Argentina Part I : Rewarding Freshness
by Treve Ring, Sara d’Amato & Rhys PenderJune 22, 2015
Over the past seven months, five of our WineAlign contributors travelled to Argentina. We are all familiar with the Canadian wine industry’s version of Argentina wines, based on what we see on our shelves and tables. That said, we realize we’re tasting through a filter shaped by trends, markets and, often, laziness. So each of us journeyed south to discover for ourselves what was really happening, beyond what our importers and our borders allow entry. What we found was enlightening, affirming and interesting, enough so that we want to share our discoveries with you. If you’re not seeing these wines and themes on your shelves, ask for them. Seek them out. The only way to change the flow is to be in the know.In the first of our two-part series, we cast an appreciative, closer look at the fresher, brighter wines being produced in Argentina. Sara d’Amato saw very well the results of this trend as a judge at the 2015 Argentina Wine Awards, especially within the iconic and omnipresent malbecs. Diving deeper, Rhys Pender, MW trumpets the country’s new found freshness through their greater use of altitude and lesser use of oak. ~ TR
Judging the “Empowerment of Women” Argentina Wine Awards of 2015
Earlier this year, I was invited to judge the best of Argentina’s wines over a week’s stay in Mendoza followed by a whirlwind tour of the country’s extensively spread-out wine regions. Beyond the obvious lure of the offer, what was most intriguing was the topic of the awards: “The Empowerment of Women in Wine”. For the past nine years, the Argentina Wine Awards have chosen a yearly theme. For example, a previous year’s theme involved exclusively Masters of Wine as judges and another year, a panel made up entirely of journalists. This year, women were to exclusively make up the judging panel, an opportunity I could not pass up.
For ten years now I’ve been judging wine competitions and I am often the sole woman on any individual panel, partially due to the fact there are far fewer women in the industry than men. However, the tide is rapidly changing, especially in North America. Here in Ontario, the enrolment in the Niagara College Wine & Viticulture program this year is 17 women to 17 men.
Tasked with the challenge of choosing the best wines of Argentina, I think we women of the jury were also hoping to find some insights into women and wine, and to explore the age-old question of whether women taste differently than men.
We were aided by a guest judge from the Argentinian industry on each of our panels. Some were winemakers and winery owners such as the influential and formidable Susana Balbo and Laura Catena and others were top sommeliers such as Flavia Rizzuto at CAVE in Buenos Aires. Our ability to pick up on regional subtleties was largely due to the guidance of these very talented and in-the-know locals.
As for the jury, I would be remiss not to mention the names of each of the 12 members of the international jury as they make up some of the most important voices in the industry today. I was joined by two highly accomplished fellow Canadians: Barbara Philip MW, European Portfolio Manager for the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB) and Shari Mogk Edwards, Vice President Sales, Products and Merchandising LCBO; from the UK, Jancis Robinson MW herself led the charge and from Germany, Felicity Carter, Editor of one of Europe’s most influential wine publications, Meininger’s; from Finland, Essi Avelan, who is easily the world’s foremost expert on sparkling wine; from the US, Christy Canterbury MW, writing for top publications such as Decanter, TimAtkin and Wine Enthusiast along with Senior Editor of Wine Enthusiast, Susan Kostrzewa; from Asia, Megumi Nishida, Tokyo’s leading female wine voice, writer and importer along with Annette Scarfe MW from Singapore; from South America, Suzana Barelli, leading Sommelier from San Paolo, Brazil and winemaker Cecilia Torres Salinas of Chile. Needless to say, I was in excellent company.
We had five days in which to carefully examine 700 wines, an exacting, stamina-testing and very difficult assignment. As you can imagine, malbec was center stage and with judging as many big red wines as we did in the day, palate fatigue presents a challenge – hence the need for big lunches and capping the wines to 60-90 daily.
When all was said and done, the Awards were announced at an energy-charged evening ceremony and more than a few trends manifested themselves:
Malbec and Medals
Malbec is Argentina’s highest card and it is played throughout the country’s vast regions. The grape’s most esteemed expression is that of the high altitude Uco Valley in Mendoza. Over the course of the week, our panel learned to discern characteristics of these high altitude plantings that expressed the best vibrancy, sometimes a leaner profile and peppery, wild flower aromatics. Indeed, many of our highest scoring wines came from this region. One of our top finds was from the Tupungato region of the west Uco Valley from Rigolas winery. The project is being consulted on by Paul Hobbs who is a prolific advisor in Mendoza outside of his own project of Vina Cobos. The Quinto malbec took home top honors with a memorably aromatic richness of fruit and exceptional balance.
Surprisingly, not one single malbec was awarded a “regional trophy”, given to the highest scoring wine of a particular region. Other varietals like petit verdot and cabernet franc along with red blends were given top billing. The malbecs were incredibly varied mainly based on the multitude of sub-regions in which they are produced. Not until very recently have these sub-regions been listed on the label and we are already beginning to see them in Canada. Many more smaller producers rather than large conglomerates received awards, with leaner, drier more aromatic styles of malbec favoured.
The results beg the question, did these dramatic differences from previous years have anything to do with “the female palate” or did they have more to do with stylistic changes related to producers and changing tastes worldwide? Did the fact that this year proved the lowest scoring year in terms of gold medals awarded have anything to do with a more “discerning female palate”? They certainly could but I would tend to weight the changing worldwide styles and preferences of critics and consumers just as heavily or more than any differences due to the sex of the tasters.
The only true difference I can state as to our female judging is that, as master organizer Jane Hunt MW of the Argentina Wine Awards can attest, the women of the jury were able to achieve consensus more rapidly than previous years, were more decisive and diplomatic with each other, were able to stay focused and were more cohesive in their scores.
What made us most excited? A real shocker to many of us: tannat. Outside of France, it is rare to find enough of this grape produced in a single varietal to make up a whole flight of wines. These examples should have been tough and mean but instead were generous, aromatic and appealing and still characteristically forceful. What a difference in expression here! A top, gold medal example came from the northern reaches of Argentinian wine producing country, from the small, high altitude dessert valley of Cafayate in the vineyards of El Porvenir de Cafayate. At these altitudes of well over 2,000 meters, the UV index is high but the diurnal temperature shift is extreme with frigid nights contributing to the preservation of acids. In this region, cabernet sauvignon also is divinely expressed but so little is produced in comparison with the rest of the country that few will find their way abroad.
Argentina’s workhorse grape, bonarda, has only recently been usurped by malbec as Argentina’s most planted varietal. It is a vigorous varietal that can take a great deal of sunlight. Top examples can be produced with little effort. Not surprisingly, these wines are often of great value, fruity, approachable and easy to appreciate although often lacking in complexity. From the Santa Rosa region of eastern Mendoza, densely packed by an extraordinary number of wineries and plantings, our top bonarda, Guarda from winery SinFin, finds its home. SinFin is a mid-size, family-owned boutique producer focused on high quality production that was well recognized in this year’s competition. At a lower elevation of 700 meters, such as this example, bonarda thrives in the heat and sunlight offering generous fruit for a relatively small price.
Torrontés proved to be a much smaller category than expected. Many of the top examples come from the smaller northern producing regions of Salta and Cafayate. At those extreme elevations, torrontés not only has impressive aromatics but also more acidity and often more subtlety. The Mendozian examples often lacked character and were sometimes manipulated with oak to add flavour and richness at the expense of delicacy and purity of fruit.
Finally, the value in sparkling wine could not be overlooked. With close to 80 wineries now producing sparkling wine in Argentina and big hitters such as Moet & Chandon in the picture, Argentina’s quickly burgeoning bubbles continued to take us by surprise. Although we found that in some cases, the sweetness levels were questionable even in the Brut Nature or Extra Brut categories, many fine, honest examples did exist such as the top scoring Brut Nature from Trivento winery from Mendoza’s Uco Valley.
So at the end of the day, do we women taste differently? Although the variables were too great to come to any sort of fact-based conclusion, I do believe that our diplomatic approach to tasting in groups of women was unique and that our commitment to finding balance and freshness in wine was unwavering. In the end, I was much less interested in the answer than I was to begin with. Although the results may have been surprising to some, I think most would agree that the strong, experienced and dynamic group of judges were able to pull, from the multitude of entries, the finest examples from across the country, regardless of the sex of the tasters.
Rhys Pender, MW
Argentina’s New Found Finesse
Finesse and Argentina are not words that have traditionally been used together. In fact, Argentinian wine shot to popularity in Canada because of the fact that its wines were full bodied, rich and red at a time when big body, big alcohol, big oak and jammy big ripeness was what consumers were looking for. However, times have changed in Canada and elsewhere, and big is no longer better. Argentinian winemakers are looking to find a new, lighter, elegant side to their wines, and they are having some success.
It is not necessarily an easy task to make lighter, more refreshing wines in what is a warm to hot climate. Picking early may result in lower alcohol but if the tannins and flavours are not ripe the resulting wine will not be any good. There needs to be a balance and the Argentines need to find that sweet spot of keeping their naturally generous fruit flavours without being over the top.
The number one way that Argentina is finding success is by going up, up in altitude or to wherever the cooler weather naturally keeps more acidity and slows down ripening. Hot spots right now are the Uco Valley and Luján de Cuyo, sub-regions of Mendoza, Pedernal in San Juan and new areas being explored far to the north at staggering altitudes in Salta province around Cafayate and Molinos. The cooler temperatures allow the grapes to be harvested while ripe but with lower alcohol levels and the flavours are less jammy and more elegant. Combine this with mineral soils in some areas and the wines are much fresher. Argentinian appellations can be confusing but if you see any of the above mentioned names on the label you should be looking at the more restrained side of the country’s offerings.
Another big trend that is encouraging to see and one that is having a big impact on the wines is the use of oak, or the non-use of oak to be exact. Many producers reported pulling back and using both less oak as well as larger and older barrels to avoid overpowering the wines and allowing the bright, vibrant fruit to show through. Wines such as Trapiche Pure are testament to the success of this shining new style.
Many have questioned if there is such a thing as Argentina beyond big, ripe, rustic malbec. Based on my travels and tasting, it certainly seems there is. Smart producers are figuring out how not to throw out the baby with the bath water, by keeping the fruit ripeness that comes naturally but stopping it from being too much. The wines, as a result, are fresher, more finessed and infinitely more drinkable than ever before.
Next month: In Part II of this series, David Lawrason shines a light on cabernet franc’s ascension, while Anthony Gismondi takes us on a latitudinal tour of Argentina, spotlighting locations along the way. I will take a look at wines that may be outside of your current viewfinder, like Argentine sparkling.