Argentinian wine is popular but not much understood. Alderman editor Paul Fishman asked Florencia Campicelli, a sommelier at Anuva Wines of Buenos Aires, to tell us something about it. Here Florencia talks about the grapes, regions and wine styles of Argentina, while in part 2 she reveals how to drink Argentinian wine like a local—and provides a wine cocktail recipe.
In the English-speaking world people talk a lot about “Argentinian wine”, but Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world and one of the longest (2,268 miles from top to bottom), with an extraordinarily varied climate and geology, and this must have implications for winemaking—tell us something about the different wine regions and styles
As you mentioned, Argentina is a long country, and we have diverse microclimates that help us to develop different styles of wine. Going from north to south, we can pinpoint three very different regions, all continental (right next to the mountain range) and all receiving many days of sun during the year.
Northwestern region. Includes the provinces Jujuy, Salta, Catamarca and Tucuman, with the most important production- and quality-wise being Salta. The best Salta wines come from a valley called Calchaqui (which is shared with Tucuman province). Torrontés wines are definitely a must in this area, though Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon are also ones to look out for. This is a very hot and dry area, with the highest vineyards in the world, which makes for a big difference of temperature between the day and night—it cools down a lot and that helps slow down the ripening process, so the grapes grow to have more complexity.
Cuyo or western region. La Rioja, San Juan and Mendoza are the three provinces here. Obviously, Mendoza stands out with its various microclimates, though it’s worth mentioning that San Juan has a valley called Pedernal that makes very high-quality wines; the Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot from this area are highly regarded. This is mainly a hot weather area with alluvial soil, good for deep styles of red wine.
Southern region or north Patagonia. Here the main areas are Neuquen, Rio Negro and the south of La Pampa. Over there we have the coolest weather for winemaking in Argentina, and Pinot Noir, Merlot and most of the whites are at their best. Mainly cool weather wines.
Note that after 1934, the Argentine government passed a law to concentrate grapevine production near the Andes mountain range, and this wasn’t lifted until the last decade of the twentieth century. From that time on, they started to grow grapevines in the Entre Rios, Buenos Aires and Santa Fe provinces. So there are new winemaking areas and new styles of wine emerging. There is a promising area in Buenos Aires called Medanos (near the seaside), where experimental vineyards are already starting to make high-quality vintages.
Why is Mendoza so dominant?
Sixty per cent of Argentinian wine comes from Mendoza. A bunch of factors come into play when you try to explain this. It has amazing natural conditions for winemaking, with its different microclimates at different altitudes, its types of soil and its overall temperatures. Water is readily available and—keeping in mind that most of our vineyards are basically in the middle of deserts—that is no small matter. Alongside these natural advantages, it is an area of high economic and social development and it benefits from favorable government policies.
The best Malbec comes from this province. Three names to remember when looking for wine from Mendoza are: Maipu (for easy drinking and fruit-driven styles of wine), Lujan de Cuyo (for more mineral and complex styles, especially when they come from the Perdriel region, a small city in that area) and Valle de Uco (for flowery, fruity and delicate styles, the best come from the Tupungato, Gualtallary and Vista Flores areas). Look for all these names on the label.
Tell us about the special relationship between Malbec and Argentina
I’ll start by telling you a bit about the story of Malbec from its beginnings, if I may put it that way. Malbec wasn’t the original name for the grape, it was known as Cot or Cot Noir, but because of the way the grapes were used in Cahors it was nicknamed Malbec, after the French words mal (bad) and bec (beak), meaning “bad mouth” or “bad tasting” in slang! This was because the grape that came from those vineyards was very deep in colour (it was widely used for blending to add colour and acidity in wines from neighboring Bordeaux) and would smell and taste like raisins and garlic; French people didn’t like it, and who could blame them?
Luckily for us, it arrived here in the mid-1800s thanks to a French agronomist called Michel Aime Pouget, who was hired by our soon-to-be president, Domingo F Sarmiento. Michel had already started a greenhouse of French vines in Santiago by that time and the main goal of this was to introduce high-quality vines to Argentina—before then we only had vines to make wine for church mass. And so it was that Malbec found its place in this very sunny and dry climate with (mostly) alluvial soil to become a full-bodied yet very fruity wine with lots of different aromas—red fruits and also flowers such as violets—that can be drunk young or after aging in the cellar.
In the UK, Argentinian Malbec has become a supermarket and pub staple, with a lot of reliably enjoyable, good value wines being sold. However, there’s a lot more to Argentinian wine than value and reliability. Tell us a bit about what’s available and how you choose what to stock. What should our readers look out for?
Look out for boutique wines would be my recommendation. These are wines from limited production wineries, most of them are family owned and they put a lot of time and effort into making a high-quality, great value product! This is the type of winery we work with. Las Perdices started really small and worked their way up to the medium-size winery they are now—they were one of the first partners we had. We now also work with El Porvenir de Cafayate, a winery from Salta with amazing Torrontés. Then there is the MeVi boutique winery (which has great Tuscan-style wines, yet made from 100% Argentine Malbec), Familia Blanco (with mind-blowing and award-winning Bonarda) and CarinaE (French-style wines, since the owners are from France with a new found love for Malbec)—all from Mendoza. The newest addition is Patritti (with incredible Pinot Noir, Merlot and Chardonnay) from Neuquen, in northern Patagonia.
When looking for wine for cellaring it is always good to go for full-bodied wines that are very aromatic yet slightly strong in the “gripping” sensation they leave in the mouth; that way we know that they have enough tannins to age nicely. (Tannins are responsible for that dry feeling we get in the mouth when drinking red wine.) I’d recommend getting at least three bottles (or two if you’ve already tasted it) when laying wine down to mature: one to drink now and see if it has aging potential, and the other two for cellaring itself. One will work as a tester (usually opened halfway through the time you’d want to age the wine), and the other one can be left for the final test, the opening and drinking!
Malbec wines are the most successful ones in Argentina, especially for the international market, but many other wines are made. What about the other wines, in particular Bonarda and Torrontés?
Bonarda is the new up-and-coming red. Look out for it in the future. Experts like Alberto Antonini (the famous travelling Italian winemaker) say it’ll be the next big red wine from here. It’s only grown here in Argentina and is an extremely easy drinking style of wine. Lots of red fruit aromas plus a black pepper aftertaste, and incredibly easy to pair with simple food (pasta, pizza, cold cuts and cheeses). I recommend one from Mendoza for the full expression of the grape.
Torrontés is amazingly unique. Not only is it our flagship white wine, it’s the only native grape that we have to make high-quality wines. Definitely one to look out for when pairing with hot and spicy food, since it’s very aromatic (it is excellent with aromatic spices like ginger) and has an amazing lively acidity to it that will cut right through the heat and flavors and allow you to keep on eating. The best come from Cafayate or the Valles Calchaquies area in general, which is in the province of Salta.
Argentinian and Chilean wines are well known internationally, but wine is also made elsewhere in South and Central America, e.g. in Brazil and Uruguay. Is any of it good and do you think it’ll become better known?
Uruguay has some great Tannat (actually that’s their flagship wine) and Brazil has some good sparkling wines. They both have very particular weather, one is very humid (Uruguay) and the other tropical (Brazil), so that makes the winemaking process very different. My guess is that they’ll get much better with time, which is more or less what happened with Chile and Argentina. You have to learn to play to your strengths!
About Anuva Wines
Anuva is an independent wine merchant (retail and wholesale), tasting venue, exporter and wine club based in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. Their founding principles include:
- hand sourcing great, limited production wines from South America
- community building and spreading knowledge—supporting small producers in developing countries and hosting small, intimate groups at wine tastings from their loft in Buenos Aires
Anuva’s team of sommeliers like to combine their expertise with simple enjoyment and plenty of humor in the pursuit of good drinking.