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Argentine or Argentinian?

Text and photography by Matthew Day, 2003

'Don't cry for me, Argentina!' sang Madonna in the hit movie Evita. Her moving performance left eyes in the house pretty dry, but the high drama of the past year has set much of Argentina a-weeping. First the economy collapsed, leading to huge a devaluation of the Peso against the US Dollar (one peso used to be worth one dollar, now the rate is 3:1). Inflation is rife and unemployment is at an all time high. Things couldn't get much worse……until the national squad crashed out of the World Cup in the first round!


  Argentina is the fifth largest wine producer in the world, but exports only began in earnest a decade or so ago. Argentinians used to consume a huge quantity of wine per capita, but (like many wine producing nations) the population is now consuming less and less. Wine exports are an invaluable source of foreign income, and these days up to 25% of production is fine wine for the export market. To increase the export share from zero to a quarter in less than 20 years is quite a feat, and has taken a huge amount of investment. Argentinan wineries are equipped with all the latest technology and the winemakers and viticulturalists are abreast of cutting edge techniques.

The quality of Argentinian wine may have come on in leaps and bounds, but despite excellent quality and their devalued currency, Argentinian wine has failed to take off in the UK.

In fact, last year Argentina's UK market share decreased from 1.4% to 1.2%. This statistic has the Argentine producers banging their heads against the wall. 'What are we doing wrong? What is wrong with our wines?' they all asked me. Whilst Argentinian wines lack nothing in terms of value for money and quality, they do perhaps lack a sense of identity; Argentiness if you will.

When we buy a wine we are not just buying alcoholic fruit juicy, but a product which expresses the culture and history of the place where it is produced. 'Wine is a product which needs identity. When you drink a glass of wine, you drink a feeling, an image, a sensation. British consumers don't have a clear image about Argentina and it is our pending issue to do something to change this.' said José Alberto Zuccardi, director of Familia Zuccardi and one of the Argentinian industry's most influential figures.

The simple fact is that we don't buy Bordeaux because it is good value for money, or even for its quality. More often that not we buy Bordeaux because it is Bordeaux, and it has taken hundreds of years to build up this identity.

 

It is not surprising that Argentinia is left wanting in this crucial department. One of the main problems that Argentina faces is the physical distance between its vineyards and your local Tesco; few British people visit Argentina and most of us have little idea of its history, geography or culture. Maradonna and the Malvinas is about as far as it goes. Yes, Australia is also a long way away too, but we know and understand Australian culture. The Argentinian advantage, on the other hand, is a wine industry free of the prejudices attached to German wines, for example.

Argentina has near perfect conditions for the cultivation of grapes. Hot daytime temperatures mean that grapes nearly always ripen fully, and cool nights allow complexity to develop. Dry conditions mean the vineyards are healthy and need a minimum of chemical treatments. It is also comparatively easy to produce organically here, and phyloxera has never touched large zones of Argentina. Wines produced are ripe and round, with soft tannins in the reds. In my mind these are exactly the kinds of wines that the export market demands.

The only problem with such favourable growing conditions is that over-ripeness and high levels of alcohol often occur. Over-ripe wines are soft and juicy, but distinctions between specific growing regions are lost, and differences between grape varieties blurred.


  During my two-weeks in Argentina I visited all the major wine regions and tasted 400 wines. I tasted very few poor wines, but nor did I taste wines that screamed 'I am Argentinian!'. I asked Ricardo Rebelo, vice-president of Finca Flichman, why Argentinian wines aren't more expressive of regions and terroir? 'The fine wine industry is in its infancy. Until now we have not focused on exploring these differences, but on producing wines of international standard. Now our wines are up to scratch, the focus can shift. Better expression of regional differences is sure to come with time.'

The differences in soil type, climate and altitude vary hugely from vineyard to vineyard and region to region. There is no question that Argentina has terroir(s) in abundance. Hopefully as the vineyards and winemakers mature, Argentina will start to show its true colours.

There are significant plantings of a vast array of grape varieties. All the usual suspects are here (Cabernet/Syrah/Merlot/Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc), plus a whole host of rare and oddball varieties. The white Torrontés grape is uniquely Argentinian, but because of its unfamiliar (though delicious) flavours, it is unlikely that it will be a real success on the world market, nor the calling card that Argentinian wine is looking for. 2002 Michel Torino Colección Torrontés (Widely Available) is a very good example. The nose is highly aromatic - almost a cross between Muscat and Gewurztraminer - with lots of floral perfume. The palate, however, is crisp and zesty with crunchy gooseberry fruit and a waxy finish that coats the back palate.

Many of the people who first settled Argentina were Italians, and they planted Sangiovese and Bonarda amongst other Italian varietals. Whilst Sangiovese does quite well, Bonarda positively thrives and is the second most planted red grape behind Malbec. There are thousands of hectares of old-vine Bonarda in Argentina, but until recently the vines were over-cropped and the fruit was mostly used for basic table wines. Now, quality conscious producers are reducing yields and the results are startlingly good. 2001 Dominio del Plata Anubis Bonarda is a very good example showing lush damson and cherry fruit, supple structure and a rich creamy finish that is typical of this varietal. Bonarda is one to watch, one to seek out and one to drink. Unfortunately it does not age well in the long-term and were it not for this small hic-cup Bonarda (in my opinion) would be the perfect ambassador for Argentinian wine.


  Malbec is French grape that has become the adopted child of Argentinian wine. Many regard it as Argentina's greatest hope of forging a real identity. 'Everybody does good Cabernet and Chardonnay, but there is no better Malbec in the world than Argentine Malbec. I think that Malbec will definitely help Argentina to define its identity.' said Laura Catena, export director of Catena Zapata.

Malbec at its best has a heady perfume of violets, lush mulberry fruit and good tannic structure. Sadly many of Argentina's flagship wines are made to a prize winning formula, which involves lashings of expensive toasty oak.

This masks and obscures regional and fruit character. These are excellent 'international' style wines, but I don't think they really help the identity cause or establish Malbec as 'the' Argentine grape. In the mid-range, where less oak is used and the fruit is allowed to sing, some wines which really express a sense of Malbecness, but unfortunately it is the prestige and quantity extremes that really count in terms of defining the identity of a wine producing nation. Some producers are also a little nervous of putting all their money on one horse: 'To me, diversity and the quality of so many different varieties is what makes Argentina so exciting! I can understand that having a local variety 'star' is helpful, and easy, from a marketing perspective. This is like betting only on Beckham or Ronaldo to market Manchester United or Real Madrid' said José Manuel Ortega Gil-Fournier, president of O. Fournier, a new Spanish venture in Mendoza.

Another important factor is that many of the currently most influential winemakers are foreigners, including Michel Rolland and Alberto Antonini. Many of the key companies, like Finca Flichman, Balbi, Trivento, Salentein, Lurton, Etchart and Chandon are foreign owned. Whilst this international input has played a crucial role in bringing Argentine vineyards, facilities and wines up to a very impressive standard, one can only wonder whether such a strong international direction has not inhibited the formation of a stronger degree of Argentinian identity. José Alberto Zuccardi disagrees: 'Foreign players have brought new, fresh ideas. They have helped introduce our wines to many foreign markets, but they have not  affected the Argentinian identity. Terroir and people cannot be changed.' he said.

All said and done Argentina should feel very proud (though not complacent) of what it has achieved in a short period of time. I hope that a better sense of Argentinian identity will evolve as the fine wine industry comes of age. In the meantime they should not despair…and the next World Cup is just around the corner.

Ten of the best (A-Z)

Matt Day:

1999 Alta Vista Alto (Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon)
Complex nose showing mulberry spice and suede. The palate is thick and creamy with lots of intensity and power. Long finish. Needs time. Justerini & Brooks 020 7484 6400.

2001 Altos Las Hormigas Reserva Viña Hormigas (Malbec)
The nose is rather dumb at present. The palate shows firm tannic structure, lush blueberry fruit and spice. Amazing concentration and depth, but needs time to integrate its many elements. Justerini & Brooks

1999 Catena Zapata (Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc/Merlot)
Very sweet nose with powerful violet perfume. The palate is thick and supple with blackberry intensity and leather spice. Long and richly oaky finish. Bibendum

2000 Familia Zuccardi Q Cabernet Sauvignon
Refined with excellent varietal character. Singing cassis fruit, creamy oak and supple tannins. Good depth and complexity to finish. Thierry's 01794 507100.

2000 Michel Torino Altimus (Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot)
Deep wine with lush blackberry fruit. Good fruit intensity and tannic structure and a concentrated finish. Hallgarten 01275 811100.

2000 Nieto Senetiner Cadus (Malbec)
Very rich and succulent with velvety tannins and plump bramble fruits. Good depth and complexity. Capricorn Wines 0161 908 1360.

1999 Norton Perdriel (Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec)
Sweetly perfumed with herb and damson nuances. The palate is very expressive with rich berry, spice and leather. Very complex and elegant. Berkmann Cellars 020 7609 4711.

1994 Norton Privada (Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Malbec)
Fine bouquet showing cooked meat, tomato and caramel notes. The palate is silky smooth. The finish is balanced and velvety. Has aged beautifully, but is at its peak. Berkmann Cellars.

2001 O. Fournier A Crux (Tempranillo/Malbec/Merlot)
Sweetly perfumed with berry, spice and vanilla. The palate is powerful and concentrated with berry and tomato ketchup intensity. Good length. Needs time to soften. Seckford

1999 Terrazas Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva
Supersweet blueberry and currant fruit allied to supple tannins and fine structure. The finish is elegant and complex. Paragon Vintners 020 7887 1800.

Laura Catena:

Catena Alta Malbec (Bibendum)
Catena Zapata (Bibendum)
Cobos
Felipe Rutini Apartado Reserva
Luca Beso de Dante (Bibendum?)
Mapema
San Pedro de Yacochuya
Susana Balbo Brioso
Terrazas Gran Malbec (Paragon)
Tikal Jubilo (Bibendum?)

José Alberto Zucchardi:

Achaval Ferrer Malbec Alta Vista Alto (Justerini & Brooks?)
Altos Las Hormigas Reserva Viña Hormigas (Justerini & Brooks)
Catena Zapata (Bibendum)
Familia Zuccardi Q Tempranillo (Thierry's)
Felipe Rutini Apartado Reserva (Laymont & Shaw 01872 270545)
Piedra Negra Malbec
San Pedro de Yacochuya
Terrazas Gran Malbec (Paragon Vintners)
Trapiche Iscay (Heyman Barwell Jones 020 7237 0576)



  Matt Day developed a great enthusiasm for food and wine whilst living in the South of France. Having worked as apprentice winemaker at Weingut Georg Breuer in the Rheingau, he returned to a job as Tastings Coordinator for WineToday.com (New York Times on the Web) working alongside Oz Clarke. Matt was awarded the title of Young Wine Writer of the Year in 2002, and is currently dividing his time between wine consultancy and writing, including his own fledgling web site, daygustation.com.


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