Back to the beginning in Argentina

in Wine by

By Celia Strong

Well, we all do begin somewhere so for our wine this week, we are going to look in on another country’s beginning by learning some history and a grape variety. As we learn and study and taste, we are given a special opportunity to add pieces to ourselves, from other people and places and things (meaning wines), and maybe make it all a part of each of us. I’m thinking we end up a lot better and happier. So, put on your travel shoes and let’s go to Argentina.

Sure, we’ve looked at Argentina before, but it’s been a while. Argentina is the fifth largest wine producing country in the world. Vine cuttings were introduced there during the Spanish colonization in 1557.  The largest wine producing provinces are Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja, followed by Salta (the highest elevation vineyards in the world are located here), Catamarca, Río Negro and Southern Buenos Aires, the four latter being newer areas. Mendoza, with almost 630,000 acres of vines, produces about 60 percent of the total wine of Argentina.

As the wine industry develops and grows in Argentina, appellations within Mendoza, and the other provinces, are being established. In 1993, the Mendoza sub-region of Luján de Cuyo was the first. And, it was followed shortly by other sub-regions like the Uco Valley and Tupungato. This is worth noting, partly because it signifies the diversity of wines that can come from just this one province, but, in accepting that diversity, we now get to taste and learn where our favorite Argentine wines come from. Like any other appellation, any where in the wine making world, specific appellations are noted on their wines’ labels. And, yes, probably, reflected in their costs.

Anyhow, I mention this because the Uco Valley is on our label for this week’s wine. (Just FYI, it may also appear in Spanish: “Valle de Uco.”) This sub-region is located along the Tunuyán River, southwest of the city of Mendoza. It is a high elevation region, averaging 2,900 feet to 3,900 feet above sea level. (The vineyards way up in Salta are mostly 5,000 feet above sea level.) The average temperature is about 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Not really all that warm, especially compared to some California temperatures. It is the combination of many specific parts of the whole picture — the vineyards’ high elevations, the alluvial soils, irrigation from melting Andes Mountain snows, more than 250 days of sun every year, small amounts of annual rain, wide differences between daytime and nighttime average temperatures — that come together in the Uco Valley to make spectacular grape growing conditions. The results are excellent grape ripening and concentration, deep colors in their wines, intense flavors and aromas, rich textures It’s not surprising that the wines from the Uco Valley are beginning to be considered some of the best from Mendoza. And, they are the reason for many tourists coming to the area.

Knowing this about the Uco Valley, we can move on to our grape variety for this week. Malbec. The variety that thrives in  Argentina’s soils, climates, and most importantly, the high elevations. Malbec is a thinner skinned grape, so it needs a lot of sun to mature. Two hundred-and-fifty days of sun?  It ripens in mid-season, and brings to its wines a very deep inky color, ample tannins, and a specific plum-like flavor. Also, part of why I love it so much, its wines have a rich, juicy texture.  Mmmmmmm.  Other flavors that show often with this grape include black cherries, black raspberries, blackberries, baking spices, flowers, chocolate or mocha, black pepper, minerals, earth, and a smokiness on the finish. Depending on the style of a specific Malbec wine, it can replace a Cabernet, a Syrah or a Pinot Noir. Pretty versatile. And, it’s well suited to meats, cheeses, pastas, pizzas, seafood, poultry. Almost anything.

Malbec is susceptible to  grape diseases and vineyards dangers, like frosts, mildew and rot. But, the reason it does so well in Argentina is the dryness of the vineyards (they almost all need some irrigation), the elevation of the vineyards that doesn’t let them get too warm when there is moisture, so no mildew, and the very cool mountain breezes that blow over the grapes as they grow, blowing away bugs and parasites. When Malbec rootstocks were taken to Argentina, in the mid-nineteenth century,  it was a match made in heaven. Wine heaven. As we explore more and more of these wines, not only from specific appellations, but also at a variety of price levels, we are sure to find some terrific wines.

So, yes, it’s time to get our wine for this week. Or closer to it. We have to stop for a quick look at another aspect of Argentine wine labels. Like in other countries, the information on every label serves to tell us what’s in the bottle.  Over time, and at different points in their development, wine producing countries have developed wine laws, which includes their label laws, as they have needed. Even though the industry in Argentina has deep roots in its European heritage, they have not yet developed their wine laws to a great extent. This can be seen as a negative thing because it lets producers, who want to, be less specific on grape sources. On the positive side, though, it allows reputable producers to do some mixing to make for the best wines. In 1999, the Instituto Nacional Viticultura passed some laws controlling the demarcation of certain wine areas, minimum grape percentages and three levels of wines. An Argentine wine must be a minimum 80 percent the variety named on the label. There are three levels of wine, based on geographic specifics. “IP” wines, Indicacion de Procedencia, must come from at least 80 percent grapes from the named IP region. “IG” wines, Indicacion Geografica, have to vinted and bottled in the named area, and use grapes from there also. “DOC” wines, Appellation of Origin, have stricter requirements, including grape varieties, climate and region of origin. Despite the stricter guidelines, as you go through these three levels, there is no guarantee that one level has better wines than another. Just more requirements. Logically, we have to accept, though, that a more expensive wine is probably better for some reason. And, like wines from anywhere else, we each get to decide what we like at what price. Also, as of November, 2011, wine labels from Argentina must also display the logo for Vino Argentino Bebida Nacional. Wine has been legally declared as their national beverage!

Finally, to our wine, Finca El Origen Gran Reserva Malbec. We know, from a while ago, “finca” is like a farm or bodega.  “El Origen” refers to beginnings. In this case, a Chilean winery, the first Chilean winery, coming over the Andes Mountains into the Uco Valley. They released their first Finca El Origen Malbec in 2002. Ours is a 2011. It is 85 percent Malbec, 7 percent Petit Verdot, 6 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 2 percent Cabernet Franc. It is aged about 13 months in French oak barrels. The “gran reserva” on the label, while not really a legal designation in Argentina, refers to the wine laws of Spain. There “gran reserva” means aged for at least two years before its release, at least one of them in the bottle. This wine, true to the illusion of “gran reserva,” is a powerhouse of flavors and textures. Rich berry, chocolate, plum, black pepper, vanilla bean, spice flavors in a bowl of intense juiciness and enough tannins to go with steaks, roasts, game birds, heavy seafood, and, my favorite, Sunday afternoon. A wine to redefine how we all think of Malbec. So, we start over, with a new beginning, with a great new wine, at $19.97. Enjoy.