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Friday, May 9, 2008

Winemakers have been moving into Argentina to take advantage of the organic-friendly environment fostered by the low humidity and high altitudes
Winemakers have been moving into Argentina to take advantage of the organic-friendly environment fostered by the low humidity and high altitudes.

A drop of Malbec from down south

Climactic and economic conditions have made Argentina a world-class producer


Special to The Japan Times

Despite being the fifth largest producer of wine in the world, when it comes to quality wines, Argentina has long been in the shadow of neighboring Chile, where spicy Shirazes and surprising Chardonnays have consistently outshone anything from the other side of the Andes.

Now the home country of Che Guevara is enjoying somewhat of a revolution. In the past few years, world-class winemakers, including such luminaries as Michel Rolland and the Lurton Brothers, have come to take advantage of the excellent climatic conditions afforded by the Mendoza wine region that lies to the central western part of the country on the foothills of the snow-capped Andes. They've brought their sparkle and flair to bear on Argentine wines, raising the bar for what can be expected from the area.

Devaluation of the peso in 2002 was a major factor in attracting foreign investment to the area as it became possible to buy up prime real estate in Mendoza for a song. The Lurton Brothers, siblings from a powerful French dynasty, made their investment before this in 1995, managing to buy up virgin territory. The aim was to take advantage of the area's organic-friendly environment and work with pesticide-free soil. As high altitudes mean low humidity, which discourages the growth of molds, fungi and pests, wines can be made with little or no chemicals.

Try Lurton Brothers Tiera del Fuego Pinot Gris (¥1,500), or if you fancy something a bit more special go for Grand Lurton (¥3,000), a blend of 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 percent Malbec, both of which can be found at Cave de Relax or Takashimaya. For an even more reasonable organic alternative, look out for the Eco range from Santa Ana winery, which is to be released later on this year in Japan.

It's somewhat of a mystery why the region took so long to begin producing top-notch wine. Dry, hot summers perfect for steady growth are complemented by wet, nourishing winters; a rocky soil is well irrigated by mineral-rich water from the nearby mountains.

The only inclement factor for Argentine wine has been the various storms that have buffeted the economy, leading to a catastrophe in December 2001 when the pressure of bad debts to the International Monetary Fund caused a full collapse. Since then, the country's financial fortunes have had a slow but steady recovery.

The cellars of Argentine winemaker Trivento
The cellars of Argentine winemaker Trivento, whose Malbec 2005 won a gold medal at the Japan Wine Challenge

Rolland , the winemaker whose services are sought in the top Bordeaux chateaux, had the foresight to invest in land back in the 1980s. He and six friends bought a plot called Clos de los Siete back in 1988 and declared their first vintage in 2003. Since then each succeeding vintage has gone from strength to strength — Rolland believes that the 2005 Clos de los Siete is one of the most outstanding. When buying Argentine wine, this is one of the vintages to look for, although the wine will need around seven years to open out fully before it's drinkable. The Clos de los Siete is a blend of Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, with the emphasis on Malbec.

Indeed, the real star of Argentina is the Malbec grape, which many believe does not need blending to produce a strong wine. A rich, juicy white grape, Malbec typically produces a lush, inky wine with strong tannins. In order to develop, it needs a long, hot growing season, which is why the grape thrives so well in Argentina. And, unlike in other countries, many wineries in Argentina do not blend this powerful grape because the warmer climate leads to softer tannins than those grown in other parts of the world.

Ironically, the Argentine government all but wiped out the Malbec vine stock in the 1980s due to an ill-advised vine-pull scheme instituted in response to declining domestic wine sales. Luckily a rising export market saved the remaining 4,000 hectares and new plantings have continued ever since.

"Malbec arrived in Argentina before the phylloxera (small sap-sucking insects) attack in Europe. As a consequence, our old vines are high quality," says Gabriel Baigorria, export manager for Trivento, whose Malbec 2005 won a gold medal at the 2007 Japan Wine Challenge. "The excellent grape-growing conditions, climate and vineyard's labor improved this quality."

Trying a rich Malbec is a good place to start with Argentine wine. Typically the color is deep and rich with an aroma of red berries and spicy chocolaty hints on the palate that compliment red-meat dishes well. If you can't stretch to the Trivento Malbec (around ¥3,500 at www.casapino.net ), a more wallet-friendly version would be Argentina Santa Ana Malbec 2007 (available at Seiyu or Ito Yokado for a bargain price of around ¥1,000).

The country is now also producing some strong whites. Take a look at Trivento's 2006 Chardonnay (also around ¥3,500 at www.casapino.net ), which has a lovely buttery smell with hints of banana on the palate.

Besides those already mentioned, there's a plethora of different kinds of grapes cultivated, reflecting the broad cultural range of immigrants that Argentina is home to. Ever since the Spanish arrived in 1516, a steady influx of Europeans have followed. Many settlers came from Italy, which accounts for the prevalence of the Sangiovese and Tempranillo grape varieties and also for the county's passion for pizza. Try Baudron Tempranillo 2005, which is available in Bic Camera (¥1,480).

The other big influence are the French, who brought across numerous varieties, most notably Cabernet Sauvignon. Try Trapiche Oak Cask Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, available from Matsuya (¥1,529).

For a region that has thrived on and absorbed many different cultural mixes, the latest invasion of foreign winemakers might herald a change in fortunes for the country's reputation as a wine producer. Now more than ever is a very exciting time for Argentine wines — in the March issue of Wall Street Journal, an article highlighted the excellent price of wine real estate that is bound to appreciate in the coming years. Due to the devalued peso, any Argentine wine you buy will inevitably be a bargain, so it's worth splashing out a little to get something sublime in return.



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