White peaks: Argentinian Chardonnay climbs new heights

Mendoza's high-altitude vineyards are producing fresh, elegant and precise Chardonnays that compare favourably with those made in Burgundy

Words by David Kermode

The spectacular Uco Valley is a natural home for Chardonnay

To most wine lovers, Argentina means Malbec – quite an achievement for an adopted variety that has its origins on the other side of the Atlantic in France – but there’s another Gallic grape that’s now nurtured with such success that it could claim to be the country’s signature white variety: Chardonnay.

Though only the third most planted white grape – behind the workhorse Pedro Giménez (usually used for table plonk and not to be confused with the Spanish Pedro Ximenez) and the aromatic-yet-somewhat-divisive Torrentés Riojano – Chardonnay accounts for just shy of 6,000ha of vine, compared to around 45,000ha for Malbec, Argentina’s most planted grape.

It is in Mendoza Province, in the upper reaches of the Uco Valley, that Argentinian Chardonnay is climbing new metaphorical heights. The conditions at altitude contribute to fresh, elegant and precise wines that are now favourably compared with those from Chardonnay’s spiritual home in Burgundy.

High altitude gives you great acidity for still wines. The soils are also more interesting and, in combination with the cooler climate, you get a more floral, elegant expression

‘When we speak about Argentina we get excited by Malbec and rightly so, but there are some excellent whites and Chardonnay is leading the way in my opinion, especially when we explore wines from cooler sites,’ says Dirceu Vianna Junior MW, a member of the IWSC’s senior judging committee. ‘I am particularly excited about Gualtallary as its altitude and cooler conditions enable producers to make world class wines that are reminiscent of good Burgundies.’

That altitude effect – for every 100m of elevation, there is a commensurate drop of 1°C in temperature – has seen Argentinian producers experiment with ever higher vineyards in the foothills of the Andes, pushing at the boundaries of viticulture, with Chardonnay proving to be the perfect bedfellow for Malbec. Gualtallary, where the vines appear to march toward the sky at a height of up to 1,600m, finds itself the focus for the variety in Argentina.

‘The first really high-altitude plantations in the Uco Valley were Chardonnay, before even Malbec,’ says Amanda Barnes, author of the South America Wine Guide. ‘Chandon was one of the pioneers, originally hunting higher acidity for sparkling wines, but it’s clear that high altitude gives you great acidity for still wines too. The soils are also more interesting and, in combination with the cooler climate, you get a more floral, elegant expression on the rocky poor soils at high altitude over the riper fruit style found on heavier soils at lower altitude. That’s why I think Chardonnay – the ultimate terroir expressor – has found a natural home at high altitude in Mendoza’s Uco Valley.’

Experts such as Vianna Junior hope that winemakers in Mendoza trust in their terroir, rather than trying to mimic Burgundian wines

After overseeing the assessment of more than 400 wines for the IWSC in Mendoza, Vianna Junior cautions that favourable comparisons with Burgundy should not be allowed to distract from the distinctive terroir-driven character of Argentinian Chardonnay: ‘I see many producers using Burgundy as the benchmark and this is understandable given where the country is in terms of development in the wine scene, specifically for white wines. Going forward I would like to see producers demonstrating more confidence in their own terroir. The wines should be less Burgundian and reflect their own sense of place. I don’t want to taste an Argentinian Chardonnay that tastes like Burgundy. I want to taste, close my eyes and be transported to the shadows of the Andes, not to the Côte d’Or,’ he says.

It is not just in the foothills of the Andes that an emerging style of Argentinian Chardonnay shines bright. An experiment with the variety in Patagonia has also seen thrilling results at sea level, from the most southerly vineyard in the world, in the province of Chubut.

Southerly Chardonnay vineyards in Chubut have also seen exciting results

As the newest (and windiest) location on the wine map of Argentina, Bodega Otronia first planted its vines there with the intention to grow grapes for sparkling wine. The cool conditions were thought perfect for the piercing acidity required for such wines but initial tastings prompted a rethink when those challenging conditions delivered still wines of distinction.

‘Because of the unique characteristics of the terroir, the wines develop elegant, complex aromas with vibrant acidity and also great phenolic maturity,’ Otronia’s Commercial Director, Max Rocca tells me.

For Barnes, an IWSC judge, it is this emerging diversity of styles across Argentina that’s so exciting for lovers of Chardonnay: ‘I think we are starting to see different regional expressions emerging from Argentina today, with a clear mountain identity coming to the fore in regions like Gualtallary, with a more austere expression and mineral undertone. Beyond Mendoza, there are also some interesting expressions coming from the cool climate of Chubut with its pulsating acidity and aromatic intensity. Speaking overall for Argentinian Chardonnay, oak and ripeness of fruit has been dialed back in general, which is a welcome shift.’

Argentinian Chardonnay: Five IWSC award winners

Argento, Gualtallary Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2021

Precise and linear, with an impressive fruit purity of melon, grapefruit and tangy lemon peel. An enticing mineral chalkiness with a touch of herbal complexity leads to a long, bracingly fresh finish. Elegant, fine and compelling. 95 pointsRead more.

Bressano, Chardonnay 2021

Intriguing notes of lime marmalade and juicy peach lead to vanilla bean, oak spice and a delicate minerality, with a beautifully textured finish. 92 points. Read more.

Otronia, Chardonnay 2020

Elegant lemon and orchard fruit aromas lead to juicy nectarine and a lovely saline minerality. Wild flower blossom aromas lift the refreshing finish. 90 points. Read more.

Bemberg Estate Wines, La Linterna Finca El Tomillo Parcel #1 Chardonnay 2018

Youthful and mineral, with an ethereal, delicately poised character. White tea and peach with seductive, layered aromatics and a smooth, long, refreshing finish. 94 points. Read more.

Navarro Correas, Alegoria Gran Reserva Chardonnay 2021

Plump fruits expressing notes of lemon posset and a silky, opulent texture. The classic rich style of Chardonnay with a lovely hint of spice on the well-balanced, fresh finish. 92 points. Read more.