Reviews of Argentinean Wine, Part I

When I travel to a new wine region, I try to bring a mix of serendipity and focus to the way I taste. In the first part of our trip, Ruth and I have been eating our way around the various neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, with an emphasis on the more formal restaurants in the city. As a result, we’ve been chatting with some sommeliers who have provided assistance with both styles of exploration — pointing me to specific Malbecs that I’m interested in sampling, but also trotting out a whole range of other wines from the region for me to experience.

Originally I thought I would pick a few of these better wines and do my usual individual wine reviews for them — telling a bit of the story behind the wine, the people who make it, and the region its from. Unfortunately, my attempts to find out any more information about these wineries beyond some of the notes I scribbled from my conversation with the sommeliers have been thwarted. Despite performing searches in Spanish and English, many of these wineries, and especially the better ones have very little written about them anywhere online, let alone their own web sites. When the Adagio Malbec below came up with a mere 4 hits on, I knew I was in trouble. Couple that with the fact that many of these wines are unavailable in the States, and well, there wasn’t much I could do.

So I’m sad to say that for now, you’re just going to get tasting notes, which are the least interesting or valuable aspects of what I could be telling you about these wines. Next week we’re headed to Mendoza where I can actually meet and chat with the winemakers and then you’ll get some real stories.

In the meantime, here’s a brief overview of Argentinean wine to help you orient yourself should you be unfamiliar with the region.

Argentina is the fifth largest producer of wine by volume in the world, and has seven primary growing regions (listed from North to South): Salta, Tucuman, Catamarca, La Rioja, San Juan, Mendoza, and Rio Negro. The country grows a wide variety of grapes, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Tocai Fruliano, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Torrontes, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Ugni Blanc, Pedro Giminez, Sangiovese, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, Bonarda, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, and of course, Malbec.

While Mendoza is the best known region, and certainly responsible for the majority of exports to the US, in just my few days here so far, there seems to be a buzz about the Rio Negro region and its Syrah and Malbec based wines. We’re headed near there next week, so I now look forward to trying the more locally produced wines.

The country currently has only three DOC regions for wine, though its lax labeling laws allow vintners outside of these areas to put anything they want on the wine label when it comes to geographical designation. Technically a wine from Mendoza doesn’t even have to have the word Mendoza on it, though many Mendoza vintners who aspire to better wines are not only making it clear that’s where their wines come from but also adding the “department,” or sub-region name because it looks like a DOC designation. Some have even made up their own new sub regions.

Many of the vines in Argentina were brought over by European immigrants prior to the phylloxera epidemics of the 19th century, and while I have not heard of any 100-plus year old vines, many of the rootstocks remain from these early imports, meaning that these vines have a fundamentally different relationship with the soil than do the majority of vines in the US and France. Whether that translates into a different quality in the wines I cannot yet say.

Here are some tasting notes from our first few days in Buenos Aires:


2003 Finca La Anita Tocai Fruliano, Mendoza
Bright yellow gold in the glass, this wine has an intriguing nose of cooked bananas, cold cream, and crushed stones. In the mouth it is bright and lively with a good acid balance, nice mouthfeel, and primary flavors if quince, butter, minerals, and a hint of saffron. There is also just the tiniest hint saltiness to this wine giving it an interesting, almost umami characteristic. The wine finishes clean and pleasantly. Score:8.5. Cost: $34 in US

2004 Trumpeter (Rutini) Chardonnay, Mendoza
Light yellow gold in color, this wine has a pleasant nose of lemon curd, green apples, and pears. In the mouth it has a good acid balance and flavors of pear, lemongrass and minerals. It finishes clean, letting the relatively simple crisp flavors linger a little while in the back of the throat. Good fruit flavors make it a pleasure to drink. Score:8.5. Cost: $7 in US

2004 Tapiz “Roble” Chardonnay
Straw colored in the glass, this wine has a nose of cut grass, green apples, and wet steel. In the mouth it has a zing of acidity and despite being labeled “Roble,” which indicates it was aged in oak, it has very few oak driven characteristics, apart from a nice mouthfeel. The primary flavors for the wine are crisp green apples and crushed limestone. The wine finishes strong with hints of almond and hazelnut. Really, quite a surprising and original Chardonnay with a distinct personality and a great food pairing potential. Score:8.5/9. Cost: $14 in US

2004 Alta Vista “Premium” Chardonnay, Mendoza
Light gold in color, this wine has a fresh nose of green apples, pears and cold cream. In the mouth it has excellent acidity and primary flavors of apples, crisp minerals, and hints of pastry cream in its decent finish. A pleasant, everyday drinking, sort of wine. Score:8.5/9. Cost: $NA in US

2005 Finca El Retiro, Vin Tardio Blanco, Mendoza
Light gold in the glass this wine has a nose of sultanas and minerals. In the mouth it has nice acidity and good satiny mouthfeel, with relatively simple flavors of white raisins, honey, and rainwater, along with a medium sweetness. A slight herbal note enters the finish, which is otherwise unremarkable. Score:7.5/8. Cost: $NA in US

2003 Rutini Gewurztraminer, Maipu, Mendoza
Near colorless in the glass, this wine has a subdued nose of unripe apples, pears, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth it has racy acidity with steely flavors of pears and wet stones. The wine finishes clean, and leaves the impression of being competently made, with grapes grown well, but lacks a distinct personality. Pleasant, but not particularly complex. Score:8. Cost: $NA in US

2005 Crios (Susanna Balbo) Torrontes, Cafayete, Salta
A light straw gold in color with green highlights in the glass, this wine has an extremely perfumed nose of green melon and night blooming jasmine. In the glass it has a very silky mouthfeel coupled with excellent acidity which envelop flavors of jasmine, minerals, green tea. The muscat-like nose would lead you to believe this wine had residual sugar, but it is fermented dry. The aromatics can’t help but leave just a slight hint of sweetness on the palate that makes the wine a surefire winner for spicy foods. Score:8.5. Cost: $15 in US

2002 Bodegas Nieto Senetiner “Don Nicanor” Vin Tardio Blanco, Mendoza
This late harvest Chardonnay is a bright yellow gold color in the glass with orange highlights. Its nose amazingly smells like sultanas, candied nuts, and a hint of caramel. In the mouth it is rich and thick on the tongue with lots of glycerine, and incredibly tastes like dulce de leche, butterscotch, and warm brioche drizzled in honey. Very sweet. I only wish the wine had more acidity and some minerality to back up these flavors, which end up a bit cloying. Score:8.5. Cost: $NA in US

2005 Alto Sur Sauvignon Blanc, Tupungato, Mendoza
A light straw color in the glass, this wine has a somewhat herbal nose of hay, dry leather, and bosc pears. In the mouth it has just a hair less acidity than I like from a Sauvignon Blanc, with flavors of walnuts, pears, and a nice mineral aspect that matches with the nuts in the finish. Score:8. Cost: $7 in US


2003 Vinas de Adagio “Adagio” Malbec, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza
This wine is a dark garnet in the glass with a slight cloudy opacity that hints at the lack of filtering or fining. The nose has subtle, restrained aromas of dark wet earth, dust, and a graphite-like minerality. As it sits for an hour or so, the nose begins to show more cassis aromas, which, along with earthy black cherry flavors make up the fruit flavors on the palate. The more air the wine gets, the more the cassis begins to show. In the mouth, the wine is smooth and round with very well integrated tannins. A hint of leather enters the finish, which is long and with singleminded intensity similar to the wine’s flavors. This focus is both to the benefit and detriment of the wine, which has a very distinct personality, but is missing a certain depth of complexity that would take it from being an excellent wine and push it into the realm of stellar. Having said as much, this is one of the better Malbecs I have tried. Based on the wine’s performance over the course of a day or so, I’d suggest this wine will improve with 5 or so years in the bottle. Score:9/9.5. Cost: $NA in US

2002 Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has the classic green bell pepper and cherry aromas of Cabernet, plus some oak thrown in. With such a green nose, I expected the wine to have green tannins as well, but was very pleasantly surprised to find instead a medium bodied wine with excellent silky mouthfeel, and flavors of cherries, leather, and damp earth, and only the barest hint of green bell pepper. Nearly imperceptible tannins carry the wine to a decent finish, and is a very good claret-style interpretation of Cabernet. Score:9. Cost: $27 in US

2003 Santa Julia, Tempranillo, Mendoza
Dark ruby in the glass to the point of nearing opacity, this wine has a brooding earthy nose with aromas of dust, toasted oak, cherry, and hazelnuts. In the mouth the wine is full bodied with reasonable acidity and flavors of cherries, crushed stones, pencil lead and elements of sweet oak and vanilla that creep into the finish. The light tannins of the wine are very oak driven, and frankly, overdone. Score:8/8.5. Cost: $15 not sure if it is available in the US

2003 Laborum Tannat, Cafayete, Salta
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a spicy nose of toasted oak, chocolate, and red chilies. On the palate it proves to be medium bodied with a very interesting mix of flavors including black pepper, red chilis, chocolate, raisins, and figs. The tannic structure is subdued but evident and well integrated and supports a rather long finish. The wine presents a charming package that, while lacking in depth and complexity, is a heck of a lot of fun to drink. Score:8.5/9. Cost: $NA in US

2003 Beltran “Q” Merlot, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza
A medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of plums, cola, and chocolate covered raisins. In the mouth it is well textured with primary flavors of plums and bing cherries. The wine has a good acid balance and a reasonable finish, though it is lacking some tannic structure that might make for a more compelling and longer lived wine. The purity (and pleasure) of the fruit flavors can’t be denied, however, making this an easy wine to drink. Score:8/8.5. Cost: $NA in US

2004 Escondido Tempranillo, San Juan
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of dark aromas including black cherry and cola. In the mouth it is full and well structured with dusty tannins that support flavors of cherries, black olives, black plums, and sour plums, with hints of sawdust on the substantial finish. I never would have pegged this for a Tempranillo in a blind tasting, so much does it resemble a darker more brooding wine like Mourvedre or the way some people make Syrah. A compelling, fairly complex wine which I would love to watch as it ages. Score:9. Cost: $NA in US

2003 Trapiche “Gran Medalla” Malbec, Maipu, Mendoza
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells heavily of toasted french oak and vanilla. In the mouth it is rich and full, with primary flavors of cassis, coconut, and cherry with sweet oak tannins that support a long finish. The complexity of the fruit is damaged somewhat by the heavy use of oak, in my opinion, but apart from that stylistic decision, the wine reaches towards compelling. Score:9. Cost: $??, likely available in US

2001 Rutini “Apartado” Red Blend, Mendoza
This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot is a stunning pure ruby color in the glass. It has a complex nose of cherry cola, vanilla, plums, and violet aromas. In the mouth it proves to be medium to full bodied with nice dusty tannins wrapped around a core of cherry, hazelnut, and earth flavors. The tannins stretch towards a leatheriness in the finish, which is surprisingly short. This wine strikes me as almost too well made — it lacks some depth of personality that would take it from its current incarnation as a decent claret to something more transcendent. Disappointing, especially considering this is the top cuvee for the winery. Score:9. Cost: $45 may not be avail. in US

OK, gotta get back to drinking and eating beef ! Ciao!