The grape war: Malbec vs Torrontés

Time Out
Buenos Aires for Visitors
August 2006
Page 51

The grape war: Malbec vs Torrontés
Dan Perlman gets under the skins of Argentina’s signature grapes.

TORRONTÉS

What is it?

Torrontés is a white grape that is nearly unique to Argentina. A member of the Muscat family, it shares much of the aromatic punch of all grapes of the lineage.

What does it taste like?

Being a member of the Muscat family, wines from this grape come across as flowery and aromatic. With surprisingly racy acidity, however, this wine is drier, crisper, and brighter than most Muscats, with wonderful spicy apricot flavours and wildflower aromas.

Racy, eh? What do the wine buffs say about it?

Not much. Torrontés is so fresh on the scene that very little has been written or said about it by any of the top critics, other than an occasional tasting note about an individual wine. Torrontés, therefore, is the perfect grape for anyone who wants to wax poetically about wine and sound original at the same time.

Thanks for the tip. So where did Torrontes come from and where’s it grown now?

It’s Torront-és; no self-respecting wine buff would drop the accent. Originally one of the grapes of Madeira, the vineyards there were wiped out during one of the island’s historic volcanic eruptions. The vineyards could have been replanted, but the only source of new vines would have been Argentina, where it had already been transplanted, but it was too far away, and the Torrontés of Madeira was lost to all time. The only significant plantings of this grape are now in Argentina.

Lucky them. So what should I drink it with?

Torrontés makes a great match with virtually any fish or shellfish, and it’s also wonderful with lighter meats like chicken, turkey, and veal. The brightness and acidity make it a perfect foil to cut through cream sauces, or to match up against lightly spicy and/or fruity sauces.

Not to wash down a donor kebab, then. Best bottles?

Among the finest, those of Susana Balbo’s Crios line and the Don David vineyards. Etchart, too, makes both wonderful dry “Privado”, and sweet “Tardio” versions.

Any overrated bottles worth ranting about?

It’s pretty hard to claim anything’s overrated when the most expensive versions of these wines will still give you change back from US$20.

Point taken. One to take home?

Most of the good bottlings of Torrontés are exported as well as being available here, but the two worth sticking in the cellar are the Don David, and the Etchart Tardio dessert wine, both of which are harder to find abroad.

MALBEC

I’ve heard of this one. Tell me more.

Malbec is a medium-weight red grape that has developed a distinctive style over the more than a century that it’s been grown in Argentina.

What fruits and spices can I casually allude to in order to win friends and influence people?

In fruit, definitely something in the plum family, and it can be variable within that – yellow, red, or black plums. Strong notes of violets, especially in the heavier versions of the wine, and generally a touch of warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace.

Mace. I’m going to use mace. What do the critics say?

The critics love Malbec – it’s soft, easy to drink, and works well with food. There are only a few that a critic would put up in the upper echelons of collectable wines, but even in its name, it’s easily marketable as a very different, and appealing alternative to the ubiquitous Merlot.

Well of course, I’m not drinking f***cking Merlot. So where does Malbec hail from?

Don’t even mention the word ‘hail’ to wine growers, it stresses them out. Malbec is native to France, where it is the predominant grape in the southern region of Cahors, and is also a minor component in the classic Bordeaux blend. In Argentina it has taken on a softer, more approachable character that is notably different from the French version. But then, it’s had nearly 130 years to evolve here.

So even the grapes are more approachable in Latin America than in France. What should I drink Malbec with?

There’s no question that a medium to full bodied Malbec makes an incredible match with a thick, juicy steak. With soft tannins and lively acidity it just balances perfectly against a rich piece of red meat. On the other hand, there are many lighter styled, and especially the unoaked Malbecs that pair beautifully with poultry and even richer fish, like tuna, salmon, shark, and swordfish.

I’ll bear that in mind for the next time I order shark. Best bottles?

There are so many to choose from, but, to name one in each price level, try Dolium for inexpensive, Ricardo Santos for mid-range, and Yacachuyo (from renowned flying winemaker Michel Rolland) for the pricey end of the spectrum.

I’ll take one of each. Overrated bottles?

Also from Michel Rolland, the Clos de la Siete is not all it’s cracked up to be; and although we like some of the new “cult” wines, like Bodegas Noemia and A Lisa, we don’t think they’re worth the price.

One to stash in the suitcase or drink surreptitiously in the airport departure lounge?

That’s a toughy, because most of the better Malbecs are already exported. However, one that’s quite difficult to find is the original wine from the Yacachuyo region, San Pedro de Yacachuyo.

Best organised wine tastings?

Visitors to Buenos Aires can take part in the grape debate themselves as a number of organisations now offer informal wine tastings in English. We recommend Buenos Vinos (www.buenos-vinos.com) and Terroir (4778-3443, www.terroir.com.ar) which both offer tailor-made, private wine tastings at hotels and residences. Try also the excellent, weekly group tastings held by Buenos Vinos at three separate city locations, each Thursday at 6pm (see website for details).


In mid-2006, I started writing for Time Out Buenos Aires. With changes in their way of conducting business, I decided to part company with them after my last article and set of reviews in mid-2009.

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