New Releases from Argentina

I was tempted to report that tasting through 800 or so new releases from Argentina in recent months was hard work, particularly as there is a great degree of sameness among the less-expensive malbecs.  But as I walked the aisles of Dean & DeLuca's wine shop in St. Helena, California last week, I was amazed by the number of $75 reds from fledgling Napa Valley producers with no track records.  It put the slew of ripe, solidly made Argentine reds available for less than twenty bucks in a far better light.  Even if malbec has gotten trickier to buy owing to a race to the bottom on pricing, the more successful examples continue to offer satisfying drinking to American red wine lovers, often at remarkably low prices.

Recent vintages in Argentina have been mostly benign--and conducive to the production of high-quality wines.  It's too early to comment on the red wines from the very cool 2011 vintage, but based on what I've seen to date from this growing season, white wines did very well in 2011, thanks to unusually healthy acidity levels and bright aromatics.

Two thousand ten produced a good average crop across much of Argentina, up from the short year of 2009, although some problems during the flowering had a limiting effect on malbec yields.  The weather was fairly dry, with temperatures cooling off toward the end, and potential alcohol levels were generally lower than those of 2009.  Grape skins were healthy and so were acidity levels.  In short, it was a very good year for making red wines with moderate octane and good energy.

Two thousand nine began with a cool spring and a late budbreak.  Some late-spring rains increased mildew pressures in the vineyards, but a summer without extreme heat allowed for a normal ripening curve, producing wines of noteworthy varietal accuracy and intensity and good aging structure.

During my tastings this winter, I was struck by the improving quality of cabernets from Mendoza, most of which are moderately priced.  Clearly, cabernet sauvignon has been overshadowed by malbec in Mendoza--and certainly in the U.S. market.  But this variety can be especially successful in many Uco Valley sites: "like Pomerol or Saint-Emilion wines on steroids," is the way one importer described the variety there.  Mendoza's best cabernets are closer in character to traditional Bordeaux than are most Napa Valley versions, even if they're rarely as flashy or rich--or costly--as their California counterparts.

I continue to love torrontes, which is at its best in Salta, a province in the northwest of Argentina.  These wines make up in sheer drinkability and refreshment value what they sometimes lack in complexity.  But the best of them combine more dusty concentration and minerality than ever before, and I found greater nuance in the 2011s than in any past vintage.  Torrontes makes a perfect aperitif, and most of these wines can be had for less than $20.  Clean winemaking and elevage in stainless steel allow winemakers to capture purity of varietal fruit and very fresh aromatics unobstructed by oak.

U.S. imports of Argentine wines continue to grow. In the fourth quarter of 2011, for the first time, Argentina shipped a greater volume of wine to the U.S. than Australia did.  Overall, Argentina ranks third in imports by volume behind Italy and Australia, and fourth in terms of dollar value after France, Italy and Australia.

Argentina will do even better in the U.S. market when the country's wine industry figures out how to make their labels more consistent and less confusing to consumers in export markets.  Right now, the use of place names on the front labels of wines from Argentina seems quite haphazard.  While the knowledgeable American wino now knows that Mendoza is the country's most important wine region and the source of malbec, he or she does not have much of a feel for where Mendoza's favored subregions are located or what makes them distinctive. Some wines made in the Uco Valley, for example, prominently feature Uco Valley on the front label.  Others simply say Mendoza and indicate Uco Valley on the back.  Still other wines are from Uco Valley fruit, but there's no mention of this on the label.

Many wines proudly showcase the name of their favored sector on the front label:  e.g., Vistalba, Agrelo or Perdriel in Lujan du Cuyo.  These place names are known by serious enophiles in Argentina but have little meaning to American wine lovers.  In fact, Lujan de Cuyo is the only D.O.C. designation in Mendoza that is approved by national law.  Similarly, Uco Valley wines sometimes list the sector, and sometimes the sector name plus Uco Valley.  But it's "Mendoza malbec" that has become a recognized brand in the U.S. market today.  Clearly Argentina needs to standardize its labels.