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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.