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Spotlight on Argentina

Grim times for Argentina at the moment. The country’s economy is in a state of near collapse, and there’s little optimism that things will right themselves in the near future. But the prospects for Argentinean wine is actually quite good, provided that the quality revolution in the vineyards keeps on track.

Historically, Argentina has produced large volumes of plonk from high-yielding vines liberally fed by Andean irrigation water. You might be surprised to learn that Argentina is actually the world’s fifth largest producer, with 200 000 hectares under vine. But as the sights of producers have turned from the thirsty domestic consumers (who still manage a creditable 40 litres per head each year) towards lucrative export markets, an effort has been made to raise the standard. Indeed, exports now account for 9.1% of production, with most going to the UK and USA, an increase of tenfold over the last four years.

There’s been a lot of improvement and there’s more to come. If I was Chile, I’d be worried, although heavyweight wine expert Tom Stevenson states in last year’s revision of The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopaedia that, ‘at the moment, however, Chile has nothing to fear from Argentina’. But Argentina arguably has more potential than their neighbour, and certainly has the edge in terms of volume. Evidence for Argentina’s potential is provided by the quality of wines produced by the likes of Catena and Bianchi.  

To get an idea of the sort of progress Argentina is making, I sampled a cross-section of the wines available on the UK market. This is by no means a comprehensive survey, but it provides an insight into the sorts of wines that Argentina is currently making, and the sort of value they offer. There’s plenty of promise, but evidently a fair way yet to go.  

Click on map for larger image

What Argentina really needs is a positive image similar to that currently enjoyed by Australia and New Zealand in the UK market. ‘Brand Australia’ has worked really well: is there any hope for creating a ‘Brand Argentina’? I suspect that this will be held back by the fact that Argentina really is an unknown quantity in the UK. Not many Brits visit, Argentina, and it is seldom in our consciousness. The danger is that without Argentinean wines being sold on the basis of their ‘Argentinean-ness’, they’ll just be yet more international branded wines fighting it out at the £3.99 and £4.99 price brackets. I hope and believe that Argentina has more to offer than international Chardonnay and Cabernet. In particular the likes of Malbec, Torrontes, Bonarda, Sangiovese, Barbera and Tempranillo offer the opportunity to produce tasty wines with some uniquely Argentinean character.

Fact file

key regions average annual production
Mendoza 1.5 million tonnes
San Juan  0.6 million tonnes
La Rioja 0.1 million tonnes
Salta 25 000 tonnes
Rio Negro 15 000 tonnes

Key grape varieties area under vine (2001 data)


16 500 ha
Bonarda  15 000 ha
Cabernet Sauvignon  12 000 ha
Syrah  8000 ha
Merlot  5500 ha
Tempranillo  4500 ha
Sangiovese  2500 ha
Barbera  1000 ha
Pinot Noir  1000 ha

Pedro Ximenez

15 000 ha  
Torrontes   8000 ha
Chardonnay   4500 ha
Chenin Blanc  3500 ha  
Ugni Blanc   3000 ha
Semillon  1000 ha  
Viognier  150 ha  

Tasting notes  

see also: Malbec from Argentina: 45 wines tried (September 2006)

Valentin Bianchi Elsa Barbera 2000, Mendoza
This vibrant, juicy red is a wonderful find. Really lovely forward liquoricey berry fruit on the nose. The palate has lots of bright savoury-edged berry fruit with good acidity. Completely more-ish, this is brilliant for the price. Very good/excellent (£5.45 Berry Bros & Rudd)

La Nature Torrontes 2001, Famatina Valley
From northwest Argentina, this organic wine is a delicious example of the indigenous Torrontes. Pretty, aromatic nose with floral, spicy, perfumed rose-petal notes. Nicely balanced fruity palate with a grapey character and good acidity. This is a superb summer sipper with a well poised, delicate texture. Very good+ (£4.29 Sainsbury, Vinceremos)

Weinert Carrascal 1997, Mendoza
This is Argentina's answer to Château Musar: traditionally made with an unusual, old-fashioned character that toys with the border of faultiness. And in an age when all wines appear to be beginning to taste the same, it's a very welcome change. A blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, it has a rich, savoury, slightly leathery nose. It's not overtly fruity, and there's a little bit of volatile acidity. The medium-bodied palate shows some herby, spicy character, and there's a touch of sweetness to the fruit. Some meatiness emerges after a while and there's spicy complexity. Old fashioned in a nice way. Very good/excellent (£7.99 Majestic, Connollys) 

Cavas de Weinert Gran Vino 1996, Mendoza
There’s a herby, spicy, mushroomy edge to the nose, showing some evolution and coming across as a tiny bit rustic. Good concentration of spicy, warm fruit on the palate. Nicely balanced, but very old fashioned style. Savoury, earthy and spicy. Fairly complex. Very good+ (£9.99 Majestic) 

Ché Syrah 2001, La Rioja
There’s a touch of bubblegum to the bright, almost sweet fruit berry fruit on the nose. The palate is very fruity with good acid balance. Quite juicy, this is Argentina’s answer to Beajoulais. Perhaps a bit synthetic and industrial. Good/very good (£3.99 Oddbins) 

Carmelo Patti Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, Mendoza
Really attractive nose of leafy blackcurrant fruit, with a slight herbaceousness (not unattractive, though) and a touch of minerality. The palate is savoury with some tannins, and is not at all new-worldy: in fact, it’s quite Loire-like. Medium bodied with mineral-laced blackcurrant and raspberry fruit. Delicious stuff. Very good/excellent (£7.99 Oddbins) 02/02

Santa Julia Tempranillo 2000, Mendoza
Roast coffee edge to the nose, with bright, primary cherry fruit. Savoury, spicy edge to the palate which shows pure cherry and raspberry fruit. Very modern and fruity with good concentration and a chocolatey richness. Attractive commercial winemaking. Very good (£4.99 Tesco) 02/02

Santa Julia Bonarda Sangiovese Reserva 1999, Mendoza
Pretty nose dominated by minty spicy vanilla-edged new oak. Good concentration on the palate which shows cherry and berry fruit, and rather overwhelming savoury, spicy new oak, and woody tannins. A crowd pleaser, but perhaps too manufactured with a bit too much oak influence. But it’s a nicely savoury food wine. Good/very good (£5.99 Tesco) 02/02

Vina Amalia Chardonnay 1999, Mendoza
Barrel-fermented for 4 months in new French oak, this is a pale yellow colour. Slightly shy, sulfury nose with grapefruit and pineapple notes. The palate is richly textured with some nuttiness from the oak, but it’s a bit alcoholic and unbalanced. Lacking in flavour where it counts. Good (£4.99 Oddbins) 03/02

Vina Amalia Malbec 1999, Mendoza
Aged for 8 months in French and American oak; unfiltered. Slightly sulfury, minerally nose. Reasonably concentrated ripe fruit on the palate with good acidity and a spicy finish, but a bit rough-edged. I’m not too keen on this. Good (£4.99 Oddbins)  03/02

Malambo Chenin/Chardonnay 2001, Mendoza
Very bright fruit – it’s fresh and accessible with good concentration and a touch of citrus and spice on the palate. Nice stuff. Good/very good (£3.99 Sainsbury)

Malmbo Bonarda 2001, Mendoza
Bright cherry fruit on the nose. Soft, juicy palate. A light glugger, but clean and quite attractive. Good/very good (£3.99 Sainsbury)

Argento Chardonnay 2001, Mendoza
Regulation Chardonnay nose with some tropical fruit and a touch of nuttiness. Attractive texture on the palate. Quite savoury and manages to stay in balance. Impressive for the price. Very good (£4.99 Sainsbury, Tesco, Oddbins)

Argento Malbec 2001, Mendoza
With some oak influence from barrel staves. Bright purple colour. Quite a simple wine with ripe berry fruit and a touch of savoury, spicy structure on the palate and a hint of sweetness. Good/very good (£4.99 Sainsbury, Tesco, Booths, Coop, Majestic)

Alamos Chardonnay 1999, Mendoza
Nice rich nutty/toasty nose is quite rich. Powerful savoury palate, showing lots of oak and some nutty fruit. Good concentration but a bit over the top and crude. Very good (£5.99, Unwins, Oddbins, Majestic)

Alamos Bonarda 2000, Mendoza
Fresh, bright nose is herb-tinged with cherry and plum fruit. The palate is rich and juicy with a medicinal/herbaceous edge, and some tannin. Very good (£5.99, Oddbins)

Alamos Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Mendoza
Assertive nose of bright blackcurrant fruit with a herby edge. Juicy palate with some tannic structure and just a touch of herbaceousness. Very good (£5.99, Sainsbury, Majestic)

Alamos Malbec 2000, Mendoza
Fresh, lively fruity nose with some spicy oak and chocolatey fruit. Good density of spicy, savoury berry fruit on the palate with a lovely rich edge. This is tasty stuff. Very good+ (£5.99 Majestic)

Catena Chardonnay 2000, Mendoza
Creamy, bready nutty nose is a little lifted. Classy, richly oaked palate with good acidity. A very rich style and quite savoury. Very good+ (£8.99 Waitrose; £9.99 Majestic, Oddbins)

Catena Malbec 1999, Mendoza
There’s a spicy, roasted edge to the bright fruit on the nose, which is rich and quite complex. The palate shows a good concentration of spicy fruit and oak, with good density: high acidity and  some tannin keep things nicely savoury. Very good/excellent (£9.99 Oddbins, Unwins)

Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Mendoza
From Argentina's leading producer, this is the little brother of the Catena Alta Cabernet that I’ve written up highly in the past. Intense berry and blackcurrant fruit on the nose, which leads to a juicy, rich, spicy palate. Great concentration, and the oaking works well with the full-on fruit. Smooth and supple, and kept fresh by high acidity. Very good/excellent (£8.99 Sainsbury, Tesco, Majestic) 01/02

Catena Alta Chardonnay 1999, Mendoza
Really intense nose – a supercharged version of the Catena Chardonnay – with lifted acidity and bready, toasty and spicy notes. The palate is rich and concentrated, displaying lots of fruit and oak (although this is well integrated). Spicy and full, yet still quite elegant. Very good/excellent (£19.59 Bibendum, Harrods)

Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, Mendoza
Lovely refined nose: very tight and classy, with creamy, cedar-laced blackcurrant fruit and a subtle leafy edge. Almost Bordeaux like. The palate shows a good density of ripe fruit with an attractive texture and good tannins and acidity. Very refined and well judged, this is one of the best wines I've tried from Argentina. Excellent (£21.54+ Bibendum, Harrods)

Catena Alta Malbec 1999, Mendoza
Dense berry fruit on the nose, with a savoury, spicy edge. The palate is rich and full: it’s chunky, with attractive savoury berry fruit. Great concentration. Although it’s a little bit tight and closed at the moment, there’s good potential here. Very good+ (£21.54 Harrods, Wine Society, Bibendum)  

For more Argentinean tasting notes and producer profiles, click here

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