The Best New Wines from Argentina

No wine category has grown as rapidly over the last seven years in the U.S. market as Argentina. The catalyst, besides prices that are often remarkably low, has been the exploding popularity of malbec, Argentina's signature red variety. Now accounting for just over half of the country's wine exports to the U.S., Argentine malbec has virtually become a brand: even wine neophytes ask for it in their local shop.

Not surprisingly, Argentine producers in search of something easy to sell in a difficult world economy are flooding the market with new malbecs, and dozens of opportunistic U.S. importers seem only too willing to buy virtually anything that says malbec on the label. The result, needless to say, has been a distinctly mixed bag of current releases.

On the one hand, I tasted more bottles of mediocre Argentine wine than ever before, with too many malbecs showing medicinal, slightly green flavors; a lack of mid-palate flesh and sweetness of fruit; evidence of overextraction; and drying, rustic tannins. At the top end, however, the wines show increasing complexity and nobility, with real perfume, wonderfully seamless and rich mouth feel, clarity of flavor, and suave, thoroughly ripe tannins. While many of these wines are still priced at $40 or more, the best news is the amazing selection of truly stunning values in Argentine wine at $20 or less—and these are by no means limited to malbec. I should also note that among the large number of new players on the Argentine wine scene are some new wineries funded by smaller, quality-conscious outside investors, as opposed to quantity-oriented giants.

Recent vintages in Argentina. Vintages 2007 and 2008 were both coolish years for most of Argentina's growing regions. Moderate summer temperatures in a normally hot area offer the best grape-growers an opportunity to make wines with unusual vibrancy, definition and class. But both of these years also posed their challenges. The '07 growing season featured a good set and big clusters, then a nice summer without extreme heat, but some big hailstorms in January and February. The harvest started under ideal conditions, though heavy rains struck during the second half of March, so those growers who had heavy crop loads, especially at high altitude, had trouble ripening their fruit and making concentrated wines. But cool temperatures during the rainy period generally forestalled the spread of rot and mildew. Two thousand seven is widely considered to be an excellent year for the thicker-skinned malbec, which is generally harvested a week or two earlier than cabernet.

Two thousand eight began with a cold winter and a lot of snow, and the spring was late, with serious frost events holding down the crop level in many spots. Then a mild, dry summer was followed by a long, drawn-out harvest, with some showers requiring growers to delay picking. Some beautifully ripe fruit was brought in during the first half of April, but then a sharp frost in mid-April made it necessary to quickly pull the rest, and this fruit is of variable quality. Some of it never ripened properly. As in 2007, many fresh white wines were made in 2008.

The La Niña year of 2009 brought a warm and very dry summer favoring higher-altitude vineyards that enjoyed enough day-night temperature variation to ensure good steady ripening without serious loss of acidity. Some dehydration brought down yields, and a period of extreme heat during the veraison made the ultimate harvest a bit tricky. Most fruit was picked a week or two earlier than average, with the red grapes in particular rich in sugar, coloring material and tannins. Some producers report that malbec weathered the heat more successfully than did cabernet and that it was a difficult year for making elegant white wines with fresh aromas.

A few observations on current releases. During my tastings this fall it was hard to avoid concluding that a lot of producers in Argentina are working with strictly mediocre barrels. Even when their wines theoretically have the strength of material to support a sizable percentage of new oak, the quality of that oak is often not very good. I've long found that as a general rule the farther French barrels are shipped from France, the lower their quality (the best stuff is kept at home), and the more careful producers need to be about what they're getting. This is one reason to seek out wines from the "big names." I have little doubt that local star producers and enologists like the Catena family, Hector Durigutti, Mauricio Lorca, Luis Barraud, Roberto de la Mota and Gabriela Celeste, and especially international consulting winemakers such as Michel Rolland, Paul Hobbs, Alberto Antonini and Robert Cipresso, are getting higher-quality barrels for their own wines and those of their clients. Some of these wines may feature a sizable percentage of new barriques, but it's generally very sexy oak.

As in many other growing regions, there is the risk that producers in Argentina are pushing their grapes beyond their limits in order to compete in some export markets with outsized wines like Napa cabernet. In many instances, they appear to be picking at freakishly high potential alcohol levels, watering down the musts to facilitate the fermentations, leaving some residual sugar for a plusher mouth feel, and adding back acidity. I suspect that in many cases, producers are "bleeding" their cuves, to remove water from grapes that are nonetheless high in sugar, thus producing thicker wines with higher alcohol. There's clearly a segment of the market that enjoys beefed-up wines, even if this style squashes terroir character, but by most accounts it's shrinking today, at least among discerning winos. And it's hard to be optimistic about how overextracted or otherwise extreme wines will evolve in bottle. I tasted too many wines that are chunky and medicinal in character and have more chewiness than actual flavor intensity. In many cases, I suspect, what you see now is what you'll get, and there will be no advantage to holding these wines. On the contrary: frequently they quickly lose their freshness in the glass.

Although malbec rules, more and more of Argentina's classiest and most intriguing red wines are blends based on malbec that include sizable percentages of cabernet sauvignon, along with some merlot or cabernet franc. Some even feature bits of syrah, tannat or tempranillo. But today's finest Argentine reds, whether 100% malbec or blends, transcend their varietal make-up. They have simply become world-class wines with compelling perfume and aromatic character, silky-sweet middle palates; and suave, fine-grained tannins. But you don't have to spend an arm and a leg for these more "noble" examples when so many satisfying wines can be found for a fraction of the price.

And by all means try torrontés. Argentina's distinctive white variety yields delightfully floral, fruity wines that make perfect aperitifs or first-course wines. If they rarely have the intensity or nuance to merit 90-point ratings, I tasted more very good examples this year than ever before. It's no coincidence that torrontés is now the fastest-growing category of Argentine wine exports to the U.S., albeit from a very small base. Give these a whirl as a much less expensive alternative to viognier.

All of the wines in this issue were tasted in November and December. Producers whose wines did not rate at least one score of 87 points or higher have been omitted from my coverage. This latter list includes upwards of 50 producers and literally hundreds of items, many of them solidly made wines that just missed the cut for this issue.