By Celia Strong
So, I really hate it when this happens. Actually, when these couple of things happen. First, you find out after years of really liking a wine — and I mean years for you and me both — that it’s not going to be around anymore. And I have to go on this tasting search to find a replacement. As I’ve mentioned before, all the wines we get to taste are not necessarily that good. So, as you can imagine, looking for a replacement is not all that fun. And looking for a bunch of replacements is a bit daunting. You just know you’re going to taste a bunch of dogs and maybe never find a new wine as good as the one you’re losing. Oh well. It has to be done. And this week’s wine is a find from one of the biggest searches ever.
The search was to replace, if possible, a range of Argentine wines. Various grape varieties, at various price levels, hopefully in styles that a lot of us would like time after time. After all, what good does a wine do us if you only buy it once? We are all a lot happier if the wine brings us all back to itself repeatedly. So, there I go off to taste. And more than one time because each company we buy wines from has some I just have to try. The most important, being a search for Argentine wines, was good Malbecs. As you know, or should cuz we’ve covered this before, Malbec is the red wine grape that keeps Argentina on everyone’s mind. The French brought Malbec to Argentina, but viticulture and wine making were introduced to the country during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and by Christian missionaries. In 1556, Father Juan Cedron established the first vineyard in Argentina. More plantings followed and the first commercial vineyard was established in1557. From the 1560’s through the 1580’s, missionaries and settlers continued to plant more vines and built a system of irrigation channels and dams that still brings water (melting snow and glacier ice actually) down the mountains to the vineyards. Because it was explored and settled by French, Spanish and Italians, the vineyards of Argentina became a conglomerate of grape varieties from all three. Like I said, our Malbec came from France, but Bonarda, another red variety, came from Italy and California missionaries, Torrontes, a white variety, is a cross of an indigenous grape and Moscato, probably, and on and on.
In the twentieth century, the development of the Argentine wine industry (its growth and its money) were deeply influenced by the economy of the whole country. In the 1920’s, Argentina was the eighth richest country in the world. Their own citizens were a huge support to their own wine industry. The Depression, though, led to a large decrease in the export markets for Argentina. This led to lower revenues and fewer investments in the country, and the wine industry declined. A lot. By the early 1970’s, the average Argentine citizen was drinking nearly twenty-four gallons of wine a year. The United States was averaging less than a gallon per person per year at that point. Finally, after the 1980’s, Argentina’s peso was gaining in value in the world and the wine industry, following the example set by their neighbor Chile, started concentrating on export markets in place of domestic ones. By the end of the 20th century, what had been a “sleeping giant” in wines, started to wake up.
Mendoza is the leading wine region of Argentina. In recent years, Malbec has become their best known and mostly widely planted variety. At of the beginning of the twenty-first century, total plantings are at about 361,000 acres. The Mendoza vineyard area is about half the entire area of United States’ vineyards and more than New Zealand and Australia combined. By the beginning of the 21st century, Argentina had more than 1,500 wineries. Most of the best rated Malbec wines come from Mendoza’s high altitude regions ( the Lugan de Cuyo and Uco Valley districts) where the elevation is between 2,800 and 5,000 feet. The soil is sandy and alluvial on top of clay substructures and the climate is continental with four distinct seasons. Under Argentine wine law, if the grape name appears on a wine’s label, it must be at least 80 percent that variety.
But, back to Malbec and France for a moment. The historic birthplace of Malbec was southwestern France, and it is still widely grown in Cahors, a bit in Bordeaux, and some Vin de Pays areas like the Lanquedoc. In Argentina, though, it has found its niche and claim to fame. The grape clusters of Argentine Malbec have smaller berries and are tighter than those in France. Malbec wines have a characteristic deep color (a kind of inky red or violet) and intense fruit flavors with a velvety texture. The grape is thin-skinned and needs more sunshine and warmth to ripen well than either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. It ripens early, which fits well into harvest schedules, and saves it from potential damage from cold to which it’s very susceptible.
Our Malbec this week comes from Antigal Winery and Estates, founded in 1897 by the Peiro family as Bodega Antigal. Modern wine making equipment is housed in traditional buildings, some old and some built to resemble the winery’s original structures. Refrigerated grape storage rooms, an antiseptic bottling chamber and a gravitational flow system are part of the new Antigal. Vineyards that were part of the original bodega holdings remain with the winery and continue their heritage of great wines. It is the location of these vineyards with their calcareous soil, very warm days and cool nights that allow the grapes to develop slowly. Better flavors and textures all take time. Slow but concentrated. That’s the secret.
Antigal makes two levels, or tiers as they can be called, of wines. Cavia Classic is more youthful wines — fruit forward, easy drinking. And then there is their Cavia Reserve, wines known for their structure and intensity. Ours comes from this Reserve tier. Antigal Uno (that means “one” in Spanish) is 100% Malbec, a very deep red with a violet tinge, with an intense nose of dark red fruits and oak, a very silky mouth-feel, long, concentrated flavors of berries, dark plums, smoke, coffee and more and a long lingering finish. But, you want to know the worst part of my first tasting of this wine? The bottle itself. It’s dark with this brass Number One kind of soldered onto it. It was such a great looking bottle, everyone would always remember it. Such great marketing. Oh, please, please! I so badly wanted it to taste good. And I was so worried it would be mediocre or less, it had to be almost awful with such a great appearance. That’s how it always works. The better the label the less good the wine is. But, it’s THE one that breaks that rule. It was great — inside the bottle and outside! Yay! Delicious. And a Reserve wine. Great! And all for $13.99. Oh boy. A new Number One. Antigal Uno. Look for the brass numeral. It’ll see you coming. Enjoy!
By Celia Strong