BHW Travels: The Wines of Mendoza, Argentina

BHW Insights

Mendoza Vineyards with Dramatic Andes Mountains in the background.

The Future Looks Bright for Argentine Wine So How Do You Choose the Best from the Rest?

Insights on the Wines of Mendoza

By Greg Martellotto

Geopolitical turmoil, sluggish rate of change, and a run of bad luck has knocked the stuffing out of the Argentine wine industry over the last few years. However, bumper 2017 and 2018 vintages are heralding a change of fortunes for this once mighty region. With a wave of high quality Argentine wine making its way to the U.S. later this year, how will you choose the pick of the crop? When Big Hammer’s Greg Martellotto visited the dry, arid soils of a valley east of the Andeancordillera in Mendoza in June of this year, the fall was settling in and the Andes were covered in snow. He unearthed a few hidden treasures and here are his top tips to pocketing the best and avoiding the rest.  

The election of President Macri in 2015, which ushered in a more pro-business agenda, and its impact on the wine business cannot be discounted. However, if you’ve spent time in Argentina, you’ll know that there’s quite a bit of inertia impeding bold change. Cultural motivation and traditional habits tend to move like the Antarctic glaciers. In addition, several poor harvests and low yields in 2014 to 2016 led to mixed reviews and lower output. Having a lower volume of inferior wines in the marketplace may have been a blessing in disguise.

While Argentina Dozed, Chile was Hard at Work

The real winners of Argentina’s passivity over the last few years have been the wines of Chile. The Chileans passed free trade with China and are now rivaling France and Australia as the largest suppliers to the most populous country on Earth. While the Chilean government and marketing agencies have been excelling and the Chilean producers flexing, the wines of Argentina have been taking long afternoon naps.

That said, Argentina’s 2017 and 2018 vintages brought high yields and high quality. Combined with a renewed devaluation of the Argentine peso, it seems as though an ocean of Argentine wine will be making its way to the U.S. shores this year and next. So, which ones will be the best? These are a few insights to help you bolster your collection with some instant Argentine classics.

Lunch in Mendoza Vineyard
Lunch in Mendoza Vineyard

Location, Location, Location

Let’s start with geography. Mendoza sits right on the 33rd parallel, only about 200 miles east of Santiago, Chile, crossing the majestic Aconcagua Mountain. The area is high desert, with rainfall as low as 5-10 inches per year. By comparison to other major wine regions, Mendoza receives about one third as much rain as Napa and roughly one fifth of Bordeaux’s annual rainfall.

Top Tip

Much of Mendoza’s production, particularly to the east, northeast and northwest is comparable to California’s Central Valley (the home of Two Buck Chuck). If you want to snag yourself a gem of a wine for a nominal upcharge I recommend narrowing your search to wines fromLujan de Cuyo, Maipu, and most importantly, Uco Valley. We tasted over 300 wines on our Argentina trip and several of the best were from Valle de Uco, specifically from sub-zone around Gualtallary, west of Tupungato where vineyards drink the snowmelt from the Andes.

Indeed, Argentine sommelier Aldo Graziani states in his annual catalogue, “La Guia del Vino Argentino 2018” that four of his five highest rated wines of the year are from Gualtallary.

For most readers, the wines from Rivadavia, San Juan, La Rioja, San Martin, and San Rafael are focused on the bulk wine business. Although a handful of quality minded producers are working to change the perception of these regions, there is much work to be done.

Mendoza wine region map

Key subzones to Look out For on Wine Labels:

  • In Lujan de Cuyo: Agrelo, Perdriel, Las Compuertas, Vistalba, Mayor Drummond
  • In Valle de Uco: Tunyuan, Tupungato,  Gualtallary, Vista Flores, Altamira

One part of the Uco Valley worthy of exploration is Vista Flores. Many of the top rated wines year after year have come from this area. There are also some stunning Sauvignon Blancs being produced here. You’d never know these white wines aren’t from the Loire Valley. In particular, you’ll find very fine examples from Bodegas Zolo.

Move over Malbec

One of the most exciting developments I noticed is that Argentina is shedding its image as a one trick pony. That is, Malbec is not the whole story.

Sure, the dark, purple monster reigns supreme, but I found Cabernet Sauvignons, Cabernet Francs, Bordeaux blends, and Petit Verdot that were all 95+ rated wines, all for under $50. Petit Verdot may be at the top of the list as the most interesting varietal with the highest potential; the mono-varietal PV wines and predominant PV blends from Uco are stunning. There are still a few producers singing the Bonarda song, but there’s scant opportunity in the marketplace for that.

The whites? Torrontes sparkling is the most intriguing white wine I found. Many producers seem to be most interested in the Torrontes out of Salta. The wine is serviceable, but won’t be a focus for Big Hammer Wines clients. I did come across curious dry whites like Pedro Jimenez, Chard-Chenin blends, among others, that may find some niche markets.

Mendoza Winemakers to Note

In no particular order, these Argentine wine producers are knocking it out of the park:

  • Alejandro Vigil: Seems to be firing on all cylinders and making outstanding wines at Catena Zapata. He’s launched his own brand, Bodega Aleana, and the super high scoring Gran Enemigo wines from Gualtallary. Alejandro also has two burger joints that are very good places to eat and drink well in Mendoza.
  • Matias Riccitelli: His Republica de Malbec wines are seemingly everywhere in Argentina, in duty free airport shops, etc. Producing very consistent, well regarded wines.
  • Fabian Valenzuela: Producing lots of wines for Tapiz, Zolo, and Wapisa, Fabian is a winemaker’s winemaker. His partnership with Jean Claude Berrouet (Ch. Petrus) and his experience making wine in Bordeaux set him apart.
  • Achaval Ferrer: Still in a category of his own, that he created.
  • Marcelo Pelleriti: Musician and part-time rock star, his Abremundos brand is catching fire. The first Argentine winemaker to be awarded 100 points by Wine Advocate for a wine he made in Pomerol at Ch. La Violette.
  • Karim Mussi: Setting his own agenda, the wines of Altocedro are becoming omnipresent in the U.S. His new Paradoux Bordeaux blend and Abras wines are arriving soon.
  • Clara Roby: Quietly producing many of the finest sparkling wines in Argentina for other winery labels, Clara has launched her own brand with several other women calledUmante5. Once you try her wines, your mind and eyes will be wide open to some of the best value sparkling wines anywhere.

Wineries to Watch:

  • The wines ofFinca Buenaventura have started to land in the U.S. through wine clubs. Already recognized by Decanter World Wine Award for their top wine ($35), this young winery is sitting atop primetime vineyards not far from Rutini off Highway 90 at the foot of the Andes. Its winemaker worked for Kendall-Jackson before they sold their Argentine project. Fermentation is primarily in original cement tanks. Stay tuned here.
  • Finca Dinamia is a new project from Alejandro Bianchi (grandson of Bianchi patriarch). Focusing on organic and biodynamic vines, these are stellar wines. There are currently only seven wineries with Demeter certification and Dinamia is one of them. With Michellini consulting (Dona Paula), these wines are being guided by a competent hand.

Greg Martellotto Wine Tasting Evaluation

The author tasting wine in Uco Valley, June 2018

Get Ahead of the Pack

Understanding the important vineyards and distinctive subzones is the key to selecting the best wines in Argentina. There are some blue chip wines from Catena Zapata, Bodega Aleana (Gran Enemigo), Cobos (Paul Hobbs), and Achaval Ferrer that approach and exceed $100/btl. However, our tastings have led to the conclusion that there are many, many unheralded and under the radar wines from these same subzones available for $25-$50. Some of these wines are not yet imported or from newer producers. But they represent a slam-dunk and out-compete wines from Napa Valley and Bordeaux for a quarter (or less) of your precious wine spend.

If you’ve been a consumer of exclusively Malbec in the under $20 range, consider stepping up a few more dollars to some of the wines, particularly from 2017-2018 vintages, from some of the above mentioned producers. It will be well worth your while.

Viva Argentina!


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