For most of us, Argentina more than likely means Malbec. Although the grape variety hails from Cahors in south-west France and was once a major player in Bordeaux, it is now intrinsically associated with Argentina, which makes three-quarters of the world’s Malbec.
A combination of near-perfect conditions for growing the vines, a revolution in quality and attractive pricing means the country now enjoys a market dominance for the variety that has defined its reputation, yet for lovers of red wine, Argentina offers so much more than merely Malbec.
Bonarda, unrelated to its Italian namesake, is the country’s second-most-planted variety, with the honest, exuberantly fruity wines proving increasingly fashionable; in third place, Cabernet Sauvignon is growing rapidly, the number of vines planted rising sixfold over a couple of decades; Syrah’s star is on the rise even faster, albeit from a lower base, and arguably leading the pack in terms of stature is Cabernet Franc, which has taken to the country’s unique terroir with aplomb.
Mendoza is Argentina’s biggest, most celebrated wine region, with its finest sub-zones fanning out into the foothills of the Andes. Historically, the most famous have been Luján de Cuyo and Maipú, although the Uco Valley a little further south has more recently been garnering the most attention – with its high-altitude sub-regions such as Gualtallary and Altamira talked up as Argentina’s grand crus.
“There has undoubtedly been a shift towards greater site expression, lower oak usage, less extraction and an emphasis on freshness,” says Alistair Cooper MW, an IWSC judge and South America specialist. “This is not unique to Argentina and has largely been a global shift since the early noughties, with the gradual waning of beefy, lush ‘Parker-ised’ styles.
“What has been key in Argentina has been the pioneering of terroirs that have helped producers do this and express the vibrancy and vitality that Malbec, and other grapes, possess,” he adds.
The focus on altitude, most notably in the Uco Valley, a proper understanding of microclimates and a far greater appreciation of the stony soils, often rich in limestone, has led to a new breed of premium Malbec, pioneered by the likes of Nicolás Catena Zapata, who was at the vanguard of the charge into the mountains and whose wines have joined the league of the First Growths traded on the Place de Bordeaux.
In the northernmost region of Salta, the vines climb even higher towards the skies, with the sub-zone of Cafayate starting at around 1700 metres, while in Molinos, Colome Estate’s Altura Máxima claims the record for the highest vineyard in the world at 3,111 metres.
The advent of these high-altitude wines and the associated step change in quality has, Cooper believes, made it much more difficult to define Argentinian Malbec and its blends in more general terms.
“Fascinatingly, I think this is increasingly a harder question to answer, as we are seeing so many incredible single-site, nuanced expressions. Malbec will produce wines of great drinkability, with a purity of fruit – perhaps that is the most defining factor for me – the fruit has so much vibrancy: cool blue, with floral notes. And the new terroirs are increasingly coaxing out fascinating chalky tannin profiles.”
The altitude lends itself to organic winemaking and among Gold medal winners at the IWSC awards was Bodega Argento Estate’s Reserva Organic Fairtrade Malbec 2018, from the village of Agrelo in Luján de Cuyo – celebrated for its sandy soils and considered by some to be the historic ‘cradle of Malbec’.
There’s value still to be found in Argentina, highlighted by Asda’s Extra Special Malbec – also a Gold medal winner, but coming it at well under £10. It’s produced in San Juan, the country’s second-biggest wine region 100 miles north of Mendoza.
The medals extend well beyond Malbec, reflecting both the country’s true diversity and its potential
The medals extend well beyond Malbec, however, reflecting both the country’s true diversity and its potential. Among the haul of Golds was a Cabernet Sauvignon made with fruit from the Uco Valley and Luján de Cuyo, and a Syrah from the sub-zone of Barrancas in Maipú, singled out for its “tremendous” northern Rhône style.
And, as if to underline the point that Argentina offers so much more than Malbec, the trophy winner was, in fact, a Cabernet Franc, from vines grown at 1,350 metres in Gualtallary. Altaluvia Cabernet Franc 2018 was described by the judges as “like floating on a languid river of vibrant black fruit, with heady spicy florals in the air and wet stone gleaming throughout.” Here are 10 examples that showcase the high quality that Argentina has to offer.