Monday, September 11, 2006

Don't cry for me, Argentina -- just send more wine...

Another journey south of the Equator, readers. This time, the other side of the Andes is our destination -- the world's fifth largest wine producer, Argentina.

The history of Argentinean wine closely mirrors that of its neighbor, Chile, from a couple of installments ago. Spanish missionaries planted the first vines during the mid-16th century. The city of Mendoza was founded in 1561 in the heart of the premiere wine growing region -- it remains the core area for the nation's wine industry. The industry began to flourish in the early 1900's, but declined after Juan Perón was deposed in 1955.

Until the late 1980's, Argentina's vineyards focused mainly on producing large quantities of table wine for the country as well as concentrated grape juice -- which became a major Argentinean export. As Argentina's political and financial situation stabilized, an influx of money, modern technology, and oenological (WineSpeak for "the study of wine") know-how changed the face of the industry. With standards up to world-class levels, high-quality product began to emerge from the mountain slopes.

Argentina exported less than 10% of their total production until the late 1990's, and Argentine wine was almost impossible to find in the United States until that time. Word got out around the world as quality improved, and exports explored. Argentina is now a major player on the world market -- and with the combination of value and quality, I see no change in that status anytime in the near future.

Argentina's climate is extremely well-suited for grape growing. Altitude, low annual rainfall and humidity, lots of sunshine, and excellent soil give Argentina many natural advantages. Its geography also provided it with protection against our old friend phylloxera -- which has also never been an issue with Argentine vines.

Argentina's wines are generally bold and uncomplicated, although there are some more subtle wines being produced in small quantities (and a considerable markup, unfortunately). Argentina is best known for the success of the malbec grape -- a little-used French blending grape that became a star in Argentina. Argentina also grows cabernet sauvignon and merlot among its reds, and they've started experimenting with shiraz, tempranillo from Spain, and Italian sangiovese (used to make Chianti). In the white family, Argentine Chardonnay is considered a strong up-and-comer in the wine world. They do small quantities of Sauvignon Blanc, but Chile seems to do a much better job with that particular grape, in my experience. I also had a chance to try a Torrentes recently, which is known as Argentina's "big white." I'll come back to it later on, but it's got a very fruity, balanced taste -- somewhere between a Riesling and a pinot grigio.

A few tasty selections:

San Felipe 2005 Chardonnay -- The label inscription states: "A perfect balance of lush fruit and soft spice" -- and the flavor comes close to following suit. The nose is a combination of flowers and green apples. The initial taste lives up to the "spicy" promise, almost peppery, but that fades quickly. The mid-taste is quite tart for a chardonnay, and the promise of fruit certainly is there. If it were lighter in body, I'd almost think this wine could have been one of those Chilean sauvignons that I hit before. There's a very nice round citrus flavor. The finish is, again, spicy -- cloves maybe. This is certainly not a complex chardonnay by any stretch, but for $6-7 a bottle, it's certainly a very nice, interesting white. With chicken or shrimp, it'd be quite good, and a gazpacho or other cold soup would go wonderfully with this.

Pascual Toso 2004 Malbec -- Malbec! Malbec! Malbec! I can't state enough what a great varietal I think this is, especially if you're going to be doing anything on the grill. I touched on the Altos in my first column, and I thought I'd compare it to the same varietal from a different winery. The nose of this particular malbec hits you with a raspberry and pepper scent, but with slightly less aroma than the Altos. The mouthfeel of this, however, is richer than the Altos -- with smooth, rich raspberry and vanilla flavors. The finish has a little bit of pepper, but a lighter tannin than the Altos, making it a fantastic wine to pair with a big steak (like the New York strip, lightly marinated in soy sauce and thyme with a side of grilled asparagus I did with this one). You'll find this for $8-10, and it's well worth it. There's also a reserve Pascual Toso malbec, which I've heard really good things about. Long and short -- if you find a malbec that says it's grown in "Mendoza," you've probably got a winner on your hands.

Funky Llama 2004 Shiraz -- As I mentioned, one of the newest grapes on the Argentine scene is shiraz. Most of the shiraz sent up from Argentina tends to be in the lower price points -- so you'll find some very decent, inexpensive selections. Funky Llama usually competes with many of the inexpensive Aussie wines at many stores -- you'll often see them placed side by side. Big hitter, this llama. This wine is extremely fragrant and blackberry-jammy -- stronger even than the malbec. In WineSpeak, they'd call this wine "fruit forward." Nice tart blackberries and licorice mix with a medium tannin to give you a big initial taste. It's not as "round" as a cabernet or some other shirazes, but it's still solid. The finish is a quite peppery and a little dry. There's nothing complicated about this wine, but for $4-7 a bottle, you're certainly not going to be complaining. Anything earthy is going to go well with this -- roasted eggplant, beef curries, brisket, or ribs of any sort.

A side note: sorry for the publication delay this time around. I just got back from a wonderful vacation in Maine which I'll touch on in a bit…

Until next time: Saude!