The magic of Malbec

(and other Argentine delights)

With the news recently announced that Argentina has overtaken Chile in terms of exports to the US, Blackbeard’s and The Journal have teamed up to appreciate just why Argentina makes such great wines, savouring some well-priced yet high quality wines from that country. Agua restaurant made us feel extremely welcome as a super venue to test the nuances of the Malbec and other delightful Argentine grapes. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull reports.
 
The region
Although its wine-making roots are firmly ensconced in Spain, Argentina has come into its own in the last ten to 15 years, producing wines of quality and character at reasonable prices to boot.
 
Argentina is viewed as a New World wine producer; however its wine-making stretches back to the 16th Century when root stock from Spain were first brought to the country.
 
In recent times Argentina has generally been regarded as a producer relying more on quantity than quality (up until ten or so years ago Argentina produced more wine than any other country outside Europe), although certain winemakers have recently elevated the status of Argentine wine with sensitive wine-making techniques and the use of old vines to create wines with depth, character and complexity.
 
Wine producing regions in Argentina include the provinces of Mendoza, San Juan and La Rioja, however Salta, Catamarca, Río Negro and more recently Southern Buenos Aires are also catching up quickly as top wine producing regions. Grapes tend to fare well in Argentina because of the high altitude and low humidity of the main wine producing regions. This means that vineyards rarely face the problems of insects, fungi, molds and other grape diseases that affect vineyards in other countries.
 
Two of the most popular grapes that thrive in Argentina are the ubiquitous Malbec (originally brought over by the French and a typical Bordeaux varietal) and the not so widely known Torrontés, which produces a white wine not unlike Gewürztraminer. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and other international varieties are also beginning to grow in production and quality.
 
Catena Zapata leads the way
Bodega Catena Zapata is one of the most well known and well respected wine producers in Argentina, a family-run winery led by Decanter magazine’s Man of the Year for 2009, Nicolás Catena. It is to this winery that we therefore turn to sample some of the great and good from the region. Indeed, the winery has received accolades from every wine publication imaginable, with a plethora of its wines achieving ratings well into the nineties.
 
Catena Zapata produces a tier of four wine ranges to suit varying palates and wallets, Alamos being the winery’s entry level range that combines highly drinkable wines with value-for-money.
 
Sparkling beginnings
Starting with a glass of chilled 2008 Alamos Extra Brut (CI$19.99), a blend of 50 per cent Chardonnay and 50 per cent Pinot Noir and made in the Champagne method, this is a full bodied sparkling wine that is dry, light, fresh and crisp according to Agua’s sommelier  Luciano De Riso. Perfect for complementing appetisers such as Agua’s divine ceviche selection, this wine gives the impression of a Champagne in style although without the aging process.
 
New wine territory
The next wine excited my palate in particular because we turned to a varietal that I had not previously sampled: the Torrontés grape. A heady perfumed blend of jasmine and peach greets the nose from the Alamos range (a 2008, priced at CI$11.49) and promises a far sweeter flavour than it actually delivers. Aromatic without the citrus you would normally expect from such a white wine, this is an intriguing example of one of Argentina’s most popular grapes.
 
According to Blackbeard’s Jodie Petts, the Torrontés grape accounts for greater production than the country’s Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc production combined, and is the white wine of choice for Argentineans.
 
The wine went really well with Agua’s popular tuna ceviche, the rich, oiliness of the fish coupled with the creamy avocado that it sits upon seamlessly harmonising with the rich wine. We also enjoyed Agua’s incredibly fresh and delicious ceviche, served in a variety of citrus-laden dressings, but I would not recommend pairing the Torrontés with this as the acidity of the dish (as delicious as it was) did not work with the wine.
 
Young wine bursting with flavour
Pinot Noir is a tricky grape to grow in any climate and location, yet it does rather well in two areas of Argentina: Salta as it is cooler and Mendoza for more fruit. Catena Zapata’s 2008 Alamos Pinot Noir (CI$13.49) comes with a rich ripe nose of strawberries and cherries with a hint of vanilla that comes from the light touch of oak aging (nine months in 100 per cent French oak). Beautiful with Agua’s spaghetti puttanesca, the wine lends a light touch to the dish’s not overly spicy flavours.
 
Jodie furthers:
 
“This wine enjoys a fresh acidity and is a young wine meant to be drunk now. It is fruity but without the earthy tones that you might find in a Pinot Noir from France, for example.”
 
Malbec’s unique qualities
The Malbec grape has truly put Argentina on the world wine map, the Bordeaux variety thriving in the hot Mendoza high altitude climate. Catena produces a wide variety of Malbec. We concentrated on two highly individual wines – the 2008 Alamos (CI$12.49) and as a treat, the 2006 Catena Alta (CI$ $34.95), the latter actually from the winery’s premium varietals, grown at high altitude (between 3,000 and 4,750 feet), which tends to concentrate the flavours intensely.
 
The Alamos version is a concentrated burst of flavours, including ripe black fruits, peppers and spices as well as lovely chocolate and licorice tones, which generally define a good Malbec.
 
The Alta has all these good qualities and a whole lot more – a complex and densely flavourful wine made from single vineyard, hand cultivated and hand picked grapes made in limited quantities. 
 
My dish of Agua’s perfectly cooked tender and juicy lamb worked wonders with both Malbec wines, the intensity of the wine and its tannins nicely cutting through the richness of the meat.
 
As if all this was not enough, Luciano presented us with Agua’s chocolate cake dessert oozing with melted deliciousness. The chocolate notes of both Malbecs helped round out the heavenly sweetness of the dessert, ending an exciting and varied journey through the wines of Argentina.

Blackbeard’s are offering 15 per cent off their entire Alamos range for the months of September and October only.

lucieSM

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