When you talk about Argentine wines, you must start with Mendoza. This gigantic region in the western part the country, directly west of Buenos Aires on the coast, accounts for over 70 percent of the country's wines.
Mendoza, to me, is the new Napa Valley. I know...Mendoza doesn't look a bit like Napa Valley. It is one gigantic high plateau, gradually becoming higher as it approaches the majestic Andes Mountains in the west. No hillsides on each side, like Napa Valley. No hillside vineyards. And Mendoza's vineyards are a lot higher than Napa's; they range from 2,000 to 5500 feet. Mendoza is about ten times the size of the relatively small Napa Valley, in terms of vineyards planted.
The climate is quite different, as well. Mendoza is one of the driest wine regions on the planet; it rains, on the average, about two days a year (7 to 8 inches a year). Ironically, I was in Mendoza city on one of those two days a few years ago, when it was pouring buckets! But most of the year it's so dry that you have to cover your mouth when trucks go by, kicking up dust from the road. The climate is continental, with very warm summers and very cool winters. (Like many other wine regions, spring and fall are the best times to visit.) Napa, which gets a substantial amount of rain in the winter but almost none in the summer, is very hot in the summer, especially in the northern end of the Valley, and yet quite cool in Carneros (the southern end).
And so why compare Mendoza with Napa Valley? Because Mendoza's state of development is exactly where Napa Valley was about thirty years ago. On my first visit to Napa Valley in the early 1970s (yes, I'm that old), I can remember that there were about 20 wineries to visit that really counted. You can multiply that number by ten today. Although the much larger Mendoza has far more wineries than Napa Valley, today less than 30 are known anywhere outside of the region. But things are changing very rapidly in Mendoza. I would estimate that, at the rate impressive, huge wineries are springing up here, in ten years or less Mendoza will be regarded as one of the premium wine regions in the world.
Believe it or not, in 1994, Hugh Johnson's Fourth Edition of The World Atlas of Wine (generally considered the Bible of the wine world since its first appearance in 1971) did not even deign to cover Argentina, even though it was the world's fourth-largest wine producer at that time. South America's only representative in the fourth edition was Chile. But the Hugh Johnson/Jancis Robinson Fifth Edition, out in 2001, now includes Argentina, which actually now is fifth-largest wine producer (having been overtaken by the U.S.).
What happened between 1994 and 2001? Several important developments. The Argentine economy went down the tubes, curtailing domestic consumption of wine drastically (Argentina has always been one of the world's leaders in per capita consumption, way ahead of the U.S.). And so, Argentina's wine producers were forced to look to foreign markets to sell their wines. At the same time, foreign investors and various wine companies--from France, Chile, Spain, Austria, Portugal, and the U.S.--stepped up their investments in Argentinean vineyards and wineries (the price of which was a veritable bargain in the wine world). Additionally, everyone making wine for the local Argentine market also realized that they had to improve their wines dramatically if they were to compete successfully in the world market. I can remember drinking inexpensive Argentine wines from huge, mediocre producers back in the 1980s, and they were pretty awful, as huge crop loads resulted in wines that were thin, weak, and characterless.
Things are very different now. It is significant that Michel Rolland, the world's most famous wine consultant with over 100 clients across the world, chose to invest his own money in an Argentine vineyard (Clos de los Siete; he is one of seven owners).
Mendoza's vintners made some of the same mistakes seen in Napa 30 to 40 years ago, planting varieties such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot--and in Mendoza's case, Malbec--in the wrong places. But they're starting to figure it out. Malbec, for instance, is now thriving in the Uco Valley, over 3,000 feet high, near the base of the Andes peaks, and in nearby Lujân de Cuyo, another top region in central Mendoza. Yields have been reduced drastically, and every aspect of viticulture and winemaking has been improved and modernized throughout Mendoza.
Bodegas Salentein, the pioneering winery in the Valle de Uco (1992), built a state-of-the-art winery there in the last decade (followed by Bodegas Lurton, Clos de los Siete, and ten other wineries). Bodegas Chandon, part of LVMH, opened in Lujân de Cuyo 45 years ago, in 1960, and at that time it was the first Moët-Chandon sparkling winery established outside of the Champagne region. Today, other top wineries in Lujân de Cuyo include Catena Zapata, Bodega Norton, Doña Paula, Pulenta Estate, Luigi Bosca, Tapiz, and Bodegas Terrazas de los Andes (owned by Bodegas Chandon). Maipú, a bit lower in elevation, and the third fine-wine region, is somewhat warmer and ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon; better wineries here include Familia Zuccardi, Navarro Correas, and Finca Flichman. Valentin Bianchi is the leading winery in the South Mendoza region.
In my mind, however, Mendoza's wine producers are still making some of the same mistakes that other New World regions made--producing too many 100 percent varietal wines, for example. In fact, the blended wines I tried in Mendoza on a recent visit proved to be some of their best wines. Also, many of Mendoza's wines emphasize fruitiness too much, at the expense of restraint, elegance, and complexity. After drinking these wines for a solid week on my visit, I was dying to have a Chablis or a Bordeaux. Perhaps this is the style that the terroir produces; on the other hand, I did taste some Mendoza wines, red and white, which showed more subtlety and finesse than the rest of the pack.
Interestingly, Mendoza's most-planted red variety is the little-known Bonarda, a grape from Piedmont and Lombardy in northwest Italy that resembles Barbera. And, in fact, we tasted some very good $7 to $10 Bonardas. But the Mendoza producers don't think that Bonarda is "important" enough, and are betting their futures on Malbec, which in fact is their best variety, in my opinion. Malbec is a great success story; a variety that has practically been banned from Bordeaux for under-achieving has found a grateful home in dry, warm Mendoza, a region that is also almost completely free of vine pests, mildew, and other maladies present in Bordeaux terroir. Cabernet Sauvignon is also doing quite well in many Mendoza sub-regions, but that comes as no surprise, because doesn't it do well all over the world? But Malbec is definitely the star on Mendoza's stage.
The following are some of the Mendoza wines which most impressed me on a recent visit:
Bodega J. & F. Lurton, Mendoza (Argentina) Pinot Gris 2005 ($9, Monsieur Touton Selection): The amazing Lurton family, one of the true dynasties in Bordeaux, has set up wineries all over the world. Jacques and François Lurton have been in Mendoza's Uco Valley since 1996. J. & F. Lurton is one of my favorite Argentine wineries because its wines show an elegance and subtlety which is missing from so many other wines from this region. The '05 Pinot Gris has floral and citric aromas, crisp acidity, and flavors of grapefruit. Like all Lurton wines, it's a great value. (The J & F Lurton '05 "Tierra del Fuego" wines, white and red blends, are terrific for $6.) 88
Bodega J. & F. Lurton, Mendoza (Argentina) "Flor de Torrontés" 2005 ($12, Monsieur Touton Selection): J. & F. Lurton also makes a Torrontés costing less than $10, but the "Flor de Torrontés," from a special selection of grapes, is worth the few extra dollars. I really loved this wine. Torrontés is one of Argentina's only indigenous varieties, as far as we know; it has a strong resemblance to Muscat. The '05 Flor de Torrontés has delicate floral and citrus rind aromas, crisp acidity, and is off dry, with lots of delicate, complex, peach and citrus flavors. A very pretty wine, and one that is not insubstantial by any means. 88
Bodega Norton, Mendoza (Argentina) Torrontés "Lo Tengo" 2005 ($10, Charmer Sales Co., TGIC Importers): Bodega Norton, one of the oldest and best wineries in Argentina, was founded in 1895 by an Englishman named Norton, and purchased by the Swarovski family (of Austrian crystal fame) in 1989. It makes two fine "Lo Tengo" brand wines (with jazzy looking hologram labels depicting a couple doing the tango). The '05 Lo Tengo Torrontés has intense aromas of roses and peonies, and is off dry, with citrusy and white peach flavors, good depth, and a rich texture. Aged in stainless steel, it shows no oak. Highly recommended. 88
Bodega J. & F. Lurton, Mendoza (Argentina) Chacayes Estate 2003 ($65, Monsieur Touton Selection): Bodega J. & F. Lurton makes three top range wines, an '02 "Piedra Negra" (100 percent Malbec), a '03 "Gran Lurton" (100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon), and the '03 Chacayes Estate (75 percent Malbec, 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and Bonarda). The Piedra Negra, in the $25 to $30 range, and the Gran Lurton, in the $20 to $25 range, are both very impressive, and I rated both at 90 points. But the single-vineyard Chacayes, from the best plots on the Chacayes estate, is in another league. It has an inky, black-red color, ripe fruit aromas, soft but substantial tannins, and a firm structure, with spicy fruit and concentrated flavors. It is still very young, and needs at least three years to mature; it will probably be at its best in ten years or more. A very solid wine, with lots of presence, it is one of the very best wines I have ever tasted from Argentina. Only 7,000 bottles were made of this, the second vintage of Chacayes. 93
Luigi Bosca, Mendoza (Argentina) Finca Los Nobles "Gala 1" 2003 ($35, Testa Wines of the World): Luigi Bosca, a large winery in the Luján de Cuyo region, makes at least 25 wines; I know, because that's how many I tasted during a winery visit! Its best wines are its premium line, Finca Los Nobles. Bosca's two most expensive Finca Los Nobles wines, one a Malbec-Petite Verdot blend and the other Cabernet-Bouschet, are both quite fine, but are in the $65 to $75 price range. Its '03 Gala 1, a blend of 85 percent Malbec, 10 percent Petite Verdot, and 5 percent Tannat, is just as good if not better--at half the price. It has deep, complex aromas of baked fruit and dry, firm tannins, with lots of grip and substance. Worth the price. 92
Finca Sophenia, Mendoza (Argentina) "Synthesis" 2003 ($35, Cazanove-Opici): Finca Sophenia, one of the many, fairly small, sophisticated wineries springing up lately in the area, is in the region of Tupungato, 4,000 feet high and part of the Valle de Uco. Its best wine, the '03 Synthesis, is a blend of one-third each of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Aged in 100 percent French barriques, it is extremely impressive. It has aromas of cola, oak, and ripe, plump fruit, with ripe blackberry flavors. It should be at its best in five years. Michel Rolland consults here. 92
Bodega Norton, Mendoza (Argentina) Malbec Reserva 2003 ($15, Charmer Sales Co., TGIC Importers): Bodega Norton's Malbec Reserve, made from 80 year-old vines, is worth the extra $6, compared to its standard $9 Malbec (the one without the fancy "Lo Tengo" hologram label). It has intense aromas of rich, cherry fruit, oak, and coffee, with soft tannins. Packed with subtle fruitiness, it provides a lengthy aftertaste. 90
Bodega Norton, Mendoza (Argentina) "Privada" 2003 ($20, Charmer Sales Co., TGIC Importers): Bodega Norton, located in the heart of Luján de Cuyo, one of Mendoza's prime Malbec regions, produces its popular Privada here. Essentially an estate reserve, it is a blend of 40 percent Malbec, 30 percent Merlot, and 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. It's a supple wine, not fruity, with rich texture, very good depth, and ripe notes on the finish. Made from 50 to 80 year-old vines, it will age well for ten years or more. 90
Clos de los Siete, Mendoza (Argentina) 2003 ($16.50, House of the Burgundy): Although Michel Rolland is only one of seven owners, he is the visible face of this new winery in the Valle de Uco. The '03 Clos de los Siete, a blend featuring 90 percent Malbec and rounded out with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, is a classic, elegant, well-balanced wine. It shows the slightly baked fruit of the very warm 2003 vintage. It will be even better with a year or two of aging. 89
Bodega J. & F. Lurton, Mendoza (Argentina) Bonarda 2005 ($7, Monsieur Touton Selection): Bonarda, Argentina's most planted red variety is also its best-kept secret. If you have never tried a Bonarda, a rather obscure variety from Italy's Piedmont and Lombardy regions, I urge you to invest $7 in J. & F. Lurton's '05, my candidate for one of the best under $10 red wines in the world. Strongly resembling an Italian Barbera, the '05 Lurton Bonarda is medium purple in color, dry, with spicy, fresh plum aromas, excellent acidity, medium concentration, and spicy, tart plum flavors. You can't get a $7 Italian Barbera or Bonarda this good, that's for sure. 89
Bodega J. & F. Lurton, Mendoza (Argentina) Malbec 2004 ($8, Monsieur Touton Selection): Both the '04 Lurton Malbec and '03 Lurton Malbec Reserva wines are good, but since the Reserva is $12, I'm recommending the very commendable $8 '04 Malbec. I love these wines at these prices! The '04 Lurton Malbec has ripe, spicy aromas. It is supple, not overtly fruity, and has a rich, velvety texture. 89
Bodega Norton, Mendoza (Argentina) Malbec "Lo Tengo" 2005 ($10, Charmer Sales Co., TGIC Importers): Here is an excellent $10 Malbec with a great label that would be a good wine to bring to a friend's house. It is dark in color and dry in taste, with a fresh aroma of black cherries and spices, along with rich texture and black cherry flavors. Very easy drinking. 89
Terrazas de los Andes, Mendoza (Argentina) Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2003 ($18, Moët Hennessy USA): Terrazas has a large line of mainly red wines at various price points, but its '03 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon impressed me the most, as it is the best value. It has aromas of spicy red fruits and good concentration, with lots of Cabernet stuffing and a long finish. One of the better Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignons I've tasted recently. 89