Writer Anya von Bremzen discovers Argentina’s big new wine trends—from Mendoza reds to Salta whites—during a raucous tasting tour of Buenos Aires.
There is something incredibly romantic about drinking a wine (a very good wine) from Argentina’s Patagonia, a place so remote that travel writer Bruce Chatwin described it as “the point beyond which one could not go.” Or uncorking bottles from equally distant Salta, a cloud-scraping area in the far northwest of the country, close to Bolivia. Pioneering wines like these, from Argentina’s viticultural frontiers, were among the exciting discoveries of my recent visit to Buenos Aires, city of beef, bargains, Borges and Botox (they’re image-mad in the cosmopolitan capital).
As I visited the city’s sleek new vinotecas (wine stores) stocked exclusively with domestic bottles and ordered from cutting-edge wine lists at both innovative and traditional restaurants, I tasted countless great local wines: boutique reds, increasingly appealing whites and sparkling wines, most of which never leave the country. (Though exports are growing rapidly, they still account for only a small percentage of total production.)
The enthusiasm for wine in Buenos Aires is hardly surprising: After all, Argentina is the world’s fifth-largest wine-producing nation. What was new and interesting, at least to me, was the city’s incredible wine scene and the quality bottlings from emerging regions that go way—way!—beyond the signature high-alcohol Malbecs of Mendoza, Argentina’s renowned wine area at the foothills of the Andes.
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Best New Wine Regions
With the wine scene so dynamic and vineyard development so frenzied, everyone in Buenos Aires loves bold predictions and proclamations. Cabernet—not Malbec!—is Argentina’s true future! Viognier from Mendoza is about to explode! Patagonia’s Pinot Noirs are the Next Big Thing!
That last statement could be true. Patagonia, the arid region in southern Argentina, is attracting elite winemakers like Italy’s Piero Incisa della Rocchetta, whose family makes the world-renowned Sassicaia. His Bodega Chacra is producing stunningly finessed old-vine Pinot Noirs that have achieved cult status—and fetch stratospheric prices—in international wine circles.
At the sultry Gran Bar Danzon, the city’s first serious wine bar, I ordered a glass of another Patagonia wine, the 2007 Saurus Pinot Noir from the six-year-old Familia Schroeder in the Neuquén zone. (The name Saurus refers to the dinosaur bones found on the winery’s grounds.) Supple and faintly minerally, with an inviting hint of cherries, this is one of the Argentinean wines that’s available in the U.S.—where it costs around $15 a bottle.
Later I asked Ernesto Oldenburg, a talented local wine writer, about other new buzz-generating regions, such as San Juan, next to Mendoza. “La Pampa!” interjected Ernesto’s mother, Elisabeth Checa, a famous wine journalist herself. “Even La Pampa has gotten into the act!” Really? Those vast, semi-inhabited steppes in Argentina’s center? Sure enough, we tried a ripe, faintly spicy and infinitely drinkable Cabernet Franc from La Pampa called 25/5. It’s produced by the new Bodega del Desierto (Desert Winery), with some help from star California winemaker Paul Hobbs. Where will Argentina be sourcing grapes next, I wondered—the South Pole?
Argentina’a Whites & Sparkling Wines
Red wines will probably always dominate this beef-centric country, but Argentinean whites—particularly those made from the aromatic Torrontés grape—are definitely having a moment. “Torrontés is Malbec’s flamboyant new girlfriend,” said Aldo Graziani, the energetic thirtysomething sommelier at the Philippe Starck–designed Faena Hotel. A “Torrontés revolution,” he promised, was imminent.
Ernesto told me that some of the best Torrontés is coming from a clutch of boutique wineries in high-altitude Salta. He explained that winemakers are flocking to Salta to snag the prize of the world’s highest vineyard. Right now, the lead belongs to Swiss wine entrepreneur and art collector Donald Hess, who owns the Hess Collection in Napa Valley. His Altura Maxima vineyard in Salta sits a “mere” 10,000 feet above sea level. A bit lower down, his Colomé wine estate extends over 96,000 acres and includes a hotel, spa and art gallery among the 19th-century vines.
To taste new Salta whites, Ernesto took me to Almacén Secreto restaurant, owned by the actress María Morales Miy. We ordered Colomé’s 2008 Torrontés (deeply golden, with fragrances of citrus and honeysuckle) and sampled several of the restaurant’s traditional northwestern dishes. The cuisine at Almacén Secreto resembles the food of Bolivia or Peru more than the Europeanized cooking of Buenos Aires. We tried an abundant locro (a casserole filled with beans and corn) and a stew made with shredded, dried salted beef called charqui. Best of all was a bowl of Andean potatoes, some as tiny as raisins and wonderfully pink inside and out.
As if Argentinean whites weren’t enough of a surprise, who knew that the country has some 88 producers of sparkling wine, and that the wines could be decidedly lovely? A nutty, barrel-fermented sparkling Chardonnay made by a group of young vintners at Alma 4 winery in Mendoza was one of the revelations at the homey La Vinería de Gualterio Bolívar restaurant in the San Telmo district. Here, Colombian-born sommelier Nicolas Reines chooses pairings from among the 70 wines he serves by the glass. Back in the open kitchen, chef Alejandro Digilio applies lessons learned from working at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli in Spain to dishes like a complex vegetable-and-herb salad with contrasting textures and temperatures. Reines sometimes pairs the dish with a beautifully aromatic Sémillon from Finca La Anita, a boutique Mendoza estate producing remarkable wines that combine Old World elegance and New World fruit.
New-Style Mendoza Malbecs
“As descendants of Mediterranean immigrants who eat tons of beef, Argentines have always had red wine in their veins,” Ernesto said. “What’s changed is the new focus on quality.”
That was good news to me. I’ve always found mainstream Mendoza Malbecs—the country’s best-known, most available wines—to be too fleshy, too alcoholic and way too oaked-up. When I confided this to Julián Díaz, the 27-year-old co-owner who compiled the well-edited wine list at the amazing, speakeasy-style 878, he grinned. Generic, cookie-cutter Malbecs “are so yesterday,” he told me. A softer, fruitier style is the coming vogue, he promised, uncorking a 2006 Ricardo Santos Malbec from Mendoza. The wine was surprisingly fresh and satiny, excellent with chef Juan Ignacio Debenedetto’s crisp sweetbreads served with smoked mustard and grilled eggplant.
Ten years ago, Díaz continued, Buenos Aires had about four great wine lists, dominated by mainstream Malbec. But now, he said, a new generation of sommeliers is “shaking things up.” And several of them are working at classic parrillas (steak houses) such as Don Julio, a terrific family-run place in the trendy Palermo Soho district. While traditional parrillas serve mainly generic, full-throttle Mendoza Malbecs with their beef, Don Julio’s owner and sommelier has assembled a diverse 350-bottle list full of new-style Malbecs, as well as idiosyncratic wines like the 25/5 Syrah, with lots of choices for under $20.
In the tango-intensive San Telmo neighborhood, I dined at La Brigada, another epic steak house with an even more epic cellar, and tried even more new-style Malbecs. With its deep 780-label wine list—which includes only one foreign offering—La Brigada is the place to taste extraordinary Argentinean wine in Riedel glasses. There I sampled the elegant 2003 Val de Flores, a Mendoza Malbec made from old vines by the ever-ubiquitous Bordeaux wine consultant Michel Rolland. La Brigada’s owner, Hugo Chavarrieta (a former soccer player), told me that he’s constructing a splashy wine store next to the restaurant. “It will have 60,000 bottles!” he promised. The guy clearly loves his wine.
More new-style Malbecs were in store for me at the Vinoteca bar in the Palacio Duhau Park Hyatt Hotel. Marcelo Rebolé is the 31-year-old star sommelier in charge of the 7,000 wines there, including 200 different Malbecs. Handsome, smooth-talking and droll—“I’m a drunk with a license,” he jokingly says—Rebolé is the cosmopolitan yet patriotic new face of the country’s wine industry. “The character of our wines reflects our Mediterranean-European identity,” he maintains. “It’s part of our daily culture.” He credits pioneering older Argentinean winemakers like the legendary Nicolás Catena, while also applauding knowledgeable foreign investors who are attracted by the 300-sunny-days-a-year weather and low production costs.
Eager to show off how multifaceted Mendoza’s Malbecs have become, Rebolé kept introducing me to more bottles. An amazingly cheap 2007 Altos Las Hormigas (from a winery founded by two Tuscans): “Pure fruit for drinking, not thinking.” A 2005 Doña Silvina from the new Greek-owned Bodegas Krontiras: “Mendoza’s new biodynamic promise, delivering a ton of complexity, with power.” All the wines Rebolé poured were wonderful, and I couldn’t believe it: Could Mendoza Malbecs be my new favorite Argentinean wines?