Focus on Argentina

Argentina has had an extended run of very good to excellent vintages, so vintage generalizations are of limited value. When there are no important climatological disasters, other variables become more important to ultimate wine quality, including crop levels, age of vines, altitude at which vines are planted, harvesting dates, and of course vinification and élevage strategies. The most talented producers manage to make very good wine year after year.

One excellent example is the relatively cool 2008 season, which most growers in Mendoza had to harvest on the late side. Clearly some did not get their fruit totally ripe and the patience of some late pickers was foiled by sharp mid-April frost. Yet the 2008s have turned out to be some of my favorite Argentine wines of recent years because they offer unusual aromatic lift, complexity and intensity, and a rare lightness of touch and elegance. These more restrained, suave wines may not be the favorite style for neophytes—and they may not even be the preferred style in the local Argentine market—but I suspect that the best of them will make Europhiles take another look at Argentina.

On the other hand, 2009, widely described as a very warm, dry La Niña growing season in Mendoza, yielded many wines with unwieldy alcohol levels, substantial tannins, and less aromatic interest, even where the wines are chocolatey-rich and full. Some whites are a bit blurry. On the third hand, these conditions could have been nearly ideal for cool, higher sites that struggle to ripen their fruit in middling years. When you add the fact that Salta to the far north and Patagonia to the south are hundreds of miles from Mendoza, and frequently experience significantly different climatic conditions during the growing season and harvest, you can see how tricky vintage generalizations can be.

By the way, 2010 featured moderate to low crop levels, and following a heat spike in January that actually caused some vines to shut down for a couple of weeks, the lead-up to the harvest was drawn out. Sugar levels in the grapes mounted slowly, in sync with flavor development (usually sugars gallop ahead), and potential alcohol levels in the grapes at harvest were frequently a degree lower than average, with sound acidity levels. While I haven’t tasted more than a few reds from this vintage so far, this looks to be a better year for white wines than 2009, and I was particularly taken with some 2010 torrontés bottlings—a variety, by the way, that continues to gain in popularity in the U.S.

One sweeping statement I can make is that this year I tasted a lower percentage of out-and-out failures than ever before: excessively high-toned, roasted, diffuse, crude wines made with poor-quality oak, overextracted during vinification, or allowed to oxidize during careless élevage. The international wine biz is simply too competitive today, especially for Argentine producers who are exporting more wine to countries that have access to endless choices in every flavor and price range. Argentine producers and their U.S. importers have also largely held the line on pricing, and some have even reduced prices. This year, I tasted some truly impressive and satisfying malbecs, cabernets and red blends that retail for under $20—and sometimes for considerably less. Producers and retailers are often obsessed with meeting specific price points, and I suspect that those who cut a $20 wine last year to $16 this year, or a $16 bottle to $14, are seeing a pickup in volume, if not profitability. And of course the consumer benefits.

At the other end of the pricing spectrum, there are some very expensive Argentine wines (I’m referring to bottles with prices tags from $75 to $125, and even higher) whose quality is hard to fault. The best new releases—for example, from Achaval Ferrer, Catena Alta, Bodegas Noemia, Viña Cobos and Viña Alicia—are exciting world-class wines that all serious enophiles should try. A wine-rating guide like this one may be most helpful for the vast middle range: I tasted countless $35 to $60 wines in recent weeks that weren’t much better than some of the great values in the $15 to $20 range.