Torrontés from Argentina is terrific ‘Turkey Wine’

By Celia Strong

I just love the phrase “Turkey Wine.”  Many times it is misunderstood. Not by me, of course, but by those who might hear me call a wine a “Turkey Wine.”  “Turkey Wine” does not refer to a wine from Turkey, the country. It refers to any wine that might go well with turkey. The stuffed bird we over-feed  ourselves with for Thanksgiving and other holidays. And, in addition to just the stuffed bird, it refers to a wine that will go with all the other piles of food and flavors we have on our plates with the bird.  Over the years, we’ve tried all kinds of wines. Reds. Whites. Bubbles. Some of us have our favorites and use them every year. Some of us change it up, depending on who we’re eating with, what we feel like one year as opposed to previous years, budgets (or lack of such), and new wines that we’ve learned about and managed to remember and that seem just right for this particular meal. Today, we get one of these new wines. And, get this, we don’t have to remember it for too awfully long. Turkey Day is closer than we need it to be.

Our journey this week is to Argentina. I don’t remember for sure, but we may not have done this week’s region of Argentina ever before. Or this week’s grape variety. If we have, it’s been a long time. Long, long time. And we definitely have to fix that!  So, our region is Salta. Way up in the northwestern part of the country. Salta is the name of a province, in the Lerma Valley, and the name of the capital city of the province.  It is situated at almost thirty-eight hundred feet above sea level.  Right on the edge of the Andes Mountains. (This high elevation has a lot to do with their wines, which we’ll get to soon enough.) Of all Argentine cities, the colonial Spanish architecture of Salta is the best preserved.  A good thing for them because it attracts many tourists, and their money, to the area. Salta was founded in 1582, by a Spanish conquistador, Hernando de Lerma, as an outpost between Lima and Buenos Aires. For years, it was controlled by the military, and, after the war of independence, it was in disarray and bankrupt. It wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries that things started to get better in Salta. Italian, Spanish and Arab immigrants came into the area and trade and agriculture were revived. Today, this mix of immigrants and native Indians give Salta a unique cultural flavor.

Moving on to our grape variety for this week – Torrontés. This is a white variety that produces fresh and aromatic wines with moderate acidity, a smooth texture and a juicy mouth-feel. It has distinct aromas of peach and apricots. Technically there are three variations of Torrontés grown in Argentina. Torrontés Riojano is the most common. It is the most aromatic of the three, with aromas that remind you of Muscat and Gewurztraminer. (Do we all remember how Gewurztraminer is also a good “Turkey Wine?”) This is the most grown variation of Torrontés grown in Argentina. Torrontés Sanjuanino and Torrontés Mendocino are the other two versions of this grape. There are almost thirty-five thousand acres of Torrontés planted in the country. Plantings at high altitudes, over fifty-five hundred feet above sea level, in locations like the Calchaquîes Valley in Salta, have met with great success. That’s vineyards that are a mile up there. Definitely some of the very highest vineyards in the world.

Torrontés vines are very productive and account for about twenty percent of all Argentine white wines. And, the acreage of planted Torrontés is continually increasing. That means more and more of these wines are available all the time. In 2004, just under thirty thousand cases were imported into the United States. In 2010, however, that number was up to more than two hundred thirty thousand cases. By contrast, also in 2010, over three million cases of Argentine Malbec were imported into the United States. So, Torrontés is growing, but has a long way to go. Research into the origins of Torrontés show it is a cross between a Mission variety, Criolla Chica, and Muscat of Alexandria. This connection to Mission grapes means that Argentine Torrontés grapes are not related to Spanish Torrontés, despite their names being the same. Why?  Because Mission grapes are indigenous to the Americas. And have not traveled anywhere else. There is even a red grape that uses the Torrontés name. Torrontés wines, our white wines, can range in style from light and fresh to heady and unctuous with heavy perfuminess.  They can be spicy, slippery in texture, full of white flower aromas.

Our Torrontés comes from the Michel Torino Winery, located in Cafayate (kah-fah-cha-ta).  Cafayate is a town located in the Calchaquíes Valley in Salta. Prime Torrontés country. The town itself is a big tourist center, partly for its wines and partly for its history and beautiful mountains. The Cafayates were an Indian tribe that lived in the valley before the Spanish Conquistadores. There are many versions of what the name Cafayate means — “box of water,” “great lake,” “great chief,” “ wealthy people,” or “grave of sorrows.”  All we need to really know is their wines. They are considered to be the best from Salta province and from the Calchaquíes Valley. And there Michel Torino owns more than fifteen hundred acres.

Two brothers founded the winery in 1892. Salvador and David. It is now the most important winery in the region. They practice “Zero Farming,” which means their commitment to the environment is as important as their wines. All their grapes are sustainably grown and hand harvested. Their organic cultivation is actually helped by the extremely high elevation of their vineyards. Hot days and cool nights, the up and down fluctuating temperatures, making more complex flavors in the their grapes. And not a lot of bugs live that high up, or a lot of birds who would eat the bugs, and grapes. The wines are made at cool temperatures, most of the aging is done in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, and they are meant to be drunk young. Our wine is the Michel Torino Cuma Torrontés. Cuma is their most organic tier of wines. It is a bright greenish yellow color. And smells like rose petals. Beautiful! (You know, in aromatherapy and such, rose is a very relaxing scent.) With bits of jasmine and orange zest. This Torrontés is fresh, with a crisp acidity and lots of peach and apricot and tropical fruit flavors. It is one hundred percent Torrontés.

And it is a perfect “Turkey Wine!” For only $14.97 at Bill’s Liquor on Lady’s Island. Unfortunately, this is a very limited wine. Yes, bad news. In fact, we’re not supposed to have it. At all. What happened is this. It was sent into South Carolina by mistake. Another wine was supposed to come. Seems mistakes can happen all over. But, there is a finite amount of the Cuma Torrontés to be had. Some of us will be lucky and have some for our holiday meals. Yay! Enjoy.

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