Focus on Argentina

Until as recently as ten years ago, Argentina's wine industry was focused inward, as wine consumption in Argentina was sufficient to absorb the huge quantities of everyday drinking wine produced there. But per-capita consumption in the domestic market had been declining sharply since the mid-'70s.

Then the slumbering giant awoke. As Argentina's producers realized that they had to look to export markets to remain in business, winemaking in Argentina began its transformation. Many of today's best Argentine wines have barely five years of history. Flying winemakers, such as Michel Rolland, Alberto Antonini and Roberto Cipresso from Italy, and Californian Paul Hobbs, have brought international expertise to Argentina, and all of them are currently involved in multiple high-visibility projects. At the same time, there has been an explosion of foreign investment of capital by wealthy wine producers, luxury corporations and individual investors attracted by inexpensive vineyard land and by Argentina's warm, dry climate. Since the Argentine peso was sharply devalued in late 2001, land prices have looked even more attractive to outside investors.

Literally in just a few short years, Argentina has shifted its emphasis to the production of quality wine and turned its attention to export markets. Vine yields have been reduced dramatically as producers have changed their focus from quantity to quality. Large old wood casks have been widely replaced by new oak barriques. And a major wave of new planting has taken place in mostly cooler, high-altitude sites that are well suited to producing serious wines, such as the Uco Valley, in the foothills of the Andes, about 80 miles south of the city of Mendoza.

Despite the shift to quality wines and the widespread reduction of vine yields, Argentina remains a major wine producer, ranking number five in the world. But even today, less than 20% of the wine bottled in Argentina is exported. Demand in markets like the U.S. and the U.K. is rising, however, driven to a great degree by the increasing popularity of malbec, Argentina's most distinctive red grape variety.

Wine geography in Argentina. The province of Mendoza in west-central Argentina, just east of the Andes Mountains that form Argentina's natural border with Chile, dominates the wine industry in Argentina, producing three-quarters of the country's wine. For many wine lovers around the world, Mendoza is Argentine wine. Virtually all photos you're likely to see of the vineyards of Mendoza show in the background the towering snow-capped Andes, the highest peaks of which dwarf the tallest mountains in the western U.S. Grape-growing in Mendoza goes back hundreds of years, but the first serious wines were made after a wave of immigrants from Europe arrived in the Mendoza region in the 1880s, at roughly the same time that this was occurring in Northern California.

Mendoza is a semi-desert with hot daytime temperatures, cool nights and a cold winter. Depending on the site, rainfall is generally barely 8 to 10 inches a year, falling mainly during the summer months, as the high Andes range blocks moist air coming from the western, Pacific coast of South America. The greatest weather threats in Mendoza are spring frost and sporadic but sometimes devastating hailstorms. Harvest rains are rarely a problem, but it should be noted that the summer and harvest of 1998 were a disaster due to conditions caused by El Nino. Many producers did not even bottle their top wines that year, as their fruit never ripened.

The effects of heat are partly mitigated by planting at high altitude, with Mendoza's best vineyards at an altitude of 3,000 to 5,000 feet. The best sites are not far east of the Andes. Farther to the east, as the land slopes gently down from the mountains, temperatures are considerably hotter. Here the soil is more fertile than the mix of sand, clay, lime and rocks found closer to the mountains, and wine quality is lower. Irrigation is necessary throughout the Mendoza region. Happily, Mendoza's growers are able to rely on an ingenious and extensive system of hundreds, if not thousands, of irrigation canals (acequias) that were originally dug by the Mapuche Indians in the 16th century to bring pure, frigid water from the Andes. While many producers have traditionally relied on so-called flood irrigation (simply taking advantage of the plentiful mountain water on days when it is available to them), others have devised systems of drip irrigation, which give them the control to shape the canopies and root systems of their vines and to slow the ripening of the grapes.

My adventures in Argentina. The excuse for my long-delayed trip to Argentina was an invitation to be a judge for the Club del Vino in Buenos Aires, the first and largest wine club in Argentina, with over 18,000 members, the publisher of Argentina's most widely read food and wine magazine, and probably the country's leading instrument of wine education. The Club del Vino was conducting a comprehensive tasting of wines in order to launch a new buyer's guide highlighting the best wines from Argentina. In the weeks leading up to this event, a team of top sommeliers from inside and outside Argentina had narrowed down a group of nearly 1,000 wines to the best 220 or so. Then the second shift took over, and three international tasters-including your correspondent-and three local Argentine tasters spent much of a week tasting the final selections blind under ideal conditions. Following my time in Buenos Aires I traveled to Mendoza, where I visited a number of the top bodegas in the cool late winter of this vast region and tasted a few hundred more wines. And naturally there was the inevitable slew of samples waiting for me when I returned home.

Recent vintages. Argentina has not had a disastrous vintage since 1998, but vintage generalizations are of limited use. Still, most growers and winemakers I met described 2003 and 2004 as very warm years, and 2002 and 2005 as cooler. Among the key features of the cooler 2005 growing season were spring frost in the Uco Valley and some damaging hailstorms in Lujan de Cuyo, especially in the Agrelo district. Early reports on these wines suggest that the reds possess serious phenolic structure, intense colors and fruit flavors, and good natural acidity.

The growing season of 2004 witnessed a warm spring followed by consistently hot weather in January. Happily, the second half of the summer was more moderate, allowing for fruit with high grape sugars and good phenolic ripeness. Normally warmer areas, especially in Eastern Mendoza, were likely to have yielded wines with a pronounced jammy character. The dry, dusty zonda (a wind that normally blows from the north or northeast) in the spring resulted in lower-than-normal crop levels through much of the Uco Valley. The hot summer of 2003 resulted in some loss of color in many red wines, as well as a roasted character in numerous bottlings, but the top estates harvested thoroughly ripe fruit that achieved good balance as temperatures cooled off at the end of the growing season.

Vintage 2002, with its lower-than-average temperatures, yielded wines with accurate varietal and terroir character, considerable density and class, and very good balance, although some vines in the normally coolest spots struggled to ripen. Argentina is a distinctly hot climate, and it's important to note that some of the best producers clearly prefer the relatively cooler years, which bring the best balance of reasonable grape sugars, natural acidity and phenolic ripeness. When these producers describe 2003 and 2004 as warmer years, they mean that they were often challenging vintages, with many wines showing a distinctly jammy character and elevated pHs.

Wine pricing. Argentina increasingly ships its best wines to export markets, partly because most larger producers view this strategy as their avenue to future growth but also because of the limited spending power of the domestic market. Many Argentine bodegas price their wines very low to their U.S. importers, and in many cases their U.S. importers keep their own margins low, in an attempt to establish their brands in the American market. In fact, many Argentine wines are actually less expensive at retail in the U.S. than they are in Argentina-this despite the fact that local wine lovers in Argentina have far less buying power. Of course, there are two other important factors in the pricing equation. Argentine producers are very aware of how competitive the U.S. retail wine marketplace is today. At the same time, they realize that their wines are protected in the domestic market by the fact that very few imported wines of quality are available in Argentina.

What's different about today's best wines from Argentina is that they're cleaner and more concentrated than they were ten years ago. Sure, I tasted my share of dilute or rustic wines, and many that are simply commercial and soulless, geared more to satisfy the needs of marketing departments than to give any real pleasure. But once you go beyond the entry-level range (usually those wines retailing for $10 or less) of many of the bodegas that export to the U.S., these duds are surprisingly rare. I tasted literally dozens of excellent to outstanding wines in the $15 to $30 range. These wines rank among the world's great values in high-quality red wine. Although many of the best wines from Argentina come from decades-old vines, especially of malbec, the wave of new plantings in the last five years has served to keep bulk prices low and most bottle prices reasonable. While you can pay $60 or more for outstanding red wines from Argentina, you don't have to.

On the following pages, I have provided notes on the best wines from Argentina from my tastings during the past two months. A few comments are in order. In Argentina, producers are extremely casual when it comes to putting place names on their labels. The only D.O.C. with legal standing from the national government is actually Lujan de Cuyo, which is one of seventeen departments in the province of Mendoza, all of which produce wine. But even within Lujan de Cuyo, the names of many favored sites, such as Vistalba, Perdriel and Agrelo, can appear on labels. Or not. Some producers working entirely with fruit from closely defined areas do not bother to mention this on their labels. Since I did not have a chance to see most of the bottles I tasted at the week-long Club del Vino blind tasting, I have simply noted Mendoza as the appellation whenever I was in doubt about a wine from this province. I should note that I also tasted, and have included notes on, numerous very good bottles from the province of Salta to the far north, home to some of the highest-altitude grape vines in the world, and several brisk, sappy numbers from Patagonia to the south.

One more caveat: it is possible that a few of the bottlings I tasted in Buenos Aires may be labeled slightly differently for the U.S. market. And a few of these wines do not yet have American importers, but I'd expect that most of the best of them will find homes here soon. If the rather sorry infrastructure of Argentina is able to support its wine industry properly, Argentina's wines may well be the next big thing in the American wine market.