Live from Buenos Aires

Wine & Spirits
Restaurant Report
Fall 2006

Live from Buenos Aires
Dan Perlman looks at the Argentine wine

Walk into virtually any wine shop in the U.S. and find a selection of Argentine wines – wines from the far reaches of South America tend to dominate the “cheap and cheerful” sections for many retailers. It’s hard to find many of the quality wines that are also being produced by many of the same, and other producers. In this sector the lead has been taken by Chilean wineries with strong international and government backing that has led to a conundrum for many a restaurant buyer – it’s far easier to select and access fine wines from the west coast (Chile) of the continent than the east coast (Argentina and Uruguay). Names like Catena, Achával-Ferrer, and Navaro-Correas are easily recognizable to most in the wine trade. We know that even recent media exposure has tended to ignore the top wines of this country. Also, much of the wine at the top level is produced in very limited quantities, making it difficult to have even the opportunity to sample.

Unlike Chile, where the government and the winegrowers’ associations have made a concerted effort at international marketing, Argentina has left things to the individual wineries. The lack of governmental support isn’t surprising, with the economic collapse in late 2000 and early 2001, official funds for projects of that nature are largely non-existent. Still, there is a wide range of wines available, and more and more coming on the market it seems on nearly a weekly basis.

On the retail side it may be a boon to have a sudden influx of inexpensive Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Cabernet, Syrah, and Merlot to offer, especially as those same wines from suppliers now established (Australia, “lesser known” appellations of Europe, even domestic U.S.) have steadily crept up in price. This may even offer some opportunities for “house pours” in many restaurants. Still, most of these wines are “just another Chardonnay.” What Argentina has to offer are its two shining “native” grapes. Not that they’re really native grapes, but they are the varietals that offer Argentines a place for bragging rights.

On the white side is Torrontés, a grape of slightly murky origins, falling into the family of Muscat related varietals. The grape is believed to have been imported from Northern Spain, although this is mostly based on circumstantial evidence. At one time the grape was also one of the “single varietals” of Madeira, and old examples can be found. For whatever reasons, it was not replanted after the fires that destroyed the island’s vineyards a century or so ago. Torrontés is unique in its particular combination of flavors and well worth seeking out for the sommelier that wants to offer something off the beaten path.

Examples from the lines of Crios de Susana Balbo, and Viña de Balbo are perfect summer sippers with crisp, delicate flavors, reminding me very much of Italian style Muscats – very common from Mendoza. On the opposite end fall examples like those from Bodegas Etchart, Bodega Sur, or Don David, that are ripe, rich, and powerful, falling into a similar range and style as many of the examples of Muscat one might see from Alsace, and much more typical of Torrontés from Salta.

The true star of Argentina’s portfolio is Malbec. In Argentina, where it has been grown since the mid to late 1800s, Malbec is planted in vineyards that encompass an area roughly four times that of the Malbec vineyards in France. The Argentine Malbec has developed its own unique flavor profile. While blending is not unusual, single varietal Malbec dominates both the markets and the pride of local winemakers.

In the inexpensive range the wineries are nearly too numerous to list. In the mid-range, my personal favorite is the Malbec of Ricardo Santos. At the higher end it is harder to make a selection – not because of a lack of quality, but again, the lack of marketing drive and support limits the opportunities for many wine directors to taste them. My personal favorite is Domingo Molina. There are also some wonderful blends with varying amounts of Cabernet, Merlot, and/or Syrah from producers Ruca Malen, Rutini, and Achával-Ferrer.

As the Argentine economy continues to recover, it will not be surprising to see Argentina gain ground against the Chilean dominated South American export market. After all, as the fifth largest producer of wine in the world, there’s certainly enough to offer.

Dan Perlman is a trained chef and sommelier who currently resides in Buenos Aires. He is an internationally published food and wine writer best known for the award-winning wine lists at American Renaissance, Felidia, Veritas, AZ, and Pazo.

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