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Argentina: The next chapter – By John Szabo

John Szabo - Vineyards at Andeluna, Uco Valley

My year-end post comes from the end of the world, at least from our perspective: Argentina. Red hot in Canada and the US, Argentine wine has in a very short time moved from fringe to mainstream. But where will Argentina go after malbec and Mendoza? Does the country have the depth and diversity to hold the attention of our fickle wine market long term? I needed to do a little research and fact checking, so in late November, along with respected colleague Bill Zacharkiw of the Montreal Gazette, I boarded the AC overnight flight to Buenos Aires to get the scoop. From Salta in the north to Patagonia 2000km to the south, this is the next chapter in the story of Argentine wine.

But first, a little perspective on ‘La Argentina’: the name conjures up so many images in the minds of most Canadians. I had my own preconceived notions, and I expected this journey to either galvanize or dispel them. There’s nothing like a little knowledge to kill prejudice, to paraphrase Mark Twain. Prior to leaving, through a little reading and exposure to Argentineans in Toronto and elsewhere, I had the following pre-conceived notions:

1. Argentina is a remote but exotic destination, where the population survives almost exclusively on lean, grass-fed beef, cooked on a wood fired grill under open skies, served with lots of red wine and Fernet Branca mixed with coke.

2. The sultry accordion notes of Carlos Gardel’s tango music continually dance out onto the busy streets of Buenos Aires from every bar and restaurant, and couples spontaneously embrace in the provocative steps of the dance. Even the accent of Argentine Spanish seems to sway and flow to a tango beat, lilting, dropping, then swinging up again with a smooth, suave glide.

3. Argentina is the Europe of South America, with the legendary beauty of its people offering more than a passing resemblance to the citizens of Ancient Rome as depicted in images and on coins.

4. Argentines are fun, outgoing people, embodying the sort of culture where friendship is taken seriously and regularly re-established over long lunches that begin at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon and commonly stretch on well past the North American dinner hour, ebbing and flowing on the euphoria induced by Rabelaisian quantities of strong red wine, and later, Fernet Branca and Coca-Cola.

5. Gauchos, part outlaws, part cult heroes, still ride the plains of the Pampas and lead the life of rugged adventurers that many dream of.

6. Argentines all play soccer, and young children wear the baby blue and white striped jersey of the Argentine national soccer team, thrice World Cup Champions and arch-rivals of the world’s top soccer nations.

7. Everybody takes food seriously in Argentina as they do in Italy, with the best dishes of course being those that are prepared by your mamma or nonna (abuela). Everyone has an opinion on who makes the best dulce de leche, the national sweet, a condensed caramelized form of milk that’s used in everything from ice cream to cookie fillings.

8. Energy is palpable in the streets, especially Buenos Aires. There’s the ever-present sense of controlled chaos, of the silently tolerated transgression of arbitrary laws that might interfere with proper living, or Fernet Branca and coke.

9. Salaries are low, inflation is high, mortgages are virtually unattainable and another economic meltdown such as that experienced in 2001 seems all but inevitable, and yet there is no doom and gloom. Argentinean people are endearingly optimistic, with an unshakeable faith in the positive outcome of matters utterly beyond their control. Yet at the same time, they don’t trust anyone (there is reportedly more Argentine money held in offshore bank accounts and tied up in foreign investments than within the country itself, so I guess there’s no reason not to smile even as the country collapses around you). Nevertheless, they’ll deliver offerings at the many roadside shrines dedicated to Gauchito Gil (a legendary gaucho, Robin Hood hero, outlaw) with the matter-of-fact conviction their prayers will be answered as assuredly as their bank statement will reflect a recent deposit, or that Argentina will win the next world cup. Things just seem to have a way of working themselves out on their own in Argentina.

10. Argentina produces a lot of malbec, generally soft, oaky and fruity, and a fair bit of aromatic muscat-like Torrontés in desert-like conditions in the foothills of the Andes where hail the size of baseballs regularly pummels the vines. And they drink a lot of Fernet and coke.

Fernet, unofficial national beverage

Fernet, unofficial national beverage

So, were these notions accurate? Yes of course. And of course not. Argentina offers much more than meets the eye, especially in the world of wine.

Argentina’s positive cultural image has helped propel wine exports, a product intimately related to culture, to record highs. Bottled wine exports have surged up nearly 19% by value and 10% by volume in the last year overall. In Canada, Argentina’s second largest market after the USA, value is up 18.3% and average price per case has soared almost 22%, even while total volume slipped by 2.8%. This is likely explained due to the ‘Fuzion’ bubble bursting.

You may recall somewhere around 2008, Fuzion, a brand produced by Zuccardi in Mendoza, became Ontario’s single most successful product ever, across all categories, outselling everything including beer, spirits and ready-to-drink products. The frenzy to buy a case, like a Walmart-special-in-aisle-4-caused rush of humanity has all but subsided now, and there bottles sit on LCBO shelves where once they were gone before even hitting them. Like the wine or not, it put Argentina on the map and into the mainstream consciousness of wine drinkers in Canada.

It wasn’t so long ago, only a little over a decade or so, that Argentina didn’t need to export wine. Despite being the world’s 5th largest wine producer (after Italy, France, Spain and the US), Argentines consumed a prodigious amount of their own supply, to the liver-quivering tune of 90l per capita. That number has since dropped to 30l, creating a huge surplus in the home market. Solution: export. And timing couldn’t have been better. The Argentine peso, formerly pegged to the US$, was devalued by 2/3 overnight in the crash of 2001, making Argentine products cheap. Around the same period, world wine markets were coming of age, especially in North America, where consumers had become comfortable including wine in their lifestyle, had become familiar with many of the world’s classic wine regions, and had developed the confidence and curiosity to go out and discover what else was out there in the vast and mesmerizing world of wine.

Patagonia Chacra Pinots

Patagonia Chacra Pinots

Enter Argentina, an exotic country with a generally positive national ‘brand’ image. The country had good supply of inexpensive wine made predominantly from a relatively obscure but not totally unknown grape variety, malbec, of which they now have the world’s largest plantings. Malbec was something new and exciting to most, and it also happens to be a grape that delivers the type of wine of greatest popularity these days: red, deeply coloured, richly fruity, full bodied, structured but not too tannic, with an affinity for the flavours of new oak.

So there you have it: good, cheap wine in the style-du-jour from a new and exotic country and grape. The perfect storm. Then throw in one more significant weather event, a world-wide economic meltdown that made ‘good value’ the zeitgeist on every drinker’s lips, and voilà Argentina moves from fringe to mainstream and Fuzion goes fission, exploding with that much more power.

Stardate 2011: Argentina stands at the proverbial crossroads, basking in the success of the last few years, yet also in the anxiety of how to stay on top and ahead of the game. There’s the imminent danger that the country will lose its luster, it’s exotic, spicy edge, and that consumers will grow bored with the same old cookie-cutter style, interchangeable $14.95 malbecs. For with all of this success comes the inevitable pressure on supply and the subsequent temptation to cut corners. Quality in some cases is certainly on the rise, but not uniformly; some wines are slipping in quality from over-stretched production and expanded vineyard sources. It’s reminiscent of the Yellow Tail phenomenon, where at one point demand was so high that grapes and wine were sourced from anywhere and everywhere and manufactured at Beaujolais Nouveau-like speed with the aim to simply meet orders.

Given the popularity of malbec today and looking back, it’s ironic that a significant part of the country’s original old vine malbec vineyards planted by Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were ripped out in the 60s and 70s. Nobody wanted the grape. It yielded less than the more productive bonarda (Argentina’s second most planted red grape), and much much less than the depressing, lowly criolla, both of which replaced malbec when the undemanding internal market was guzzling prodigious quantities.

El Flaco, experienced vineyard worker

El Flaco, experienced vineyard worker

It wasn’t until the 90s that producers started to replant malbec as demand began to rise. There are still plenty of 80-90+ year old malbec vines, the source of some of Argentina’s greatest wines, but there are a lot of young vines as well, not yet in the prime of their quality-oriented life. The good news is that many of the newest vineyards have been established in areas previously thought unsuitable for viticulture: at high elevations in the foothills of the Andes, high above the flat, hot and fertile alluvial plains to the east, and in cooler regions like Patagonia.

These vineyards will write the next chapter in Argentina’s wine history, and the sequel to the now-familiar malbec story. These new developments were the real impetus for my Argentine adventure: to find out whether the country has the sufficient depth to keep hold of the world’s attention, and enough quality wines to ensure that they aren’t relegated exclusively to the ‘value wine’ ghetto like several countries before them.

The report is cautiously optimistic. On the one hand there’s risk of increased homogenization of styles and flavours through the well-intended efforts of international consultants such as Frenchmen Michel Rolland, Italian Alberto Antonini and American Paul Hobbs, all of whom consult for numerous properties throughout Argentina. Terroir or not, international consultants have their own philosophy of quality that transcends the walls of a winery and the boundaries of a vineyard, and tend to guide the fruit from various sources into the same style box. The style may be very successful, but the point is that diversity of style is utterly lost at precisely the time when it should be the ultimate aim in a maturing wine world that demands ever-more variety in tastes, textures and flavours.

I found it surprising that so many talented and highly trained Argentine winemakers employed outside consultants to guide them in their production. Most cited the fact that they simply don’t have any experience with international wines – there are virtually no foreign wines on the market in Argentina – and that foreign consultants help them keep in touch with what’s happening around the world. But that outside influence is a double-edged sword: the espoused styles may be popular internationally, but they are not necessarily recognizable as Argentinean. Such wines therefore lose the value-added edge of uniqueness, of originality, of distinction. Imagine if the monks of Burgundy had hired Bordeaux negociants to make their wine in the 17th century – I wonder what Burgundy would be like today. It is telling, however, that the three flying winemakers cited above each have their own properties in Argentina, in addition to consulting contracts, proving beyond a doubt that they, too, believe in the terroir of Argentina.

The other notable observation is the relative immaturity of the wine industry. Yes, wine has been made in Argentina since Spanish missionaries brought vines with them over the Andes from Peru and Chile. But the industry, and the internal wine market, have been completely isolated from the world until only about a decade or so ago. Little wine made it in or out of the country, and the only people exposed to quality foreign wines were the ones who could afford to travel.

The market, both producers and consumers, are still in the growth and development stage, much like California was been in the 1970s and 1980s, or Australia or even Chile in the 90s. Much of the winemaking points to a lack of confidence, that is, a lack of confidence in their own terroirs and grapes. There is still a prevalent belief that fine, expensive wine is made by doubling up: more ripeness, more alcohol, more extract, more wood. So often the ‘icon’ wines offered had no special story to tell other than the outmoded tale of more is better. To be sure, it will take some time for the regions/vineyards of greatest distinction to become clear, where concentration does not come at the expense of balance and real complexity is born in the vineyard not the cooperage.

Argentina's Wine Regions

Argentina's Wine Regions

The positive, optimistic side of this story comes from the discovery, or at least confirmation, that Argentina is home to diverse terroirs capable of producing distinctive wine styles, if not trumped by heavy-handed winemaking. Here are a few observations, facts and figures on Argentina’s main growing regions :

Mendoza

Beginning with Argentina’s largest and most famous region, Mendoza (70% of national production), the most notable discovery is the tremendous amount of diversity within this huge area. In fact, to put “Mendoza” alone on a label is about as useful as putting “Bordeaux”, with no further specification. Commercially, obviously, the names are highly recognized and will get the door open. But once you’re in, you must have something more to say. And there is more to say, much more. Like Bordeaux, the wines of the geographically diverse region of Mendoza can taste vastly different. There is easily as great a difference between the wines of the Uco Valley (south western Mendoza) and Rivadavia (eastern Mendoza) as there is between Pomerol and Pauillac. To capitalize on this distinctiveness requires winemakers first of all to reflect it, then wineries and their representatives to teach the trade and public about them. Not an overnight task.

Considering that the soils in Mendoza all share a similar alluvial composition of organic matter-poor sand, pebbles and clay (in varying proportions), and that rainfall varies little throughout the region (this is high desert country, and all vineyards here are irrigated with run-off from the Andes), the principal differences in style are due to the myriad micro-climates created by elevation. For example, sub regions like Rivadavia and San Rafael to the south and east of Mendoza City sit around 600-700m above sea level, and the harvest often occurs a full month ahead of some of the cooler, higher elevation zones. The flavours of malbec tend to be more cooked/baked/compoted red fruit, with softer tannins and more immediate appeal.

Hail nets, Mendoza's greatest threat

Hail nets, Mendoza's greatest threat

Vineyards in the Uco Valley, on the other hand, at up to 1500m in the foothills of the Andes produce more fresh black fruit flavours and highlight the floral-violet side of malbec. Day-night temperature shift during the growing season can top 20ºC, dropping at night to the point at which sugar accumulation and acid degradation virtually stop. This allows for full flavour development while retaining much higher levels of natural acidity and firmer tannins, making the wines of the Uco Valley suitable for long ageing.

The most historic vineyards in the close proximity to the River Mendoza in sub-regions like Luján de Cuyo and Maipù lie somewhere between these two extremes in style. The next step for wines from Argentina, in particular malbec from Mendoza, will be to begin to label wines by specific origin (under the umbrella of Mendoza) and to articulate these unique points of difference.

Patagonia

Insignificant in terms of volume of production – about 2% of the country’s wine production – Patagonia will have much greater impact on the quality wine scene in the near future.  The two main regions, Neuqén and Río Negro, are a full 800kms to the south of Mendoza at 42ºS, about the southern latitude equivalent to Toronto. This is not quite the Patagonia of penguins and glaciers (it’s another 2400km from Neuquén to Tierra del Fuego), but temperatures are markedly cooler than most other parts of the country. Aside from grapes, cool climate-loving tender fruits are a vital crop (cherries, apples, peaches). In the past this was an area focused on bulk table wines, with over 100 wineries in Rio Negro in the early-mid 20thC. All but one, Humberto Canale, were forced out of business in the 1960s and 1970s as they were unable to compete with the higher-yielding, lower production cost vineyards of Mendoza. Patagonia was and remains an expensive area to grow grapes, but with demand for top quality wines surging, the future looks bright. Bodega del Fin del Mundo pioneered the redevelopment of the region in the late 1990s, and there are now 15 wineries.

Patagonian Sky

Patagonian Sky

Frost is an issue, but the principal viticulture hazard in Patagonia is the fierce, near constant wind that can shred young shoots and wreak havoc at flower set, keeping yields naturally low. Vineyards are planted with buffering rows of poplar and willow trees to break the wind. The principal grapes grown are sauvignon blanc (an unexpected surprise), pinot noir, merlot and malbec. Cooler conditions yield wines with high natural acidity, vibrant, fresh fruit flavours and marked minerality; these are among the most refined and elegant wines in Argentina.

Salta

Salta is Argentina’s most northerly growing region at 22ºS, and it is only extreme elevation that makes quality viticulture possible. The world’s highest vineyards are located here, up to nearly 3000m. Viticulture dates back to the time of the Spanish conquest, but expect to hear more about Salta and its principal growing region, the Cafayate Valley, in the near future. Salta’s most emblematic grape, the fragrant-floral white torrontés variety (muscat x criolla) has become Argentina’s flagship white wine. The greatest challenge here is to protect the grapes from intense sunlight. For this reason the ancient pergola vine training system called parral is often still employed, even in new vineyards. It allows for a canopy of foliage to protect the grape bunches that grow beneath. The extreme day-night temperature shift also permits full ripeness at reasonable sugar levels (and thus moderate alcohol).

La Rioja

La Rioja’s best-known growing area is the wide, very arid Famatima Valley, flanked on two sides by the Velazco and Famatima mountains ranges at about 1000m elevation. It’s warmer than Mendoza on average, and produced mostly bulk wine until 15 years ago when the government backed a large project to shift the region into quality production. Vines are trained on the parral system to protect grapes from the sun and deal with the extreme climate. Torrontés Riojano, the most aromatic of the torrontés sub-varieties, and Bonarda (recently DNA finger-printed to be charbonneau, an ancient Savoie variety which has nothing to do with the bonarda of northern Italy) are the two flagship grapes.

San Juan

With close to 50,000 ha of grapes, (85% of which is for wine), San Juan is Argentina’s second largest wine producing province. The Tulum Valley is the most important growing area, representing close to 90% of San Juan’s production. But the quest to find cooler terroirs is pushing new vineyard development higher up into zones like the Zonda & Ullum Valleys at 900m, the Pedernal Valley at 1,300m and more recently the Calingasta Valley at about 2000m where a large diurnal temperature shift produces grapes with high extract and flavour intensity. The difference between these areas is pronounced, as a tasting of single vineyard Syrahs from Tulum, Zonda and Pedernal amply proved. Syrah has been established as the most important grape in San Juan.

The future is in the hands of Argentina’s wine producers and promoters. The potential exists to become a serious player in the world with everything from great value, entry-level to truly ultra premium wines (let’s drop the ‘icon’ designation). I look forward to following the story.

Some Key figures on Argentina in the world:

-          5th largest wine producer (1.375m liters produced in 2010, 1,341 wineries)

-          7th largest wine exporter: 230.667 hectoliters in 2010

-          8th largest wine consumer: 8 gallons consumption per capita in 2009 (775,180.20 hectoliters in total)

-          9th in Cultivated Surface: 228,575 ha

Source: Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura

For more information on Argentina go to http://www.winesofargentina.org/en/

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