Food & Drink: Ripe for experiment: the fine wines of Argentina

As new and classical grape varieties are brought in from Europe, Argentina's wines are evolving into the world's most exciting range

ANYONE FOR Senor Tango? The defining experience of the Argentine domestic product at its typical best, or worst, depending on your point of view, coincides with the appearance of the eponymous house wine at the Senor Tango floor show in Buenos Aires. As the oleaginous Senor Tango himself conducts the finale, to the strains of Lord Lloyd-Webber's "Don't Cry for Me Argentina", it's all eye-watering stuff, not least the wine.

This, along with moth-eaten oldies like Chateau Vieux and the ineptly named Aberdeen Angus chablis, is clear evidence that Argentina suffers from a legacy of worn-out wine styles. Alberto Antonini, a consultant Italian wine-maker for a number of go-ahead companies, says: "Argentine wine has until recently only been sold on the domestic market, so the style was old-fashioned and often still is."

Tradition is both Argentina's strength and its weakness. Until democracy was restored in the early Nineties, it had been stuck in an isolationist rut for decades, with little idea of the tastes of wine drinkers beyond the Pampa. Complacency was compounded by the relative profitability of wine sold locally.

Its strength lies in two key features. First, its wine production is the most extensive and diverse in the New World. Volume exceeds that of California or Australia and its mature vineyards are home to a cornucopia of classic and offbeat grape varieties of French, Italian and Spanish origin. Secondly, its climate and proximity to the Andes create a unique environment for wine production. As Antonini explains, "Argentina is a very special environment: high desert at between 800 and 1,200 metres with intense sunlight, no humidity and big differences between day and night-time temperatures".

The malbec grape is the ace up Argentina's sleeve. If it seems strange that it plays only a minor role in France's south west, its recognition as a quality variety in Argentina is as recent as that of zinfandel in California and pinotage in South Africa. Unfortunately, three-quarters of the old vines were tragically uprooted in the Seventies.

What's so special about malbec? Herve Joyaux, a Frenchman who chose Mendoza in Argentina as the location for his new winery, Fabre Montmayou, says, "There's greater finesse in Argentine malbec than French. It's very much to do with the climate, soil and altitude." These are not sour French grapes. Two other French wine-makers in Mendoza, Olivier Ruhard and Jean-Yves Deyras, agree. So does Antonini: "Malbec here has intense flavours, colour, flavour and fragrance and big but rounded tannins."

Already, wine-makers are trying it out in oaked and unoaked styles and in blends to develop complexity. Cabernet sauvignon, which performs well in Argentina, is an obvious blender. Norton, which produces one of Argentina's best value malbecs, is sticking some muscular tannat in for a new superblend soon to be released, called Condor. La Agricola have a great 1999 syrah- malbec blend coming to the UK later in the year - and so it goes on.

But malbec is by no means Argentina's only interesting grape variety. Of the French varieties, cabernet sauvignon performs well in certain areas, as does merlot. The Rhone valley's syrah grape (Australia's shiraz) seems ideally suited to Argentina's hot, dry climate. More intriguing still, Spain's tempranillo grape and Italy's bonarda, barbera and sangiovese have come out of hiding to be acknowledged as quality grapes in their own right. I've hardly mentioned whites, but the fragrant torrontes can be delicious, and chardonnay, if not original, adds to the already extensive range.

New regions, too, such as Cafayate in the north and Rio Negro in Patagonia, are expanding the range of styles. Like melted Andean snow, money is flooding into the wine industry from local and international companies keen to cash in. The home market is still profitable, but declining consumption is driving the forces of change. As Ricardo Pueblo, of Nieto y Senetiner, points out, "20 years ago consumption was 122 litres, 10 years ago 86 litres; today it's down to 38 litres and falling. We need to expand and export, because of the sharp decline in domestic consumption."

Yet despite cash and enthusiasm, there's no "hand of God" to guarantee success. There's much work to be done still in controlling vigour in the vineyards, many of which are based on systems introduced for high volume. Wine-making techniques and cellar equipment are often still rudimentary, although with an influx of foreign expertise, Argentina's wine-makers seem generally keen to adapt and learn.

Argentina has to continue to experiment and to see which styles are best suited to its natural resources - and to look at how the market operates, to avoid silly pricing. As Jose Alberto Zuccardi, MD of La Agricola, says, "Some producers want to copy the Aussies and other countries, but Argentina is different. Argentina can offer a range of wines at different levels of the market. Our biggest challenge is to find our own style.". It'll be a gradual process of evolution, one which wine drinkers in this country will no doubt enjoy along the way.

The Wines

1998 Graffigna Shiraz-Cabernet, pounds 2.99, Co-op. On special promotion (normally pounds 3.99), this is an affordable summer party quaffer from a little- known company north of Mendoza in San Juan, a hotter region which managed to escape the worst of El Nino's destructive forces in 1998.

1998 Simonassi Lyon Barbera, Mendoza, pounds 5.49, Safeway. It can be harsh at home in Piemonte, but under the Argentine sun the Barbera grape develops a spicy perfume and juicy black-fruit succulence, while retaining its risotto-friendly bite.

1998 Santa Julia Montepulciano Oak Reserve, pounds 5.99, Tesco. This is an aromatic red made from another Italian grape in San Juan, the Montepulciano grape of Abruzzo, showing succulent, damsony fruitiness with a veneer of toasty oak.

1994 Cavas de Weinert Gran Vino, pounds 9.90-pounds 11.99 from Stevens Garnier, Oxford (01865 263303), Martinez Fine Wines (01943 603241), and Villeneuve Wines, Edinburgh (01721 722500), is a sumptuous, old-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot, with silky mulberry fruit and high extract made from a selection of the best wines from the barrel, and matured for four years into a stylish wine of structure and balance.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape