Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES – January 21st, 2017

Diversification in Argentina
by Sara d’Amato, with notes from Michael Godel and David Lawrason

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

Despite pressure to diversify, malbec and torrontés do not seem to be waning in popularity, especially if you consider the upcoming VINTAGES release that puts Argentina in the spotlight with some top quality finds. Nevertheless, good regional diversity is represented from Patagonia to Salta in this rather concise offering. Usually searching for wine from either the extreme north or south of Argentina involves private orders with particular wine agents; there are now a few selections at your fingertips that are both typical and quite special.

There is so much to be said about Argentina especially as it leaves its “one hit wonder” days in the past. With contemporary palates thirsting for the more eclectic, it is time for the country to show its colours. In terms of grape varieties, high praise can be given to unique northern cabernet sauvignon, fresh southern pinot noir, nervy northern torrontés along with Mendozian cabernet franc, tannat and petit verdot that are ready for market. As for malbec, we are sure so see greater regional variations such as well-defined Patagonian styles, a rainbow of Mendoza’s high altitude sub-appellation approaches to the grape, and formidable malbecs fortified by intense UV rays from elevated Salta sites. For now, I have included three short stories that highlight the surprising diversity of Argentina now.


Great interest in non-malbec red varieties in Argentina from cabernet sauvignon to tannat has brought the affable and hearty bonarda grape back in the spotlight. Although bonarda is most definitely and happily associated with Argentina, it is an immigrant. Originally from the mountainous Savoie region in eastern France, bonarda has travelled the world over and has a plethora of aliases. It is most notably known as charbono in California’s Napa Valley where it has substantial roots. In France, the variety was known as both Corbeau de Savoie and Douce Noire.

As many pseudonyms as bonarda has, it has just about as many misnomers. Once thought to be the same variety as dolcetto, this association was debunked by DNA testing. The most glaring confusion is with the Italian grape bonarda piemontese which is not thought to have any relation to the bonarda grown in Argentina. Even barbera was mixed up in the tale as it was confused for bonarda when brought by Italians to California. Many of these false associations did have a correlation with northern Italian grape varieties and bonarda’s flavour profile does lean somewhat in this direction. Even if bonarda has no relation to Italian grape varieties, the country’s significant ethnic Italian population and Italian cultural influences are in some degree responsible for the style of wine that has developed in Argentina, one could argue even more than the Spanish.

Certainly not an obscure variety, bonarda was until very recently the most widely planted grape variety in Argentina. It has many great personality traits to showcase: it is fruity and widely appealing, it can be drunk young (more so in Argentinian styles than its California counterparts), it is inexpensive to grow and can produce great results even in lower elevations and finally, it is easy to pronounce! It does have to contend with its reputation of a workhorse grape often used to produce bulk wine. However, it is certainly making a comeback and one of the great benchmarks of quality bonarda is included in this release, Zuccardi’s Emma Bonarda. It made an impression on both me and Michael Godel (see notes below).

Other top producers of bonarda to keep on your radar include: Cadus Wines, in particular, their Single Vineyard Finca Las Torcazas from Agrelo in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza. From the same region, another boutique producer is SinFin and their Guarda Bonarda is worth the hunt.


If you haven’t been to Argentina’s rugged and stunning northern landscape in the province of Salta, it’s one for your bucket list. Some of the highest, if not the highest vineyards on earth, can be found here although much of the ethereal and otherworldly landscape is unsuitable for farming. Two wines in this release hail from the high reaches of the Calchaqui Valley in Salta where some vineyards are planted at an astounding 3,000 meters in elevation (about 10,000 feet!). Those high altitude sites belong to Colomé (notes can be found below) under the ownership of Hess Family Wine Estates. This old vine estate, farmed biodynamically will take a full day of travel to visit from the base camp in Cafayate. Be sure to book ahead at the one hotel on site to be sure you’re not left out in the frigid desert night!


The rugged and stunning landscape of Cafayete

When travelling from the capital of Salta, a 16th-century town and a stunning tribute to Spanish colonial architecture, to Cafayate, bring plenty of water and make sure to stop in at one of the few roadside cafés for a sip of coca leaf tea. Gauchos can be seen chewing on the leaves of the coca that tend to help you stay alert but may also add to the surreal and what some may call “spiritual” drive through the Quebrada de las Concha range.

Catena’s Stones & Bones

I recently had the opportunity to spend a morning with the supremely educated Medozian wine ambassador and author of Vino Argentina, Dr. Laura Catena. Laura heads the research and development team at Catena winery and is the daughter of founder Nicolas Catena. As much as her father is a living legend in Argentina’s wine landscape, Laura has certainly achieved this status herself, all while raising two kids in San Francisco and working as an ER doctor 9 out of 30 days in California.

As an aside, what I love about Laura is that she isn’t “lovely”. No, I don’t mean this disparagingly. Laura is a seasoned professional. Dynamic, driven, open-minded, un-jaded and with an impressive wealth of experience and intelligence. So many women get tagged as “lovely” in the world of wine. It doesn’t seem like a bad word but it is irritating that some might believe that all women are flattered by the word “lovely” enough to overlook the fact that you haven’t said anything about her at all. If she’s accomplished, lovely doesn’t cut it.

Back to the business at hand, which is a refreshing new direction taken by Catena that is very much exemplified in the success of two wines: White Stones and White Bones. These two soil-study chardonnays are a project of Laura’s that began in 2000 as a search for distinctive wine made from unique soil types in Mendoza. Is there really a correlation? The Stones chardonnay is grown using the same trellising system and from similarly aged vines to the Bones but on white stone from glacier and riverbed with a high concentration of calcium carbonate. The stones provide a slightly warmer microclimate but also contribute to low vigor and nutrient availability. The resulting wine is unsurprisingly complex, sleek, elegant and aromatic with tight acids and a sophisticated mineral note.


Dr. Laura Catena – Winemaker, physician and author

On the other hand, the Bones chardonnay that is grown on more crumbly, alluvial soil with calcareous deposits offers tremendous complexity and overtness at an early age. It is lightly funky and reductive but spicy and peppery with a umami component. Still with acidity but with more flesh on those bones. At both over $90, these fall into the ultra-premium category. If you are a fan of great white Burgundy, these are gems worth seeking out. Due to a shortage of availability, they are currently available only through Noble Estates Wines and Spirits through private order.

These Adrianna parcelas are what Catena calls its “third revolution” in Argentinian wine. The first two involve foreign winemaking trials in Argentina up to the 1960s followed by extreme high altitude plantings encouraging freshness in more challenging terroir. Currently, Laura’s push for distinctive new wines includes not only site specific wines but also a look at microbial populations in soil and in must which is cutting edge to say the least.

Argentinian Highlights from the January 21st VINTAGES Release:

Colomé 2015 Torrontés, Calchaquí Valley, Salta ($15.95)
Michael Godel – Colomé’s weighty and conversely elegant 2015 puts the torrontés fun in Fundador, a reference to the company founder, Donald Hess. This Hess property capitulates thermal amplitude and solar exposition from many upward metres of Andean altitude to drive the variety forward and to elevate potential. It’s all torrontés, fresh, vital and intense.
Sara d’Amato – Torrontés from this high altitude site in Salta is unlike anything you are familiar with. The overt and perfumed, easy drinking styles of the grape variety are not exemplified here. Instead, you find freshness, nervy tension and restraint. These are food friendly wines that have the potential for some short to mid-term ageing. This particular find from the Calchaqui Valley is a stunner for the price.
David Lawrason – This is huge value. We so seldom see torrontés that you might find it difficult to pick up regional differences. But they do exist, especially in the finesse achieved by the best examples from the high-altitude Salta region. They have a sense of focus and purity in behind the bombast of the grape’s aromatics. This very pale, young example captures a lovely, vaguely perfumed essence of lime blossom with anise and spearmint. Stash some for summer drinking.

Viña Cobos 2015 Felino Chardonnay, Mendoza ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – Paul Hobb’s ultra-premium winery showcases some top quality fruit but his style is sometimes criticized for being heavy-handed. This version is quite a standout offering a comforting, pillowy character but there is freshness below the surface that gives sophistication to the wine. Perfectly harmonious with a widely appealing Argentinian style.
David Lawrason – This is a very finely composed chardonnay from chardonnay specialist Paul Hobbs. Nothing dramatic or unusual, but there is a sense of cohesion that impressed, and it is less flamboyant than expected, especially from that intense yellow colour. It has a quite soft, ripe and pure nose of peach/white melon fruit nicely fitted with subtle spice and wood.

Colomé Torrontés 2015Viña Cobos Felino Chardonnay 2015Colomé Estate Malbec 2013Benmarco Expresivo 2014

Colomé 2013 Estate Malbec, Calchaquí Valley, Salta ($29.95)
Sara d’Amato – The malbec vines planted on this estate between 6,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level are up to 160 years old. Under the direction of Donal Hess, Colomé produces some of the most unique biodynamic wines on the planet. The unique herbal aromatic profile belies the intensity on the palate.
Michael Godel – Talk about altitude, here from the emerging star frontier of Salta, with heights scaled between 1,700m and 2,600m from the estate’s three fincas, El Arsenal, Colomé and La Brava. The deepest well of dark malbec fruit draws salinity, minerality and so much spice (with thanks to gastronomically seasoned, generous barrels). This must settle to be truly palatable, has wow factor but you’ll have to trust, believe and wait on it to find out.

Benmarco 2014 Expresivo, Mendoza ($39.95)
David Lawrason – One might balk at the price, but my highest scoring Argentine wine of this release is excellent – a malbec uplifted by 20% cabernet franc, a growing trend in Argentina where winemakers are looking for elegance wherever they can find it. It has a pleasant nose of blackberry with some cab franc tobacco and cedar. It’s quite full-bodied, firm yet rich with some drying tannin and pleasant earthiness.

Altaland 2015 Tinto Historico, Mendoza, Argentina ($16.95)
Michael Godel – Tinto historico from Catena’s Altaland is this regional investigation into an historic blend. The old world, ancient Argentine varieties of malbec (85 percent) and petit verdot (15 percent) expand and expound on what came out of this Bodega Catena Zapata project’s  well-made 2014, with a step forward in ripeness and flesh. Quite stylish with a terrific upside going forward.

Altaland Tinto Historico 2015Susana Balbo Signature Cabernet Sauvignon 2014Fabre Montmayou Barrel Selection Malbec 2014Zuccardi Emma Bonarda 2014

Susana Balbo 2014 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon, Uco Valley, Mendoza ($19.95)
Michael Godel – You can take cabernet sauvignon out of altitude but when the Valle de Uco is concerned, you can’t take the altitude out of this cabernet sauvignon. Classic in its cool, high elevation fruit treated with warm sensibility, in fermentation and in barrel. Like Sonoma but higher, greater, more interesting and much less expensive. A great example of the cabernet success story in Mendoza when pulled from such great heights.

Fabre 2014 Montmayou Barrel Selection Malbec, Patagonia ($18.95)
Sara d’Amato – Hervé Fabre’s traditional Bordelaise style production has been making waves in Mendoza since the early 90s and ten years later, the establishment of the Patagonian winery is a perfect spot for his desire to produce fresher, more defined styles of malbec. A true ex-pat, Hervé left his family of wine negociants family behind in Bordeaux and now makes Mendoza his home. This barrel kissed southern Río Negro malbec certainly feels more old school French with textured tannins with pleasantly musky nose still with the full-bodied fruitiness of Argentinian malbec.

Zuccardi 2014 Emma Bonarda, Mendoza ($39.95)
Sara d’Amato – A “benchmark” bonarda that sets the bar high for this variety often thought of as producing average quality and bulk wines. The grapes are sourced from 2 locales of the Uco Valley – a 25-year-old parcel at 1,400 meters in altitude in Tupungato’s San José and the majority from Paraje Altamira in San Carlos at 1,100 meters. Very little of this wild yeast fermented wine sees oak instead of concrete and those barrels are quite neutral giving the wine greater freshness which highlights the impressive fruit on the palate and delicate peppery, floral aromas.
Michael Godel – Emma is Seb Zuccardi’s tribute to his grandmother and if this bonarda is true to from, she must have been elegant indeed. For this is what bonarda can be as foil and in contrast to malbec and cabernet sauvignon in Mendoza. Don’t be thinking shrinking violet because there is strength in this stylish ripper from the Valle de Uco. It’s ultimately bright, varietally expressive and long beyond its boundaries. Bonarda with a chocolate finish to drink well into the next decade. A fine tribute.

Viña Cobos 2015 Felino Malbec, Mendoza ($19.95)
David Lawrason – From Paul Hobbs yet again, this young malbec has a soft quite floral nose of violets, blueberry, tea and light oak spice – all nicely juxtaposed. It’s medium-full bodied, almost juicy but still well structured, with fine tannin. Hobbs has a good feel for handling the weight and ripeness of Mendoza fruit.

Viña Cobos Felino Malbec 2015Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon 2013Zuccardi Q Malbec 2013

Catena Alta 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza ($47.95)
Michael Godel – Taken from Agrelo, “our little place for cabernet sauvignon,” says winemaker Ernesto Bajda, from La Piramide and Domingo Vineyards, the select “historic” rows bring about power and finesse, grip and elegance. It could walk alongside Napa Valley, Paulliac and St. Julien any day of the week.

Zuccardi Q Malbec 2013, Mendoza ($19.95)
David Lawrason – Here is a very pleasant, ripe and balanced malbec that avoids the coarseness of so many young examples from Argentina. The nose is nicely lifted, floral and ripe with plummy/mulberry fruit, a touch of cedar and vanillin. Tannins are nicely combed out. The length is very good to excellent.

Next week John Szabo MS will be back with his VINTAGES Preview which features a selection of Portuguese wine and other international finds.




Are you a Sommelier, an avid fine diner, or a fan of the movie Somm? If so, come out or try out for the upcoming Best Ontario Sommelier Competition held by CAPS at George Brown College on March 5th. Witness the best sommeliers in the province vie it out in a live, on-stage performance for a chance to make it to Canada’s Best Sommelier competition taking place in B.C. later this year. Enjoy great food, taste high-end wine, peruse the silent auction and hob-nob with past winners – all in support of your local wine stewards. Competitors must register by January 23rd here:

Tickets for CAPS members, family and guests will go on sale shortly.

Best Ontario Sommelier Competition 2017

Use these quick links for immediate access to all of our Top Picks in the New Release.

Sara’s Sommelier Selections
Michael’s Mix
Lawrason’s Take
All January 21st Reviews

New Release and VINTAGES Preview


Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012