New Releases from Argentina

The U.S. market continues to be flooded with Mendoza malbec, as this wine has become as popular here--and as much of a brand name--as sauvignon blanc from Marlborough.  In both instances, there are gazillions of very good wines, and many of them are largely indistinguishable from one another.  Pricing of Argentine red wines can sometimes seem almost random--which is another way of saying that informed consumers can find great values in this category.  The reds of Argentina rank among the world's great wine bargains. The country offers a host of outperformers in the $15 to $20 range--satisfying, rich reds that can compete against top cabs from California at two or three times the price.  Whether it's 88-point wines for $12, 89-pointers for $15, or 90-pointers for $20, these wines are very difficult to beat for value.

On the other hand, some Argentine wines that retail for $50 and up are no better than their cheaper shelfmates:  in many cases, they are "show-me-the-money" wines made from overripe fruit, overly extractive vinification, or too much time in too much new oak.

In my tastings this year, I once again found myself scoring many Argentine malbecs around 88 points--that is, very good wines that I would happily drink, assuming the price is right.  But these 88-pointers fall short of outstanding for a variety of reasons.  Some are chunky, while others are green-edged or show underripe/overripe character.  Other wines lack shape, or refinement, or depth.  Many of these wines could use a bit more complexity.  Some finish with drying tannins or apparent alcoholic warmth.  And then there's the oak variable.  I continue to taste wines made with less-than-ideal cooperage, as well as others whose material is muddled or overshadowed by too much new oak.

The vintages I tasted.  Recent vintages (2012, 2011 and 2010) have been on the cool side, generally without any periods of extreme heat.  In growing regions that are accustomed to very warm summers, whether in Argentina or elsewhere, producers often hesitate to describe late, cool growing seasons as outstanding.  But, for this critic at least, cooler vintages with slow ripening, long hang time and sound levels of natural acidity in the grapes often produce the best wines.
Many of the red wines in this year's report are from the 2011 vintage, and as a group the '11s did very well in my tastings this winter.  The best of them offer a very attractive combination of richness, complexity, clarity and freshness. This growing season started about a week later than usual due to a cold winter.  There were then some serious crop losses in many sections of Mendoza, especially in Uco Valley and Lujan de Cuyo--and in the malbec--due to a widespread frost on November 9.  The cold snap resulted in some heterogeneity of fruit even where it did not cut potential yields.  The flowering was then generous.

January and February were cool, with some February rains slowing down the ripening process.   Ripening proceeded steadily in moderately warm conditions in March, with sugars and polyphenols ripening in sync and acidity levels remaining healthy.  Unseasonably warm temperatures in April then sped up the ripening process and caused some dehydration for the latest pickers.  In general, the harvest took place two to three weeks later than average.

Insiders view the 2011 whites as generally fresh, with the sauvignon blancs showing some varietally expressive herbaceousness, a characteristic that does not usually manifest itself in hotter years.  In red, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc were particularly floral.  Yields were a bit higher than average as many producers did not thin clusters following crop losses from the spring hail.  The fruit character in 2011 is often a bit more red and less black than in hotter years, alcohol levels are mostly moderate (except where fruit was picked very late), and the wines show good richness and noteworthy elegance.  The vintage is considered stronger than 2010 for pinot noir in Patagonia.

My recent tastings also featured a number of later arrivals from 2010, a very dry year that generally produced an even cooler style of wines.  Crop levels were on the low side, with millerandage reducing cluster weights especially in chardonnay and malbec.  January and the first half of February were warm, but the second half of the summer was milder, with March and April providing cool nights.  Following one big storm on March 19, the harvest was mostly dry.  Ripening was 10 to 15 days later than average, and the wines have lower alcohol levels and flesh, and higher acidity, than the 2009s.

I also got my first look at vintage 2012, yet another cooler year, although a bit warmer than 2011.  In Mendoza the crop level was generally small, and insiders report that the red wines have very good fruit intensity and color.  Conditions were more problematic in Salta, especially for torrontes, which in some areas was severely affected by summer rains and rot.  Most producers cut their production dramatically or relied heavily on torrontes fruit from Mendoza, which did not experience the same weather problems.  But perhaps because I'm a big fan of torrontes from Salta, I was much less impressed by this variety in 2012.

Among the pleasant surprises in my tastings this year, I found some bonardas with more refinement than previously.  But while the variety is clearly capable of making some very good wines, I see little sign that this grape has the inherent complexity to make wines of serious interest to export markets, especially when there are so many good and cheap malbecs available.

I also tasted a handful of intriguing, firmly structured yet velvety cabernet franc bottlings at very reasonable prices.  Cabernet sauvignon continues to improve in Argentina, and in several cases I preferred these wines to their malbec siblings from the same wineries.  There is tremendous potential upside for cabernet in Argentina, but in Mendoza's very dry climate east of the Andes, the challenge is to make wines that avoid dry tannins.

I tasted all of the wines in this article between December and the end of February.