On my previous visit, in July 2007, temperatures hovered around zero in the dead of the southern Hemisphere's winter. At the same time, power was being rationed and the grid switched off for large chunks of the day. Chronic under-funding of the energy infrastructure was partly to blame, but then so to is ever-increasing demand. And that sums up the Argentinian dichotomy: whilst a legacy of political and economic turmoil means confidence is still shaky, the country has been in a mini boom of late, and shows signs of stability.
This time round, I arrived in a chaotic and colourful Buenos Aires on the day the country's new President, Cristina Fernández, was being inaugurated. Ms Fernandez has said she will make investment and stability a priority, but it is her Vice President who may be more significant for the wine industry: Governor Cobos hails from Mendoza, and some hope wine will enjoy a higher profile in the new Administration.
Ask any winemaker, in just about any part of the world, who they see as their biggest competitors heading into the future, and Argentina is firmly in the frame. On a recent visit to Chile, almost every producer I spoke to referred to the 'sleeping giant' across the Andes.
It seems that Argentina has the potential to do it all: it has reliable growing conditions, low productions costs, and the capacity to churn out large volumes of wine at attractive prices. Yet on the other hand,
when talking to fine wine lovers it's obvious that the country is seen as intriguing, improving, and capable of reaching the very highest quality.
(right: view from the Catena winery)
Argentinian wine exports to the UK have flat-lined in recent years, but could 2008 be the year when Argentina turns a corner? Writing in the Sunday Times in November, Joanna Simon reported from London's
buzzing Argentinian trade tasting, saying "If the scrum and the 850 wines at this year's tasting are anything to go by, there is no question that Argentina is set to be the Next Big Thing." Official export figures seem to
back up this hunch, with statistics to end of September 2007 showing sales to the UK up for the fourth consecutive month on value, volume and average price per case. Sales of Argentina's flagship wine,
Malbec, grew particularly strongly, up 41.1% year-on-year to just under 300,000 cases.
What is behind the uplift? Many of the British trade's biggest buyers say quality is a driving force. "Over the last 12 months, sales by value of Argentinian wines have grown by 21%," says Matt Pym, category Buyer for Majestic. "I expect this trend to continue, as in my opinion Argentina is currently one of the most exciting regions in the vinous world."
Australia's recent drought-induced supply difficulties are an obvious opportunity for Argentina too. With its improved quality and competitive pricing, Argentina is in as good a position as any to fill any opening gaps in global markets.
I started my trip in Mendoza, the powerhouse of the Argentinean wine industry that produces around 80% of all wine. Mendoza is home to superstar estates like Catena Zapata, Achaval Ferrer, Cobos and the Terrazas/Cheval Blanc
venture, Cheval des Andes.
Mendoza is not one climate nor one terroir. For example, the region to the east of Mendoza city is furthest from the cooling Andes and is baking hot. Whilst estates like Familia Zuccardi do an extraordinary job in coaxing excellent wines from these extremes, this is the boiler-room of the Argentine industry. In the Mendoza River area to the west, around Luján de Cuyo and Tupungato, and in the Uco Valley, altitude, soils and cooler climate are already producing some truly world-class wines from smaller wineries. There is huge confidence amongst the producers here.
Sadly, my trip to the far northern region of Salta was cancelled due to technical difficulties with my small plane, so phase two of this tour was 650 miles south of Mendoza, to Patagonia and the regions of Neuquen and Rio Negro. This wild and rugged landscape provided a real eye-opener, with latitude, not altitude, bringing genuinely cool-climate conditions and some quite brilliant wines.
|Last year I published an in-depth feature on Torrontés (left, top), the only grape considered indigenous to Argentina and by far the most planted white
variety, with 8,106 hectares as opposed to the 5,155 ha of its closest rival, Chardonnay. Without a doubt Torrontés has improved dramatically, through drastic reduction of yields, targeting plots to pick at different
levels of ripeness, and the development of yeasts that enhance Torrontés' aromas and flavours. But of course Malbec (left, bottom) remains the flagship of Argentina's wine industry, and a variety capable of making outstanding wines whose signature is as uniquely Argentinean as Torrontés. Estates like Catena Zapata
have done an enormous amount of research work on Malbec - planting densities, altitudes, clones and viticulture - whilst some wonderful old-vine material is being sensitively handled to deliver wines with not just fruit and power,
but delicacy and finesse.
There has also been a significant increase in plantings of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, though it is worth noting that Sauvignon Blanc plantings have nearly doubled (though from a small base). Pinot Noir has definite potential in truly cooler areas, and Rio Negro in Patagonia is a potential world-class site that could join Central Otago, Oregon, the Yarra Valley and other top New World Pinot hot-spots.
Salentein is a 2000 hectare estate in the Uco Valley, around 700 hectares of which is planted to vine. Pinot Noir, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon are the main varieties here, in three vineyards that begin around 1100 metres above sea level,
and culminate in the San Pablo vineyard, which at 1700 metres is more or less dry farmed. Its cool climate produces fine Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Michel Rolland is consultant for Salentein, and farming is "90% organic but not certified," according to resident oenologist,
Laureano Gómez (right). Their El Cortigo brand is certified as Fairtrade product, and Laureano says they have "No real disease or pest problems, because of the very dry climate and very cold winters."
Grapes are 100% hand-picked into small crates, and yields are low; just 30hl/ha for their top wines.
Salentein's new winery is truly beautiful, built in the shape of a cross, with each arm containing a small 'winery within a winery' that allows experimentation and different regimes for different wines. The facility also has a superb
art gallery, visitor centre, restaurant and hotel which opened in 2006, drawing 25,000 visitors to this fairly remote region in its first year. About 50 hectares surrounding the winery is a
nature reserve, including a fascinating sculpture park. The UK importer for Bodegas Salentein is D&D Wines International.
|for tasting notes on 17 wines from Bodegas Salentein|
Clos de los Siete - the 'vineyard of the seven' - is a fascinating project started by Michel Rolland and a group of Bordeaux friends, including Benjamin Rothschild and representatives of Malartic-Lagravière, Clos de Gay and
Léoville-Poyferré. In fact, the seven are now six, as one of the founding partners has withdrawn, to set up their own winery called Alta Vista.
There are 430 hectares planted here in the Uco Valley, on sandy loam soils, at elevations of 1000 to 1200 metres. Malbec makes up 60% of all plantings, with blocks of
Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah, and little plots of Tempranillo, Tannat and Viognier. The set-up is highly unusual, in that each of the six partners has their own winery, and makes their own wines with Monsieur Rolland as
consultant, but must give a minimum of 40% of their production to Clos de los Siete. In fact, demand for Clos de los Siete is so great that most give 80%.
Rolland makes wines that some find too big, extracted and oaky. The evidence of that bigger, bolder style was here to see in the majority of wines from this project. As my visits unfolded, and I saw the more floral,
elegant, energetic side of Malbec emphasised by other winemakers, the schism between the Malbec camps in Argentina became quite clear. There is a choice being made as to which direction Argentina's flagship is steered.
The emphasis on elegance is my personal preference.
|for tasting notes on 18 wines from Clos de los Siete|
The irrepressible José Manuel Ortega (right) founded Bodegas y Viñedos O. Fournier in 2000. Here in the Uco Valley the 263-hectare estate is planted to bush vine Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
In fact, the plan is to establish a group of wineries around the globe, in Argentina, Chile, Ribera del Duero, Rioja and the Douro. A sister estate in Ribera del Duero is already in production.
O. Fournier has a stunning winery, opened in 2004 and designed by a Mendozan architect. It was runner up to the Frank Gehry-designed Marques de Riscal winery in the Wine Tourism Award for architecture. Within it is housed a bijoux little micro-vinification plant, with seven tiny, 8.7 hectolitre tanks for experimental projects. In fact, José Manuel says "The whole vineyard is experimental - we have 14 different planting regimes, some with flood irrigation, some with drip, we have bush vines and wire-trained vines, and so on."
Conscious of rising alcohol levels being a global concern. he is also using a water deprivation regime in the vineyards to lower alcohol: "We put the vines into drought until we see a spike in the sugar, and then irrigate to try to knock the sugar back, and therefore potential alcohol back." The quality and invention in these wines is impressive. Seckford is O. Fournier's UK agent.
|for tasting notes on 14 wines from O. Fournier|
Santiago Achával's name is spoken with reverence by almost everyone involved in the Argentinean wine industry. Having established Achával Ferrer with Manuel Ferrer and two other partners in 1998, they have gone on
to create one of the southern hemisphere's most sought after 'cult' labels, whose wines score very high points and sell for very high prices.
Their four vineyard estates, two in the Uco Valley, one in Luján de Cuyo and one in Medrano, are worked in an extreme regime of leaf thinning and water deprivation, that Achával (pictured, right) believes imposes the optimum amount of stress on the vines in this uniquely hot climate and poor soil. The four sites produce single vineyard wines, based on Malbec. It is an unshakable belief in terroir, and a wine's ability to express its terroir, that drives the thinking here.
In day to day charge of winemaking is Italian-born Roberto Cipresso, and the team harvests as little as 12hl/ha from their vineyards which lie between 700 and 1100 metres above sea level. 95% of the oak used is French. Although each of the single vineyard wines is treated identically, winemaking aspects like maceration and barrel ageing are adapted to the conditions of each vintage. UK agent is Corney & Barrow.
|for tasting notes on 4 wines from Achával Ferrer|
|The extremely impressive new winery for Navarro Correas in the Uco Valley shows the benefit of becoming part of the giant Diageo drinks group, who took over the reins of this 200-year-old bodega in 1996. Winemaker Celia Lopez (right) showed me around her cavernous new cellars with obvious pride, the 11 metre deep barrel cellar filled to the brim with 5,500 French oak casks. Their vineyards lie between 900 and 1000 metres, and Celia says there is a "very strict grape selection." in this quality-focused operation, with separate vinification of each vineyard parcel. Navarro Correas is a big company, with a seven million bottle total annual production. But the business is built on a 100% négociant model, with all grapes bought in from contracted growers. Navarro Correas' own agronomists work closely with the growers, of which there are around 50 on contracts of between three and five years. Celia also has her own, separate little cellar for their 'icon wine', Ultra, which is a Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot blend that is aged in all-new French oak, and sells for around £20.00.|
|for tasting notes on 4 wines from Navarro Correas|
My brief visit to Antucurá was to their sumptuous and beautiful guest house, that is available for private hire, amidst acres of landscaped gardens and vineyards. This new estate is a joint project between Argentinean
industrialist Gerardo Cartellone and French publisher Anne-Caroline Biancheri. They have engaged Michel Rolland, and their 300 hectare vineyard at 1000 metres is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, on a
limestone and gravel soil. Their stated intention is to make "elegant wines that will age 10 years." Despite the obvious quality, for me there is too much oak in the first two vintages to meet the first of those criteria.
UK agent is Hallgarten.
|for tasting notes on 3 wines from Antucurá|
|Before I left the Uco Valley, Wines of Argentina arranged a tasting of several other estates from the region, and notes on fourteen wines follow.
These included the best Sauvignon Blanc I have tasted from Argentina so far, though it's £18 price tag, whilst reasonable for the quality, will require a leap of faith from the adventurous drinker. There was also a chance to taste the always interesting "double-fermented" Paso Doble, from the Italian Veneto company, Masi.
|for tasting notes on 14 wines from the Uco Valley|