Christmas music is playing in the hotel lobby. Outside, people are wrapped in heavy coats and scarves, though the temperature lingers above 50 degrees. It’s August, which is late winter here in South America.
Why are they playing Christmas music? You might ask as well why the bathroom in my hotel has clearly been prepared for wallpapering and yet remains bare, or why the wine stores charge 20 times the cost for European wines. This is a country in transition, still sorting things out, sometimes amusingly, and still protective of its wine industry.
As for the heavy coats, Buenos Aires has all the weather diversity of San Diego; it’s always nice here. Fifty degrees is a strong chill; 40 degrees is a disaster. Up in Mendoza, in the Andes Mountains, where the wines are grown, there is snow today, so Argentina is not all like Buenos Aires.
And the vines up in the foothills of the Andes are growing not just Malbec, though it remains the country’s most popular and valued grape. It is Malbec that has fueled Argentina’s meteoric rise in the world market, and certainly in the American market.
You can be sure that Australian winemakers have noticed; Malbec sales increases have mirrored Aussie Shiraz sales decreases over the last five years.
Malbec enjoys Shiraz’s powerful fruitiness, and Argentina’s wineries opted for more elegant labels, evincing an image of seriousness and authenticity, with somewhat higher pricing.
But as with Australia’s once single-minded reliance on Shiraz, Argentine Malbec threatens to become a one-trick pony. Australia’s gravest error with Shiraz was to become associated with blends from a massive region called Southeastern Australia, a “highly delimited” area roughly half the size of the continental U.S. Not a recipe for region-specific flavors; instead it was a recipe for cheaper and cheaper prices.
Argentina is desperate to avoid the same fate. It has been keen to not rely on massive blends but instead to boast of specific regions, each of which can express slightly differing styles of Malbec.
Lujan de Cujo can be just as tangy as it is rich; Altamira often shows an alluring floral, rose petal element. Where once growers planted in the warmer spots of Mendoza, the large and best-known region, producers have steadily moved into the Uco Valley, often higher in elevation and cooler, increasing that tangy, even slightly tart character.
For many of us, that means wines with better balance and an ability to age in the cellar, unlike the fat beasts that we tasted when Malbec first showed up here.
Even more importantly, Argentina is showing off its other grapes. Bonarda was once the country’s favorite grape; it’s generally a quaffer, not a wine to think about. But blend it with Syrah, a grape quickly increasing in planting, and the two marry and offer offspring of considerable tastiness.
Torrontes is the country’s traditional white grape; its wild floral character betrays its lineage with the Muscat grape, which has become one of America’s top three consumed white grapes. Torrontes hasn’t enjoyed that same fame, so growers are focused upon Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and even Riesling, with some success.
The true unknown star here is Cabernet Franc; there are utterly delicious examples from most of the well-known names such as Luigi Bosca, Catena Zapata (one of Argentina’s finest), Gascon, Lamadrid and Rutini and lesser-known names such as Achaval-Ferrer, Aleanna, Durigutti, Fabre-Montmayou, Keo, Pulenta, Salentein, Tinto Negro and Zorzal.
Cabernet Franc blends with Malbec delightfully, too: Santa Julia makes one it calls Mountain Blend. Catena Zapata has a great value called Nicasia, but it’s not bringing it to the U.S. yet. I think the company should, but no one in Argentina is yet sure whether to bolster Malbec or to diversify with other grapes. It’s still sorting things out, as appears to be the case with my hotel.