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Attitude over altitude: Argentina’s winemaking evolution

Argentina’s high-altitude wines have captured imaginations. But there’s more to the country’s modern wine evolution than dizzying heights, says Alistair Cooper MW. Here he explores the other factors driving a lighter style of wine that’s emerging

Words by Alistair Cooper MW

aerial photo of bemberg wine estate in argentina
The Collection
An aerial view of Bemberg Estate in Gualtallary, Argentina

The most defining factor in the evolution of quality wine from Argentina this century has been altitude. Or so we have been told (it seems) continuously. While it would be folly to deny the significance of these new and exciting mountain terroirs, it is just one of the multiple components that have transformed the stylistic direction and diversity of Argentinian wine. The raw and rugged beauty of Uco Valley’s high-altitude vineyards and its dramatic backdrop of the stately, snow-capped Andes is exhilarating. Yet beyond the vineyard, in the somewhat less resplendent and romantic setting of the cellar and winery, there has also been a monumental shift in mindset for many of the country’s top producers.

The winery is an extension of the vineyard, and producers have adapted their winemaking to ensure that specific sites can be expressed in the best way possible. This was the overriding sentiment that I heard from winemakers during my recent visit to Mendoza. Susana Balbo succinctly sums it up: ‘Wines in Argentina used to be made in the winery, not in the vineyard. Not anymore.’ Yet to achieve this ultimate expression of site or terroir, it requires a considerable change in procedures and decisions throughout the winemaking process. Largely, this has been a movement towards what I would call ‘sympathetic winemaking.’ Or a dialling down of the excesses of yesteryear, when powerful oak-laden muscular Malbecs were rife.

woman in the winery at Bemberg wine estate in argentina
Where winemakers at Bemberg once followed heavily oaked fashions, they now seek a lighter style through new techniques in the winery

Historically, Argentina has had high domestic consumption of wine, peaking at 92 litres per capita in 1970, but the emphasis was largely on quantity over quality. Domestic consumption halved over the following 20 years, and producers turned towards unfamiliar export markets as a solution. This in turn required a swing towards commercially led wines. Daniel Pi, head winemaker of Bemberg Estate Wines recalls, ‘In the 1990s, we started producing wines geared towards supermarkets. The UK was our largest market, and UK supermarket buyers were very influenced by Australian wines and their styles at that time. So, we used their model of fruit-forward and ripe wines to gain market share.’

An influx of consultant winemakers such as Paul Hobbs from the United States and Michel Rolland from Bordeaux further served to mould the direction of the wines. ‘When I was president of Wines of Argentina in 2006, we did benchmark tastings against California and many other regions and countries,’ explains Balbo, ‘In California, many of the wines that were commercially successful were made from late-picked grapes, thus heavily concentrated, with heavily toasted oak – sometimes 200% new oak. We started to follow that path, often with American oak, because it was all we could afford.’ These factors led to the wines being somewhat generic and monolithic – still showing great potential, but with a focus on style over site expression. Yet there is far more to it in the quest for expression than just harvesting earlier and exercising more restraint with oak.

the vineyard and andes of trapiche wines
Sergio Casé, Trapiche: ‘We have plantings at altitude where there is far more UV light, and this leads to thicker skins, which means care is needed not to overextract’

Heavy extraction during the fermentation of red wines had been commonplace during this period. Now, many producers have eased up this process. Sergio Casé, head winemaker at Trapiche, says, ‘We are far gentler now. We aim to extract quite heavily at the start of the fermentation and then really ease off during the middle and end parts. We do far less délestage [rack and return], which can be quite aggressive. Especially now, because we have plantings at altitude where there is far more UV light, and this leads to thicker skins, which means care is needed not to overextract.’ This is an important point, since grapes that are subject to too much sunlight, especially at altitude, can get burned – and if this happens, it can lead to astringency in the wines. So, care is needed in the vineyard with canopy management to ensure that the right amount of sunshine reaches the bunches, and then equal care must be exercised during extraction.

The temperature of fermentation with Malbec has also become something that producers have begun to refine. Traditionally, many used a relatively prescriptive and high temperature – to aid colour, as well as tannin extraction. Now producers are more aware of the sensitivities required. As Gabriel Bloise of Chakana explains, ‘This is an important variable, when we are really happy with the tannins that we have in the grapes, then we favour higher temperatures. If we are not totally happy, we favour cooler temperatures to control this.’ At Zuccardi, they are less afraid of allowing the temperatures to creep up to around 28°C and are wary of fermenting at temperatures that are too cool. ‘To play at the top level, you need complexity in your wines,’ explains Sebastián Zuccardi. ‘When you ferment at lower temperatures, all the aromas are primary and fruit- forward, and for me that can be quite basic.’ This variable, of course, will be dictated by the work that has been done in the vineyard, reaffirming the point that the winery is an extension of the vineyard.

susana balbo in the vineyard
Susana Balbo: ‘Wines in Argentina used to be made in the winery, not in the vineyard. Not anymore.’

The use of whole bunches and stems in fermentation with Malbec was almost unheard of a decade ago. Sebastián Zuccardi is one of a growing number of producers now using them. ‘We do use stems, but never whole bunches, so we either crush with our feet or we layer some stems in,’ he says. ‘I don’t want carbonic maceration, but I do find that in limestone sites such as Gualtallary that the stems contain an element of the chalkiness of the site and add complexity. I am not looking for whole-bunch aromas, because they can be overpowering; I don’t want people to smell the wines and say they are whole-bunch. For me, it is about the added structure that they can give. It is a growing movement, but we need to be careful because processes can become standardised.’

When considering site expression and terroir, nothing whips up certain dogmatic sectors of the wine industry into a frenzy more than yeasts – more specifically, the use of indigenous versus cultured yeasts. In the past, the vast majority of producers in Argentina used cultured yeasts. Jorge Cabeza, head winemaker at Salentein, offers his take on the subject: ‘We used to use specific yeasts that would further enhance Sauvignon Blanc’s aromatics. Now we use a different cultured yeast that is neutral and adds no additional aromas or flavours. We feel this gives a truer expression of place. For other grapes, we do still use wild yeasts, however, so it depends on each case.’ Others are firmly in the native-yeast camp, such as Bloise at Chakana, one of the very few certified biodynamic wineries in Argentina. ‘We only use spontaneous ferments with native yeasts and no yeast nutrients,’ he says. ‘From our perspective, all the biodynamic work we do will not be complete without this.’ Balbo’s view is pragmatic, preferring indigenous yeasts except when not practical. As she explains, ‘The yeasts in the vineyards in autumn are different, because the flora is different – especially after it rains – and these can cause problems in the fermentation with volatile acidity.’

‘Concrete gives no flavour. There is less micro-oxygenation. This is a real positive’
Sebastián Zuccardi

Without question, one of the most seismic shifts in winemaking practices over the past decade globally has been the usage of different vessels for fermentation and élévage, and Argentina is at the forefront of this movement. We have seen a resurgence of older vessels such as amphorae, concrete (in all shapes and sizes), foudres and overall a trend towards less use of small, new oak barrels. As always, winemakers’ opinions on the matter vary wildly, yet the message is nearly always the same: they are adapting their regimes in a bid to ensure the wines speak of their place.

Arguably the most radical changes have been made at Zuccardi, where the direction has been staunchly towards concrete vessels. ‘In the 1930 and 40s, wineries here were all concrete and large foudres. Small oak came in the 1990s,’ says Zuccardi, ‘so these wines have more in common with our heritage.’ I ask him what influence concrete has on the wines. ‘First, it gives no flavour. Second, there is less micro- oxygenation. Malbec does not have a big tannic structure, so too much oxygen means you lose tension. This is a real positive.’

concrete eggs at Zuccardi winery
Concrete eggs at Zuccardi: Argentina is leading the way with its use of different vessels for fermentation and élévage

Bodegas Bianchi is what I would call a traditional winery (in the modern sense), with oak playing a pivotal role for many years. Head winemaker Silvio Alberto has changed his and the winery’s approach over the past five years, with a change in the oak regime, as well as using ceramic amphorae. ‘We are experimenting with amphorae, and I love the expression,’ he says. ‘It is like tasting the grapes directly from the vineyard. I prefer ceramic to concrete because there is less textural impact.’ On the use of small French oak, he explains that he has dramatically reduced the amount of new oak over the past five years. ‘Our flagship Enzo Bianchi Malbec 2017 was 100% new oak for 14 months. By 2020, we had changed to just 20% new oak, and the balance being second, third and fourth use.’ Having tasted the wines side by side, I found the shift in style to be positive and with a brighter, purer fruit profile emerging.

Many winemakers mentioned that they had previously used relatively high toast levels on their small oak barrels. Balbo was one such winemaker, ‘There was a time where we used 200% new oak. We have undergone a huge change in this regard. With Torrontés specifically, the type of toast is vital. We came across an amazing system for toasting with convection, which is done by water vapour. It is technology that came from Australia and is very gentle. Essentially, it means that the toast is lighter. We experimented with temperatures, and the sweet spot is at 200°C; at this point, you get a subtle tobacco note. If you go above 210°C, this turns into a coffee note, which we don’t want.’ I tasted the 2022 Signature blend, which was barrel-fermented in new oak with convection toasting, and was astonished at the integration of the oak at such a young stage. Such developments in technology are allowing winemakers to have more options at their disposal.

sorting grapes at bemberg winery
‘Ageability comes from place and viticulture, not from oak,’ says Daniel Pi of Bemberg Estate Wines

I asked several winemakers for their thoughts on ageability with regard to the use of different vessels. Zuccardi believes that wines that are fermented and stored in concrete have good ageing potential. ‘In my opinion, these wines we are making now will age better than those from 20 years ago that were in small oak barrels,’ he says. ‘Ageability comes from place and viticulture, not from oak.’ Daniel Pi explains the position at Bemberg: ‘The Bemberg family wants wines that can age for 30–40 years; those are the styles that they like. To allow that, we need to use oak. I am far from being anti-oak.’

Finally, it must be acknowledged that the younger generation of winemakers is far more global in outlook and experience. They are better travelled and have been more exposed to wines from other countries and regions, and this has encouraged experimentation, as well as knowledge sharing. Climate change has also led to greater variability from vintage to vintage, and winemakers have had to adapt in both the vineyard and winery. These experiences all serve to give the winemakers more expertise and extra confidence. I was particularly taken by a comment made by Matias Ciciani at Escorihuela Gascón: ‘When travelling through Europe, I visited some cellars that were full of mould and had their own biodiversity. The wines were beautiful. Ironically, our newest cellar in Agrelo, which we kept absolutely pristine, had some sanitary problems with spoilage bacteria. I am now more relaxed in the cellar, and things are better. If you constantly wash your hands, they get dry and cracked – the winery is the same.’

sebastian zuccardi inside one of the winemaking vessels at his argentine estate
Sebastián Zuccardi's experimentations in concrete run deep

There is no doubt that there has been a monumental leap forward in the quality of Argentinian wines, especially at the premium end of Malbec. Site expression is at the forefront of producers’ minds, and the subtleties between appellations are clear to see. Gualtallary, with its chalky, herbal red fruit-scented wines, is distinctly different from the darker-fruited, more wild and dense expressions from Los Chacayes, for example. But even within appellations, there can be vast differences, as Zuccardi explains. ‘We have plots within Gualtallary that can be harvested two weeks apart. These are not homogeneous appellations.’ There is still much work to do concerning geographical appellations and zonification, especially in the Uco Valley. This will only serve to help consumers understand the intricacies of these fascinating and diverse terroirs.

What has been very positive is that a drive towards drinkability and fresher styles has not been as simplistic as harvesting earlier and then tinkering with winemaking techniques to flesh out the wines. This is what happened in Australia around 2006, when we saw the Chardonnay pendulum shift and a raft of anaemic and unbalanced wines hit the shelves. Argentina’s approach has been more considered in both vineyard and winery. Although much has changed in recent years, the most exciting aspect is that there is still so much room for further growth and discovery in Argentina. I can only see Malbec’s meteoric rise continuing to reach new heights amid the majestic Andes.

Discover Alistair Cooper MW’s wine recommendations and tasting notes for Argentina’s lighter style of wine in the latest issue of Club Oenologique magazine.