When I first flew down to Buenos Aires, on business, in the late 90’s it was a very different world. The peso was still pegged to the US$ and, wow, who can remember, I guess it was Aussie shiraz or was it Chilean ‘merlot’ (carmenere?) that was all the rage from the ‘New World’. Few Europeans had heard of Argentine malbec. I remember sitting on the plane being served a glass of red. I was tired and not paying much notice when it was poured, but when I tasted it, I sat up. It was soft, balanced and even at 30,000 feet, noticeably nice. The chap in the seat next to me spotted my interest and said it was Cavas Weinert malbec, one of the older and better known wineries in Mendoza. I filed it in the memory and asked for a second glass…
A couple of days later I asked the locals in my office if they could find me a good wine shop nearby. Yes they could. Not really knowing much, I asked for a seriously good Argentine malbec. Guess what. Weinert. US$11. Yup, eleven dollars, one of the more expensive bottles in the shop.
A year ago, I strolled into a number of good wine shops in the capital and though the prices are now all in pesos, the number of wines at ten times (and more) that price was staggering. You can definitely say that Argentine wine has come of age. And it’s not merely malbec or red.
Like any relatively sudden rise to fame, there are the good and the bad sides. I am far from expert and have yet to visit Mendoza (surely a place that vies for the title of most beautiful vineyards in the world?), but I do spend a week in Patagonia each year (trying to annoy fish) and at picnic lunch we always have a bottle of malbec (when in Rome and all that…) and it’s interesting that the basic, cheaper wine served for lunch is always lower in alcohol and often much better balanced than the heavier bottle on steroids that appears at dinner. It seems that as the hype has risen and the flying winemakers jetted in, both prices and alcohol have climbed. That’s the bad part. Too many wines now taste of nowhere and are obviously ‘made’ in the winery, not the vineyards basking in glorious Andean sunlight with that visually epic backdrop. Heavy, porty, over-ripe and hard. Or just all about fruit.
But what of the good side? Funnily enough in 2017 the duty-free shop had the 1999 Cavas Weinert malbec on sale. Okay, not for $11 anymore, but it was easily the most balanced malbec I’d drunk in a long while. Yes, that soft, ripe dark berry fruit of course, but some secondary flavours too, menthol, leather, with a lovely texture and lingering acidity. So who says that Andean malbec doesn’t age? I recall the 1995 Luigi Bosca Finca Los Nobles malbec-petit verdot which had a similar profile and first made my wife fall in love with Argentine malbec in (the old) La Cabana restaurant in Recoleta in BA. Interestingly we tried their 1995 cabernet blind at home with friends and it was more interesting than the 95 Mondavi Reserve from Napa (which was all about fruit), and better balanced than a rather surly and tannic Leoville Barton and over-extracted Angelus. Oh, it was also by far the cheapest.
Lovely wines from the 90s with lowish (I guess 13%) alcohol and with structure and balance that aged and matured well. But, at the time, largely unknown and mainly for local, patriotic consumption. And then seemed to flow (through my glasses anyway) a lot of wine that was mostly nice (I always check the alcohol level, so 15 and 16% wines, no thankyou) but all tasted remarkably similar. Just a lot of soft, ripe blue and black fruit. Good yes, but never more. Labels with famed consultants like Michel Rolland just tasted too heavy, over-ripe and forced. The US wine critics raved, but I found less and less wine to like, and the price and power just seemed to go up more and more. My interest began to wane. Perhaps I’d try some Cahors instead.
And so began the mighty ascent. Up the price scale yes, but mainly up in altitude. Laura Catena, in a fascinating and fun interview with Tim Atkin on Instagram, reminds us that Mendoza is unlike any other wine region in that you can effectively drive through various totally different climates (on the Winkler scale) in half an hour. To get the sort of temperature shift that you’d find travelling from say Champagne to the Languedoc, you just tootle half an hour down the road, or, to be more precise vertically up or down the Andes. It’s become all about elevation.
She also commented that when malbec grapes were first brought over from France, 170 years ago, they were often the high quality vines from Bordeaux, in a region which (pre phylloxera) still mixed malbec in with its cabernet, merlot, franc and verdot. Noble grapes. After the ravages of the rampaging louse, the low yield and fragile nature of the malbec grapes were largely passed over, and merlot is now used to soften the cabernet, and everyone thought of malbec (or cot) as the rather teeth-staining black wine of Cahors. Definitely not ‘noble’.
Perhaps not in Cahors back then, but those original Medocain vines found their nobility for sure up in the foothills of the Andes. And with careful massal selection and, above all, site selection, new wines have appeared, as have a (sometimes confusing) array of sub-location names on labels, Altamira, Gualtallary - ever higher towards those blue skies.
This year we had a 2006 Rutini Antologia XXI. It weighed in at a pleasing 13.5%, and had balance, minty fruit and a long earthy finish. A wine of class and juicily perfect with a proper bife ancho from the Pampas. Okay, you don’t find cows halfway up the Andes, but the malbec-steak combo is a ‘local’ pairing that’s a real winner if you get both partners right. (If you are in Paris, head to Carnar in the 7th for vacuum packed, fresh bife flown in from the Pampas; sorry, you will not buy boeuf again).
Which brings me back to Catena, and the family that has surely done more to lift the wines of Argentina to their desired ‘grand cru’ status. We tried their joint venture wine with Lafite Rothschild, Caro, but just as with the LVMH (Cheval Blanc) JV, Cheval des Andes, I found the wines very well made, but I just wasn’t that excited by the malbec-cabernet blend and frankly they were good but, again, not more. Perhaps they were almost too polished. You need to tango here, not dance a refined pas de deux.
So higher we went until we hit the jackpot in the Catena’s prime vineyard, Adrianna, named after his younger daughter and discovered by Nicolas Catena and planted in 1992 in his search for a cooler climate and a truly grand vineyard in every sense. And up at 1450 metres, you find just that, plus exceptional purity and radiance of sunlight, great drainage due to the stones and, for an insufferable Burgundy fanatic like me, the holy grail – alluvial soils with limestone deposits. I am not a geologist so cannot comment on the volcanic soils, the glacial residues, the ancient riverbeds, but here is a definite ‘terroir’ that leads to lower alcohol, higher acidity, minerality and freshness. For my tastes, that’s really what you need in a vineyard. Plus passion, commitment and, in Alejandro Vigil, a very talented winemaker.
It’s complicated, but I think if you want the full location, it is the Adrianna Vineyard, Gualtallary, Tupungato Alto, Uco Valley, Mendoza… And then you subdivide further into a number of parcels: White Bones, White Stones, and for the malbecs, Mundus Bacillus Terrae, River Stones and Fortuna Terrae. Sadly, I cannot comment on the reds as the only one I have drunk was this 2006 simply named ‘Adrianna Vineyard’ and I am guessing this was before the subdivisions. It showed similarities to the best malbecs I have already mentioned, but also possessed a florality and stony elegance that was very refined. Lovely wine that transcended the usual fruit-forward power of the grape. It felt more like Burgundy than traditional Mendoza malbec. The prices of the new wines are, I have to say, almost as high as the vineyard, and mundus bacillus will set you back more than two hundred euros. Ouch, though I suppose these days that is the ubiquitous problem (for consumers, not producers), with ‘grand vins’, and if you look at the stratospheric critics’ scores... As an aside, another branch of the family, DV Catena, produces an Adrianna malbec that is an awful lot more affordable, though I don’t think it reaches the same gustatory heights.
Ok, so let’s stay a little closer to a feet on the ground budget even if our head remains up at almost 5,000 feet. I did say that great Argentine wine was not just red and not just malbec. The two whites from Adrianna are chardonnay, come in at around 13%, and are still priced in double not triple figures. I tasted the 2015 White Stones in 2019, still a young wine, but fresh, minty, citrussy mineral and restrained, another very classy wine and certainly in a different league from most chardonnays from across the Atlantic. There was none of the usual richness, heavy fat and very ripe fruit.
But before I finish, I’d like to leave the high planes of the beautiful Andes and head way south, down to Rio Negro in Patagonia (where I love to fish). I have often preferred the lower alcohol and fresher malbecs of Patagonia (such as Humberto Canale/Gran Marcus) to the blockbusters of lower Mendoza, but one winery has received a lot of attention, Bodega Chacra. Partly because it was founded in 2004 by Piero Incisa della Rochetta of super-Tuscan Sassicaia fame, and partly because it had old vine pinot noir. Throw in biodynamics and you have a compelling story.
To be honest I tried the 2006 vintage of the 1932 planted vineyard (Trenta y Dos) pinot in 2016 and have to admit it was pleasant, with nice fruit, but rather light and for someone used to Burgundy, lacking structure. One taste is not too much to go on, and my palate is very biased, but it did not incite me to try more. Until I noticed a story in the press about a hero of mine who has appeared earlier in these pages, Jean-Marc Roulot, the star of Meursault. He had taken on Chacra as a consultant winemaker and they had two wines, Mainque (at a very reasonable price) and Chacra (I guess at similar price to White Bones). Again, we have some alluvial limestone and lower alcohol, restrained chardonnay. The 2017 Mainque drunk in 2020 when just a baby was delicious, slightly reductive, no malolactic, lots of citrus, thickly mineral (all very Roulot I’d guess) but with a distinct salinity that is supposedly the trademark of the vineyards. I need to get my hands on a bottle of their Chacra chardonnay…