A buying trip to Argentina is the stuff of wine merchants’ dreams (along with happy customers and record sales), so I jumped at a recent opportunity to embark on just such an exciting adventure. The chance to seek out new wines from this well regarded part of South America, some of which have never been seen in the UK before, was too good to miss.
With over 1,500 wine producers in Argentina, only about a quarter of them export their wines which is a sad symptom of a volatile currency and weak economy for the last 20 years. However, those exports have driven Argentina’s reputation on the world stage for producing excellent wines.
The majority of Argentina’s wine is produced in the Mendoza province, which is in the west of the country tucked at the foothills of the Andes Mountains. Some 95% of wine produced in Mendoza is produced to the east of the region and is low quality, high volume output. The remaining 5% is from quality producers in Luján de Cuyo and to the south in Valley de Uco. These are where all the producers we met are based.
Mendoza is essentially a desert where anything green only survives thanks to the 17th century irrigation canals which were made by the Indians. The water supply, which is fiercely controlled by the local government, is the difference between success and failure for land owners. The water itself unsurprisingly comes from Andes. It is snow water which is trapped in reservoirs and distributed via the canals. Many of the vineyards use the old irrigation system via the canals, often only getting a “flood” of water twice a week for a few hours when the water is “turned on.” However, this is sufficient. More importantly this method means disease levels are low and therefore there are lots of original rootstock dating back up to 80 years, as phylloxera, the beast which wiped out so many vines in Europe in the 19th century, cannot survive such constant flooding.
Here’s a short video of the irrigation channels:
The other major risk to crops is hail, so most of the top small producers now use hail nets to protect the vines. Hail destroying your hard earned crop can be devastating as those in Burgundy in France can verify in recent years.
There were hugely different philosophies at each of the wineries we visited over course of the seven day trip. We saw small and artisan producers pushing the boundaries as well as some more commercially focussed vineyards with large production but where quality was still the focus. Others worked as a negotiant-type businesses. They own no vineyards but buy most of their grapes on long term contracts with the local farmers.
Argentina produces wonderful wines and has built its reputation on blockbuster style wines which it does very well. However, there were signs on this trip that it is starting the process of reinventing itself and its wine styles. It is no longer all about big alcohol and big fruit; there are subtle and carefully made wines with great appeal to a wider audience which will help it to continue to grow its reputation in the UK.
Here is a brief selection of the producers whose wines impressed me. Unfortunately, one major thing I learnt on this trip is that getting wines back to the UK to sell to our lovely customers is not a quick process. Sadly therefore a number of the wines I tasted will not be in our shops until much later this year. However do read on for my top tips and five case deals on some of my favourites – all of them at 20% off:
Ojo de Vino, Agrelo, Mendoza
Owned by Swiss conceptual artist and musician Dieter Meier (remember Yello?), this organic winery has some very alluring wines with great silky fruit and in a typically rich Argentina style. They are also extremely smartly designed (as you might imagine) with striking labels. They are very drinkable wines at sensible prices. Throughout June 2015, save 20% with a special offer on a 12 bottle case of Puro Malbec, Dieter Meier, 2014 for £159 (a saving of £40)
Dominio del Plata – Susana Balbo
This iconic producer has tripled in size in the last 7 years and is very different to others in that she is effectively a negotiant operation with brands and bought in contracted fruit. Wines and blends therefore change quite often. Family succession is in place with son José and daughter Ana heavily involved in the business.
Described in the 2013 vintage by wine critic, Luis Gutiérrez, as “one of the Argentine wines you must drink before you die,” buy a 12 bottle case of Barrel Fermented Torrontes, Susana Balbo 2014 for £163 and save 20% or £40. We are also delighted to offer a 12 bottle case of Susana Balbo Signature Range Malbec 2013 for £235. This is also 20% off our list price, saving you £60. And a 12 bottle case of the brilliant Bordeaux-blend Ben Marco Expresivo 2013 is also available at a discounted price of £327 which saves you £81.
Michelini brothers, Vista Flores, Mendoza
These guys are ground breaking for Argentina as a result of their winemaking methods based on the simple, but locally uncharacteristic, principles of low intervention, natural yeasts and no acidification of their wines. This is unheard of in Argentina and viewed somewhat sceptically by some. The key identifiable difference is the low alcohol and freshness of their wines, early picking seems to be a key factor but these guys really are happy to push the boundaries & limits, one example being experimenting with egg shaped concrete fermenters, made by their Dad! They produce an amazing “orange” unfiltered Torrontes.
Benegas Estate, Agrelo, Mendoza
Frederico Benegas has the winemaking history of Argentina in his heart being the great-great-grandson of the man who first planted French vines in Argentina. The key to the great wines they produce is the very old vines across the estate, many are 60 to 80 years old. They make an amazing array of classy wines with bottle age, lovely balance and pure fruit. We have their Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 and their 2006 Cabernet Franc available now.
Bodega Aniello, Rio Alta, Patagonia
The only wines we tasted from down in the cool south of the country during our trip but well worth the wait. These wines are fabulously good value for the quality and with noticeable stylistic differences to Mendoza wines. They have more restrained concentration and intensity of fruit, lighter but extremely drinkable wines with complexity.
My Mixed Mendoza case is also available. It contains with three bottles of Barrel Fermented Torrontes, Susana Balbo 2014; Susana Balbo Signature Range Malbec 2013; Ben Marco Expresivo 2013 and Puro Malbec, Dieter Meier, 2014. This costs just £221 a saving of £55.
All these case offers will end on 30 June 2015 or before if the limited stocks run out…so don’t delay!