Argentina Reconsidered: Malbec Red, Malbec White, & Exploring the Limits

A highlight of our first trip to Argentina in 2011 was a special lunch where we sampled wine after wine (paired with exquisite local cuisine), but none of the wines (until the very end) were Malbecs.

Our host, Andrés Rosberg, then President of the Association of Argentinean Sommeliers and a judge for the Decanter World Wine Awards, wanted to make a point. Argentina may be identified with Malbec wine. Malbec may be its signature wine grape variety. But Malbec doesn’t define Argentina.

I will paste the 2011 tasting menu at the bottom of this page so that you get a sense of the experience.

Argentina’s Many Faces

Sue and I have carried this lesson with us and we make every effort to spread the word when we can, highlighting the diversity of Argentina wines beyond Malbec and also the diversity of different Malbec wines, particularly the differences between higher- and lower-elevantion wines.

It would be impossible to recreate our experience in Buenos Aires, but we were able to reconsider stereotypes of Argentina wines recently thanks to sample wines from Grupo AVINEA , a leading Argentina producer. Grupo Avenia is probably best known here in the U.S. market for its popular-priced Bodega Argento Malbec, but in fact the group, like Argentina, has lots more to offer.

Our research extended over two evenings.  We make a point of tasting wine with meals because it is so much more realistic and, to us, revealing than the “sip, spit, and score” ritual of wine competitions.  Research assistants Bonnie and Richard joined us on the first evening for a series of three very surprising wines.

The first wine was the Artesano de Argento Organic White Malbec shown above. White Malbec? I think we were all afraid that it might be a sweetish blush wine like some White Zinfandels found on the market. But it was completely different. The grapes were picked early and the skins separated from the juice very quickly, resulting in a completely color-free wine that was crisp and refreshing.  The bottle was quickly drained. A hit!

Way South of the Border

The next two wines were from Grupo Avenia’s Bodega Otronia winery, which sources grapes from what is possibly the southern-most vineyard in the world at 45º 33′ S latitude. These are really extreme vineyards situated in the cold desert beside Lake Musters, in Chubut, Patagonia.

The 45 Rugientes Corte de Blancs was a fascinating blend of Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay, with layers of bright flavor and savory herbs. Sue and I have had blends like this from Northern Italy and they can be fantastic. A lot of attention was given to this wine. Hand harvested, fermented in concrete eggs and tanks, aged in a combination of oak and concrete. I really enjoyed it, but Richard prefered the White Malbec. Two very distinctive and unexpected white wines!

Then came the 45 Rugientes Pinot Noir, which was also delicious and unexpected. It was intense, with nice acidity and had a personality of its own, not Burgundy or Oregon or even Tasmania. Maybe it was the whole cluster fermentation that brought out extra fruit. Another hit.

There is actually quite of lot of Pinot Noir grown in Argentina, which might explain why Moët Chandon established its first New World sparkling wine outpost in Mendoza more than 60 years ago.

And Don’t Forget Malbec!

Later in the week Sue and I completed the project by pulling the cork on a bottle of Argento Malbec, but not the popular supermarket bottling. It was an Argento Single Vineyard Malbec from Finca Altamira. The wine was distinctive for its freshness and tart fruit, which in general sets apart our favorite Malbecs.

The bottom line from this research project? Argentina Malbec has a lot to offer and Argentina itself has much to offer beyond Malbec. Kinda makes you thirsty, doesn’t it? Thirsty to discover what’s next!


2011 Tasting Menu

Breaded veal tongue stuffed with brie cheese & sundried tomatoes and piquillo peppers sauce paired with Chandon Cuvée Reserve Pinot Noir

Baby squid & pickled vegetables salad
Rutini Gewürztraminer 2009

Rabbit liver & spinach ravioli with mushroom stock
Ricardo Santos Sémillon 2010

White salmon with ajoblanco, almonds, roasted tomatoes, zucchinis & bean pods
Miguel Escorihuela Gascón Pequeñas Producciones Chardonnay 2009

Iced lullo, litchis, caramelized pumpkin seeds & yogurt foam
Rutini Vin Doux Naturel (Sémillon – Verdicchio) 2007

Allspice philo pastry, chocolate cream, apple, saffron ice cream & cardamom milk
Rutini Vino Dulce Encabezado de Malbec 2007


3 responses

  1. Mike, interesting article. Argentina is sure an interesting case study. Years ago when I had a wine store, we did some unusual tastings that showcased the diversity, as you suggest here. Just by dint of latitude and elevation changes alone, the country has necessary and incredible diversity. In addition to some of the southernmost vineyards that you mentioned in Patagonia, they have some of the highest elevation vineyards in Salta. Even Malbec expresses itself completely differently at those extremes, not to mention when made as a white (as you noted) or as a sparkling wine, which Malbec is used for in the south. Probably 15 years ago I was at a wine lunch with the winemaker from Mendel who was already making excellent Semillon. Of course, Bonarda and Torrontes are both totally unique and very good quality. And I think Argentina still has pre-phyloxera Cab Franc of exceptional quality. But the kicker is that no one knows or cares. I’m not sure if that is a problem of marketing or demand or both. In a way, Argentina is the opposite of Australia — it sort of got Yellow Tailed right at the beginning, where no one wanted anything but affordable Malbec and that reputation has been self-limiting. They need something like a “taste it for the first time all over again” sort of campaign.

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