Monday, May 16, 2011

ARGENTINA: More than Malbec & Tangos?

Malbec World Day, the inaugural,  was one month ago on April 17, with its focus being to introduce the Argentine Bordeaux grape variety to a wider audience. Celebrated all over the world, this wine showcase was truly an international event, with a focused media blitz and organized tastings from India to Washington DC. Argentina today benefits from a stable government and rebounding economy, investments in modern equipment, a wave of global wine consultants and has even adopted an eye for international marketing.  The result is that today's Argentine Malbec is of higher quality and more widely available than ever before in our marketplace. In 2010, Argentina overtook Chile, becoming the fourth largest wine importer into the US, with wine exports exceeding $220 million. Remarkable across-the-board quality growth, as well as production, has resulted in an increase of almost 10% in export wine volume, and an estimated $17% in value over 2009!

This development was no accident. Beginning in 2000, and without government support, Argentine winemakers launched a global strategy to increase market share, Vision 2020. In 2002 Argentine wines were exported to 81 countries, and by 2008, those markets had grown to120! With its dated vines averaging more than a few decades old, grown on their own rootstock in irrigated vineyards averaging more than 3000 ft. in elevation, in a dry continental climate, where flowering is limited by the 'zonda'(a fierce seasonal wind blowing out of the northwest), Argentina would seem to be limited in the ability to change. Additionally, domestic and international markets here have different tastes in wines, so big producers often produce two different lines of their brand. While total vineyard area has grown nationally, low quality wines acreage from white grapes, like Pedro Gimenez, or the high yield, bulk wine producing black grape, Criolla Grande(Mission grape) are on the decrease. Yet, the widely planted workhorse, fruity Bonarda, remains significant in its plantings. Across its grape growing regions low-yielding 'international' varieties are today on the increase.

Salta Torrontes
Of Argentina's seven grape growing regions, the expansive, dry Mendoza region in the rain shadow of the Andes, is an inviting home for the Malbec grape variety which is susceptible to rot and mildew. Native to southwestern France's Loire and Lot River valleys, Argentina has today more fruity Malbec planted than anywhere else on the planet. U.S. consumers here can find consistently good values and quality from Malbec producers like Tikal's Altos de Mendoza, or Hacienda del Plata, or Trapiche, and American winemaker, Paul Hobbs', Vina Cobos. Even American giant E & J Gallo distributes the prestigious Bodega Catena Zapata, which is annually one of the top restaurant import brands in the U.S.

Outside of dominant Mendoza, the northern regions of La Rioja and San Juan are this nation's largest wine producers. Balanced between domestic and export production, Malbec may soon have an Argentine partner in the global marketplace. With more than 230,000 cases exported to the US in 2009, according to Wines of Argentina, Torrontes, a high acid and fragrantly citrus-floral white variety from mountainous Salta region in the north, and the Catamarca Valleys, may be the next big thing. Regional sub-varieties may hinder its identity in the export markets, but it is refreshingly worth seeking out. Try Salta's Catena Almos, and Crios de Susana Balbo, or Mendoza's Norton Lo Tengo. Chardonnay acreage has grown too, it being a base for the country's sparkling wine production, planted mostly in the cooler regions of the Mendoza and the Rio Negro to the south.

Could Mendoza Pinot Noir be next? Trapiche makes a good one.  Or perhaps the next wave of wines from Argentina will be spearheaded by the fruity, light-bodied Bonarda(Charbono), or even the combination of native and international red varietal blends! With a de-valued currency against the US Dollar, Argentina, one of the world's largest producers, can certainly continue to provide oceans of value-driven wines. Whatever the outcome, like the tango, I am sure that it will be enjoyable for wine drinkers to watch!


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