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News - 31.08.09

Argentina´s Ascent

Note by Senior Editor Lyn Farmer in Wine News, who received the 2003 James Beard Journalism Award for magazine writing and was also nominated for the award in 2004 and 2007.

Argentina has been growing vines and making wine since 1540, and commercially since the first French agronomists arrived in the 1850s. Yet with centuries of wine history, it has not been until the last decade or so that it has begun to gain international recognition. Previously, it did not export a lot of wine because the home market was huge and undemanding. Domestic consumption began to fall in the 1970s, yet producers were very slow in seeking replacement markets because their captive audience was still quite sizable. It was not until a handful of well-traveled vintners took it upon themselves to upgrade the country's wine image that change began to seep into Argentina's arid vineyards. Spurred by the elevated wines being crafted post-1988 at Catena in Mendoza and Etchart in Salta, the country's wine industry initiated a sweeping program in the 1990s to modernize and radically upgrade wine quality. Outside experts and investors were sought and, like long-struggling vines, these efforts have slowly borne fruit. With a deeper understanding of its terroir, new vineyards and modern technology, Argentina has deftly repositioned itself to compete globally.

I witnessed the results of this sea change in February when I served as a judge at the Argentine Wine Awards in Mendoza. Numbers alone tell the story: It is estimated that more than half of its newer upper-tier bottlings are exported, and that the U.S. consumes one in four of those bottles.

That said, only 20 percent of Argentina's total annual production is exported. "We have a great wine tradition in this country," says Julian Orti, the export manager of Bodega Pascual Toso. "My father had wine on our table every night, as did his father before him." Like many table wines of its ilk, however, it was nondescript. "It certainly wasn't what I would consider good wine."

In other words, Argentina had a tradition of wine consumption, but not of fine wine consumption. Twenty years ago, its vines were overcropped; bulk wine was the status quo. Now there is an altogether different recipe for success.

To better serve the country's international consumers, Wines of Argentina invited four judges from the country's top export markets (Brazil, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S.) to evaluate nearly 600 Argentine wines for the annual Wine Awards. After the blind scoring was complete, each judge was invited to speak about what it took for a wine to succeed in his or her home market. Over the course of five hours, more than 300 vintners, viticulturists and estate managers peppered us with questions. I have been around the vineyard block a few times, and one doesn't often encounter this level of dedication.

I came away from this marathon experience believing that there is little potential for under-$10, entry-level Malbecs and great possibilities for middle- to upper-tier Malbecs priced from $10 to $30. I also surmised that there's little point in making Sauvignon Blanc in Argentina because there are plenty of better quality, more competitive examples made elsewhere. But torrontés, a white grape as at home in Argentina as malbec, has tremendous prospects. It can be made in a food-friendly style with appealing floral aromas and crisp acidity. Syrah has potential, and there are some good Cabernet Sauvignons being produced, but aside from Malbec, the most impressive wines I tasted were blends that employ malbec as a base with additions of everything from syrah to tempranillo to bonarda. Least impressive were overly tannic reds that appeal to local tastes and high-alcohol fruit bombs that follow the global palate.

While many in the wine industry decry this homogeneous style that disconnects a wine from its place of origin, I am more concerned about a petrifaction of style — a rigidity that clings to tradition without context, which is worse than clinging to context without tradition. To fight both trends, winemakers everywhere need to seek broader awareness, as the Argentines have done. They seem to be fully aware of what others are doing, and remain open to new ideas that may help them make better wine in their own style.

Yet in Argentina, as in many other countries, there is an over-reliance on Palladin-like wine consultants. While much can be gained by bringing new ideas to a winery, a consultant is present for only a few weeks a year. What is more important is having full-time employees with a world view of wine. How can a vintner who has never tasted a Bordeaux hope to do anything with Malbec other than what his predecessors did? There is very little non-Argentine wine consumed in Argentina and that needs to change.

After all, it was Nicolas Catena's California period (he was a professor of economics at UC-Berkeley when he became enamored of the progress made by wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties during the 1980s) that sparked his desire to recreate wines of similar quality and spirit in his home country. That meant experimentation and research, including studying the effect of altitude on grape growing, an absolutely essential exploration given the location of Argentina's wine regions and their distance from the cooling effect of the ocean. You can taste the ongoing success of Catena's research in every bottle of wine he releases.

Like Catena, Stanford Business School graduate Santiago Achaval also spent time in California. He returned to Argentina in 1989 with more than just a prestigious degree; he also had studied international wines by drinking a lot of them. One night, over cigars and a few bottles of wine, Achaval and four friends decided to make wine themselves. Dedicated to Malbec, Achaval Ferrer has become one of my favorite wineries. Its decidedly unique wines are classic examples of what can be achieved by merging tradition with international awareness.

A similar perspective has fostered reinvention at Bodega Norton, one of Argentina's most revered mainstream wineries. When I first tried its wines 15 years ago, I found them dull and uninspired. Today they are very different. A big reason is the influence of Luis Steindl. He is not a winemaker; rather he is a businessman who honed his palate on a global palette of wines while living abroad and working for technology firms. "You can taste quality, wherever it is from," he said. When he was hired a decade ago as chief executive, he brought along a "palate calibration" that is now reflected in dozens of wines. Though intensity varies by category, quality is always consistently high at every price point.

Argentines like Steindl, Catena and Achaval, who honed their palates with a broad view of what wine can be, certainly have helped to shape the industry and imbue it with some of its dynamism. Economic factors are at work here, too — labor will not always be as cheap in Argentina as it has been and prices will inevitably rise. Nonetheless, there is an enthusiasm for progress that is rare in any country and, given time, that enthusiasm will put the "Made in Argentina" stamp on some of the world's truly great wines.

By Lyn Farmer