Argentinian vineyard

Wine: Argentinian Visionaries

28 June, 2022

Famously the hero country for Malbec, Argentina has so much more to give when it comes to wine, thanks to the pioneers who are capitalising on the climatic possibilities. Sorrel Moseley-Williams takes a journey through some of the latest trends in this vast and varied land.

Think of Argentinian wine, and your nose anticipates the concentrated plum and cherry aromas of a joyful Malbec, tastebuds salivating at the umami sizzle of a medium-rare rib-eye, its perfect partner. Perhaps it’s barrel-aged Malbec from the elevated Cafayate Valley or Perdriel grapes freshened up with carbonic maceration. No matter the style, the branding of Argentina’s bountiful red is clearly the country’s biggest success story to date. 

But that’s not all that we drink in Argentina – and we don’t just exist on a protein-rich diet either. While Malbec is the ultimate crowd pleaser found on every carta de vinos, oenologists the length and breadth of the world’s fifth-biggest wine producer are driving forward changes that were unthinkable just 10 years ago. 

There’s a huge thirst for whites, such as Semillón or Chardonnay and a fresher style of Torrontés, and in the search for diversity, breaking new ground in regions surpassing usual latitudinal boundaries both north and south. A revival of pre-phylloxera and old vineyards is also underway, renewing both value and interest in underappreciated grapes such as the Criollas. And of course, the global phenomenon of low intervention, pét-nat and skincontact wine is in full swing. Here are some of the trends hitting Argentina right now. 

BEAUTIFUL SOUTH

In his Argentina 2022 Report, Tim Atkin MW says that “wineries have gone higher and cooler in their search for balance and complexity”, and that is the case in point, respectively, for two geographical indications (IG): in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, vineyards start at a breathtaking 2,400m above sea level, and are also thriving in the Winkler I region of Trevelin. In the latter, located in west Chubut, a Patagonian province that embraces the Andes and the Atlantic, today’s oenological pioneers are following in the footsteps of Welsh migrants a century ago.

Trevelin’s USP is housing some of Argentina’s most southern vineyards between 43°07”S and 43°18”S, says vintner Patricia Ferrari of Casa Yagüe, who worked with Viñas Nant y Fall and Contra Corriente to secure IG approval in 2020. Blink and those clouds above you might suddenly release snow, Trevelin is that far south – it’s all about extremes in this new terroir. In summer, vines experience 16 hours of daylight, yet frost and icicles shrouding bunches during harvest is also the norm. There’s also wide thermal amplitude given that daytime temperatures reach 33ºC then fall to 5ºC at night; the effects of these extremes mean Casa Yagüe’s whites have gained their reputation. 

“Sandy loam and gravel soil composition combined with extreme cold climate means we make distinctive wines full of personality and practically unregistered in their style,” says Ferrari. She and husband Marcelo Yagüe cultivate organic Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, whose high natural acidity and unusual vibrancy on the palate excites Argentina’s sommeliers. “Slow maturation periods and the inactivity of plants during cooler nights lead to a wide concentration in flavours and aromas,” she adds. 

Chubut is also home to Otronia, the world’s most southern winery, located at 45º22”S, close to a 65-million-year-old petrified forest. Cultivating 50ha of cold-climate and short-cycle varieties, Otronia’s wind-battered location next to Lake Musters in Sarmiento ensures a diverse array of soils, including sandy blocks and alluvial limestone, to create a unique project in new terroir, says head winemaker Juan Pablo Murgia, Descorchados’ Winemaker of the Year 2022. 

“By cultivating cold-climate and short-cycle varieties, one of our visions is to create sparkling wines from this unique place. Sarmiento’s extreme climate –  very hot in the day and very cold at night – preserves acidity, while powerful winds give unique character to aromas, flavours, textures and pigments, which are hugely multiplied,” he says. Otronia’s whites are also exciting; top sips include Rugientes 45 blend and Block III & VI Chardonnay as well as traditional-method espumoso. 

NORTHERN LIGHTS 

In Argentina’s north west, the elevated Quebrada de Humahuaca canyon in Jujuy formed part of the Inca Trail and is still inhabited by indigenous communities. Here, vineyards start at 2,200 metres above sea level (masl) and soar upwards among the cardon cacti into the craggy mountains, topping out at 3,311m. While Fernando Dupont began cultivating Syrah and other reds in 2003, two decades later, 28 micro-projects cultivate small vineyards – most with just four or five hectares. Contemporary trailblazers include Huichaira Vineyard, led by Alejandro Sejanovich, Atkin’s Winemaker of the Year 2021, and Bodega El Bayeh, led by low-intervention pioneer Matías Michelini and vintner Daniel Manzur. But for winemaker Diana ‘Tana’ Bellincioni, Jujuy born and raised, and her agronomist cousin Adolfo Kindgard, planting 3ha Bodega Kindgard is a wonderful coming-home experience bursting with diverse opportunities. 

She says: “I returned to make wine for the first time at Huichaira in 2018, so to give something back to Jujuy with my own project is a dream come true. In the Quebrada, fincas tend to be tiny, but there is diversity thanks to the wide variety in soils and elevations in the Quebrada. Par excellence, most cultivate Malbec, but there’s also great Syrah, and our Cabernet Franc from Purmamarca is proving to be a lovely surprise. We cultivate just 3ha of those three grapes plus Cabernet Sauvignon and are experimenting with Garnacha (Grenache), Semillón and Riesling.” 

The Quebrada is an exciting region to watch, says Marina Gayan MW, a passionate advocate. “It’s so interesting because of its extreme altitude, huge amount of sunlight and UV rays, and extreme temperatures, which create fresh, juicy and expressive wines that have lovely structure and proffer savoury notes rather than fruity ones. There are small and young projects that offer huge potential on a small scale,” she says. 

GREAT WHITES 

While it seems as if Malbec is simply on tap, it’s easy to forget that whites played a vital role in kickstarting Argentina’s nascent wine industry in the 1850s – and they are finally making a deserved comeback, says Alejandro Vigil, head winemaker at Catena Zapata and newly minted president of Wines of Argentina (WofA). 

“White wine consumption has been growing consistently over the past five years, and that was crowned to the tune of 400% growth in sales in 2021 in some brands, proving there is real interest in drinking whites,” he says. 

“Catana, for example, has a long history in producing whites, and while our White Bones and White Stones Chardonnays kickstarted a new era in 2009, without a doubt in mountainous regions, Semillón is the white equivalent to Malbec, in its transparency in reflecting and characterising terroir.” 

While winemaker Susana Balbo gave Torrontés a premium profile in the 1980s and put the aromatic dry white on the map, fresher styles are being produced. Riccitelli Wines’ Old Vines From Patagonia vintage is a lesson in fresh citrus notes, while Vigil’s El Enemigo from Gualtallary is enveloping, with zesty acidity. As for Balbo, she recently released her first skin-contact Torrontés under the Signature line, a remarkable lesson texture. 

Other whites whetting palates include Marsanne from Bodega Zaha, Lui Wines’ crisp herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc and Zuccardi’s Polígonos Verdejo, respectively from Los Chacayes GI, La Carrera and San Pablo GI in Uco Valley. And as top restaurants in Buenos Aires move to incorporate plant-based philosophies, so the need to have more ‘foodie’ wines on lists grows.

Sebastian Zuccardi and Pancho Burgallo

COMEBACK KID 

One umbrella grape to capture the minds of vintners – as well as the hearts of consumers – is Criolla in its different varieties. Known as Listán Prieto in Europe, País in Chile and the Mission grape in the US, Criolla’s story dates back to the conquistadores in Argentina. Today, many winemakers have a hand in its resurgence, bringing the identity of Criollas such as Chica, Grande, Cereza and Torrontés among others, to the forefront. 

Sebastían Zuccardi has a special connection with Criolla Chica, after accidentally discovering 80-year-old vines in Barreal, Calingasta Valley in San Juan province, with winemaker Pancho Burgallo. Together, they gave them a new lease of life with Cara Sur, a heritage project that pays tribute to the Criolla family. 

“Located far from San Juan and Mendoza, Barreal never really developed, viticulture wise. In this unexplored, high elevation valley at 1,600 masl, we found these 80-year-old Chica vines, which are very rare to come across, and they really opened our eyes: with just 150ha cultivated in the country, it’s scarce and hard to find pure vineyards. 

“Cara Sur is a rescue project that focuses on a valley, old vines and forgotten grapes, and creates wines with identity and a background, wines with plenty of texture,” says Zuccardi.

Criolla Chica has low pigmentations similar to Pinot Noir but marked tannic structure, which makes it so special. Its drinkability and that historic identity is what generates interest, according to Thibault Lepoutre of Mundo Revés. He says: “Given that Argentina stands out for its superb Malbec, a light red like Criolla attracts attention for its freshness.” 

It’s not just local consumers who have caught on to this heritage grouping but those further afield, adds Juanfa Suárez of Rocamadre. “This diverse autochthonous grape, which goes against the grain with its special colour and low alcohol, is the only wine that’s carried by every one of my importers: interest isn’t just local but also international.” 

Exciting Criollas worth sampling include El Esteco’s Old Vines, Les Astronautes, the Durigutti brothers’ Cara Sucia Cereza and Proyecto Las Compuertas wines as well as those made by the aforementioned vintners. 

From extreme new regions that go beyond high-elevation winemaking to heritage grapes and a newfound passion for white wine, Argentina is generating a lot of excitement right now – the question is, how soon will these wines be uncorked around the world? 





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