of confidence.

A Vibrant Wine Scene and The Challenge Ahead

Interestingly, despite the recent financial difficulties, today’s wine scene in Argentina is as dynamic as it has ever been. While quality improvements have not filtered down to the roughly 75% of Argentine wine that retails for $12 or less in the U.S. market, the focus has been on the middle and upper range of the market—more distinctive and often quite inventive wines that are very expensive for most drinkers inside Argentina and will need to find their niches in export markets.

According to Alberto Antonini, Argentina’s challenge, as it is for most New World wine countries, is to establish clear identities for its wines rather than simply “making wines for the market and playing the grape varieties game. When you sell the variety,” he went on, “you’re closer to a commodity than to a unique product with a strong identity and regional definition.” And that’s the impetus for the recent work showcasing favored sites. “The only way for Argentina to get to the next level,” Antonini maintains, “is to define some of its amazing regions, like Altamira or Gualtallary. Sell unique places instead of grape varieties. The problem in Argentina has been a lack of confidence by many producers to define who we are and deliver the uniqueness of our places and find a market for them, rather than simply making wines for the market, such as shipping Cabernet Sauvignon to the U.S. because Napa Valley Cabs are becoming so expensive.”

Drinking Planes in this Article

I have been intentionally conservative with projected drinking planes for Argentine wines, for the simple reason that I have historically had mixed luck tasting wines with as little as five or six years of age, particularly more rustic, old-fashioned wines with low natural acidity and unwieldy alcohol levels. But a handful of Argentina’s top producers have amassed good track records for a decade or more of aging, even if relatively few of these wines are off-puttingly austere and tannic on release. I feel better about the aging potential of today’s fresher, cleaner, better-balanced wines, although I should note that veteran winemaker Susana Balbo (Susana Balbo, Crios and BenMarco), who did very well in 2014, wondered whether some of the more dilute, pale-colored Cabernets from this vintage would quickly fade.

As wine lovers who have followed my coverage of hot-climate wines over the years are aware, I normally prefer longer, cooler growing seasons in places like Argentina, Washington State and even Napa Valley. And indeed, many of Argentina’s most sophisticated producers—as well as a growing number of consumers—feel the same way. Roberto de la Mota told me about a vertical tasting of his Mendel Unus bottling that he conducted last year with a group of consumers at a wine shop in Buenos Aires.  He was surprised to find that they preferred cooler years like 2005, 2007 and 2010. He noted that some winemakers didn’t much like these vintages in their youth but that the wines have improved markedly with bottle aging. There’s every reason to believe that the new wines of Argentina will evolve more gracefully than those of just a few years ago.

I tasted well over a thousand current releases in New York during the first three months of this year. Nearly half of them were not good enough for me to recommend. Interestingly, owing to the recent string of cooler vintages, today’s mediocre Argentine bottles are as likely to be green and undernourished as raisiny and prematurely advanced. But the upside of my winter marathon was that I discovered more 90+-point wines than ever before, many of them from relatively young producers I was encountering for the first time. I’m looking forward to visiting many of these wineries within the next year so that I can report on their wines—and winemakers—in greater depth.

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Photo credits: Wines of Argentina

-- Stephen Tanzer