Fuente / Source: The Wall Street Journal
Illustration by Jean-Manuel Duvivier
IN ARGENTINA THEY PLANT their vineyards high. In some areas, like the Andean foothills, the altitude can be a dizzying 2,000 meters, and sometimes higher. To put that into a more easily graspable European context, that is more than six times the height of the Eiffel Tower. It's the altitude that explains the unique flavor and character of Argentinian wines. In short, the higher the vineyards the more intense the sunlight, hence the thicker the skins grow and the more acidity the grapes acquire.
I have only ever seen this light from above, flying over the Andes on my way to Santiago. But speak with any Argentinian winemaker and they will wax lyrical about it. When I mentioned Argentina to wine consultant Michel Rolland, his eyes lit up as he talked about the purity of the mountain air and the intensity of the light.
Three Argentinian wines worth seeking out.
Malbec is the grape variety that thrives in Argentina. In the past decade its renaissance in the vineyards to the west of the country, in and around the area of Mendoza, has seen its popularity soar. Indeed, such is its ubiquity in the U.S. and Europe that if you are reading this column I have no doubt you will have sampled its glorious, floral flavors.
This wasn't always the case. A thirsty domestic market in Argentina meant that as recently as 15 years ago very few examples were exported. In Europe, Malbec is mainly limited to France. Although grown in Bordeaux, where it has been prized for its dark color, it is in the Cahors region of southwest France that one generally finds it today. There, it produces deep, black-red wines that are unapproachable and tannic when young, but then mature into luscious, spicy reds.
In Argentina, I find Malbec has a smoother edge. The wines are generally softer and very generous. They give immediate pleasure: one sniff, one sip and it feels as if the inside of your mouth has been lined with velvet. I always admire their consistency; the makers have mastered the idea of a uniform, reliable taste profile and achieve a pleasant, smooth ripeness. Why Malbec performs better in Argentina can be partly explained by the climate, but Hugh Johnson, writing in his "Wine Companion," says it could also be down to the fact that the grape was introduced from France in the mid-19th century, before France's vineyards were devastated by phylloxera.
“ Argentinian Malbec has a smoother edge than its French cousin—softer and very generous ”
On the flip side, however, I do struggle with the high alcohol level of these wines, and I would be lying if I said they were among my favorite reds. Too often I find them a little overpowering. But there is no doubt that when blended with either Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec experiences a refreshing lift.
To reacquaint myself with this popular grape variety, I have recently tasted a number of examples from some of Argentina's top estates. Mendoza is an obvious standout region, but for a little more refinement and floral flavor look for the Valle de Uco and the Upper Mendoza River, also known as the "Luján de Cuyo y Maipú." Further north (where the temperature rises), the vineyards are planted even higher. In Salta, I found the Malbec to have a more intense, savory character. A pretty good match with Argentina's tender, grass-fed beef or a mouthful of carbonada—a spicy stew of lamb or beef served in a large, hollowed-out pumpkin.
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