The commoditization of Argentine Malbec, especially those from
Mendoza, continues apace, as this category has become a hugely successful brand
in the international wine market. While cut-throat competition and downward
pressure on pricing pose a serious challenge to quality-conscious producers
trying to make distinctive wines from reasonable crop levels in favored
vineyard sites, these same factors are a boon to lovers of rich red wines.
Better yet, the cool, extended 2013 growing season produced
unusually vibrant and refined wines in the semi-desert Mendoza region, which
accounts for the lion’s share of Argentina’s finest red wines. So if you’ve
been avoiding Argentine wines because you’re a long-term Euro drinker who associates
blinding desert sunshine with dehydrated grape skins, cooked fruit aromas, high
alcohol, low acidity and rustic tannins, now is the perfect moment to catch up
on this amazingly rich category of wine.
Vineyards in Cafayate, Salta
Argentina is a Massive Wine Producer.
Argentina remains #4 in U.S. wine imports behind France, Italy and
Australia. Much of this is bulk wine (mostly Malbec) purchased by giant U.S.
wineries at dirt-cheap prices. Some of this juice goes into low-end labels but
large quantities are also blended with California wine.
Our overall imports of bottled
wines from Argentina were down slightly in 2014 (6% in total cases, 7% in
dollar value). At the level of the wines that Vinous readers are more likely to
purchase and enjoy, exports to the U.S. from the top ten Argentine producers
(companies like Catena, Trapiche, Norton and Zuccardi) were essentially flat
but these large players continued to increase their market share, to more than
50% in 2014. Meanwhile, the top ten U.S. distributors continue to augment their
share of all wine sales in the U.S. The result of these factors has been
ever-stiffer competition for producers at virtually every price point and
growing market pressure on boutique wineries in Argentina, whose margins are also
now under attack by the country’s galloping inflation.
This perfect storm of market forces has had a silver lining for
American consumers: lots of satisfying rich wines at affordable prices. In the
$15 to $20 range, it’s hard to beat Argentina for wine value, and that includes
the delightfully fresh, aromatic wines made from the country’s signature white
But it’s the Wild West out there: as with other wine-producing areas
relatively new to the international wine scene, paying more for a bottle of
Argentine wine does not necessarily get you a better drink. Sometimes the higher-priced
wines are simply from riper fruit (often harvested too late and overripe). Or
they’re gritty and overextracted. Too many so-called “Reserve” bottlings are buried
under a shroud of new oak—and not always high-quality oak—or kept too long in
the barrel or cellar before being released.
At the top levels, though, Argentina is making a larger number of
world-class wines than ever before. In recent years, its producers have become
more sophisticated at matching the right varieties to the right sites—i.e.,
those with favored soils, altitude and sun exposure. Most of Mendoza’s finest
vineyards are planted at high altitude (generally between 3,000 and 5,000
feet), which partly mitigates the effect of the desert heat. Some producers are
increasingly introducing new grapes (such as Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot)
into their blends in order to more accurately and completely present their
distinctive _terroirs_. Others are taking a somewhat different approach to
making better-balanced and more complex wines: by creating blends from a single
variety from vineyards planted at different altitudes, even over a fairly large
Vineyards in La Rioja
Recent Cool Years
As long-time readers of the International Wine Cellar know, I have
a strong preference for cooler, longer growing seasons in hot, dry regions – especially
when the grapes can be harvested late before autumn rains arrive. Long, steady ripening
without extreme heat allows for fuller flavor development, retention of fresher
and more complex aromas, density of texture without heaviness, healthier levels
of natural acidity, and finer-grained tannins—in short, more refined wines.
This was a characteristic, for example, of the splendid 2010 vintage in
Washington State, another arid wine-growing region featuring hot days and cool
nights during the summer. Two thousand thirteen in Argentina is in a similar
vein, although, to be fair, Argentina hasn’t had a really warm year since 2009.
If some 2013s sacrifice a bit of power in favor of finesse, that’s not
a great loss, as Mendoza’s red wines from Malbec and Cabernet generally have
muscle to spare. The 2013 growing season brought a sizable crop of healthy grapes,
with production generally larger than that of the previous three vintages.
Following a successful flowering and fruit set, the weather was mostly warm
from December through January. But February and especially March turned cooler,
with chilly nights; and cool but dry autumn conditions ensured slow, even ripening
without dehydration of the fruit. The harvest took place about two weeks later
than average. The result has been fresh, often floral wines with sound acidity,
vibrant fruit, medium body, considerable aromatic complexity, and good aging
potential. With naturally high acidity and low pH levels and moderate grape
sugars, the wines show lovely delineation and balance and should age
gracefully. They are as likely to seduce as to overwhelm—and how often can that
be said about Argentina’s biggest reds?
Colors are healthy and tannins are ripe in 2013. The Cabernets
ripened well and the Malbecs are fruity and floral—and perhaps less meaty than
the 2012s. The wines are typically a bit lower in alcohol than the 2012s. But
there was plenty of fruit, so control of yields was critical to avoid dilution.
The second half of the growing season was a bit more humid in Patagonia, and
according to some reports these wines are often less concentrated.
The warmer 2012 growing season followed a winter with relatively
little snow, so vines in many locations began with water stress. There was
widespread frost in late September, but the late-budding Cabernet Sauvignon was
less affected. The hot, dry Zonda wind in early November cut potential yields
in Mendoza and San Juan, except for the Cabernet, which had not yet flowered.
The summer was then quite warm, but conditions turned cloudy and cool in March
and what had begun as a hot year finished as a cool one. Yields were small and
the wines can be very concentrated, even inky, with Malbec in particular
intensified by reduced crop levels. The fruit benefited from good hang time on
the vines, but the wines do not generally have the acidity of cooler years like
2013 or 2010. Two thousand twelve was a more challenging vintage for parts of
the Salta region owing to atypical summer rains.
Two thousand eleven saw serious frost damage on November 9,
especially severe at lower altitudes. The flowering was prolonged, setting the
stage for uneven ripening of the grapes. Cooler-than-normal weather in January
and February slowed the ripening process. March and April were reasonably dry
and warm, and the wines generally have healthy pHs and good ripeness. It was
another late harvest, and the Cabernets are generally deeply colored and
Incidentally, according to most reports 2014 was the coldest vintage
in Mendoza in years. It was a very irregular year with harvest-time rains, and even
some issues with botrytis. The challenge was to pick precisely and get the
fruit adequately ripe.
Vineyards in Neuquén
I have recapped in the following paragraphs some of my comments on
Argentine wine labels from my coverage in the International Wine Cellar a year
ago. Unfortunately, Argentine wine labels often raise more questions than they
answer, and they’re apt to confound consumers in export markets. Some
producers, for example, use more specific appellations like Luján de
Cuyo in Mendoza or Cafayate Valley in Salta on front labels, while others note
these place names only in small print on the back. The names of the wines
themselves frequently change slightly from vintage to vintage. Words like
Reserve and Reserva are of course interchangeable, but in addition to such
minor differences, the labels on many samples I received from Argentina are not
exactly the way they will appear on bottles shipped to U.S. importers.
The trend toward focusing on specific, favored microclimates and tightly
defined _terroirs_—and announcing this on labels—continues. Obviously the
Luján de Cuyo region, called a Primera Zona (top
area) in Argentina, is shown on many labels, but more and more wineries are
beginning to promote the names of more specific sectors or departments within
regions, such as Vistalba, Agrelo or Perdriel within Luján de
Cuyo (Lujan de Cuyo, located just south of the city of Mendoza, is the only DOC
designation in Mendoza that is approved by national law). There is little
consistency to the use of most place names, nor do these names have legal
standing; and, of course, there’s no requirement to use them. Some famous
individual vineyard names mean something to wine connoisseurs in the home
market but do not yet signify much to American wine consumers.
Vineyards in Mendoza, with
the Andes Mountains in the background
The Uco Valley, situated farther to the south, is one of the 17
departments grouped under the 3 desertic regions (in this case, the Central Oasis)
that comprise Mendoza. (Luján de
Cuyo is part of the Northern Oasis region.) And those 17 departments are
again subdivided. But wineries can simply say Uco Valley on their labels
and not refer to the sector.
On the other hand, wineries based in less-favored, lower-altitude
sections of Mendoza prefer simply to put Mendoza on the label. Don’t
worry: none of this will be on the final exam.
I tasted all of the wines in this report between December and February. Please
note that I have been intentionally conservative with my projected drinking
ranges for these wines. Based on my personal experience, a significant
percentage of Argentine reds are at their best within five to seven years after
the vintage, as there is more to lose than to gain by waiting longer than that.
But a minority of producers have established track records for making ageworthy
wines—structured, balanced, concentrated wines that gain in texture and
complexity with a decade or more of cellaring while maintaining their energy
and shape. And with each passing year, the number of producers making wines
with staying power is growing.
Photo credits: Wines of Argentina
-- Stephen Tanzer