Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Wines of Argentina: Malbec and Beyond

A display shelf of Argentine wines, Cafayate, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo)

Ah, all the wonderful reasons to visit Argentina: high quality of life, rich culture, complex history, organic grass-fed beef, tango, tasty empanadas, gauchos, and, oh yes...excellent, inexpensive wine and lots of it. When our friends visit us here in Buenos Aires, inevitably their first two questions are 1) Can you recommend a good Tango show? and 2) Where can we buy some good, typical Argentine red wines to take home with us? The red wines of Argentina are well-known and universally loved. Malbec, Cabernet, Syrah, Tempranillo and Bonarda are some of the most delicious, popular and affordable wines in the world, followed by the equally delicious but lesser know whites: Torrontés, Sauvignonasse, Semillon, Ugni Blanc and Viognier. They are reasonably priced everywhere, but even more of a bargain in Argentina. In Buenos Aires, for example, it is still possible to buy an average bottle of wine in a restaurant for the equivalent of US$6, a very good bottle for US$12 and an excellent bottle for US$20. In the supermarkets, the wines are even cheaper, with a bottle of table wine selling for US$3 and a top of the line bottle selling for US$14.      

Luis and friends enjoying an organic wine tasting at Bodega Nanni, Cafayate, Argentina (photo by Simone Cannon)

Most of Argentine's wine region lies in the northwest region of the country, incorporating towns such as Mendoza, La Rioja, Salta and Cafayate (not to be confused with El Calafate, a town in Patagonia). Rio Negro, lying southwest of Buenos Aires also produces wonderful wines, but to a lesser extent than the northwest. Although Malbec is probably the best known wine, there is a growing business cultivating popular whites such as Torrontés. According to http://www.argentinewineguide.com/, "Argentina is currently the world's fifth largest wine producer by volume–after France, Italy, Spain and the USA in that order–a position it has held for many years." Vines were first planted in Mendoza over 400 years ago, and for much of that time, Argentina produced vin ordinaire, ordinary quality, high volume wines, but the industry is now in the process of shifting its focus to creating high quality premium wines and many boutique wineries are springing up. Organic wines are also gaining a strong presence, in line with the current Argentine preference for raising organic beef and produce.

Bottling table wine, Bodega Familia Cecchin, Mendoza, Argentina (photo by Simone Cannon)

Although many other grapes have been successfully cultivated, the Malbec grape remains the cornerstone of the Argentine wine industry. Originally grown in France with limited success, it took off in the northwest part of Argentina, an agricultural zone with ideal growing conditions for the grape. Malbec, rich and full-bodied, with red fruit flavors such as plums, cherries, currants and raspberries, can be bottled as a pure varietal or blended with grapes such as the Bordeaux varieties or Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Tempranillo, another very popular grape in Argentina, a native of Northern Spain, produces lighter wines with flavors of strawberries, oak and red currants. The most popular white, Torrontés, resembles a Muscat or a Sauvignon Blanc with a spicy, floral flavor of peach, grapes and lychee. Lesser known wines such as the light and fruity Bonarda, a grape now more commonly found in Argentina than its native Italy, and Ugni Blanc, a crsip, light, citrusy, herbal wine, are also worth trying. 

Sampling Argentine wines in a cozy bodega, Cafayate, Argentina

Even if you're on a budget, wines can generally be sampled very cheaply and without the surcharges that wineries in Napa, Sonoma, Niagara, Bordeaux and other popular wine regions impose. Throughout the region, you will find a wide variety of bodegas (wine cellars or small wineries), large industrial wineries, family run restaurants and organic farms where you will be able to tour the facilities and sample wines of every kind of grape and every level of quality. When you have had enough of wine tasting (if that's possible), the non-wine diversions of Argentina's wine region are endless: high-mountain trekking and 4x4 tours, rafting, kayaking, sailing, paragliding, horseback riding, fishing, art galleries, museums, shops, excellent restaurants, Jesuit ruins, festivals and parks. But don't forget to pack some wine to go...and make sure you see that Tango show.  

A cork-filled glass table, Bodega Nanni, Cafayate, Argentina (photo by Luis Bastardo)

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