fter a week tasting wines in Argentina, first in the Patagonia region and then in Mendoza, I’m pondering malbec and what the grape variety means for this fascinating nation. Of course, it’s the country’s most important grape variety. It is to Argentina what pinot noir is to France, and what nebbiolo and sangiovese are to Italy. Malbec defines fine wines as a whole in Argentina. But it’s also an uncanny grape variety that can be made into a wine of just about any style imaginable, from refined, vineyard-specific Burgundy to high-octane, unfashionable California.
What’s interesting is how Argentine winemakers are changing the definition of malbec, focusing on finesse and complexity. The versatile grape variety is finally coming of age as a wonderful communicator or medium for the diverse and alluring soils and microclimates of the best wine regions of Argentina. Don’t miss tasting the new malbec reality from this great country.
The old-school style of winemaking in Argentina is losing ground. Those jammy and alcoholic reds that are virtually undrinkable are losing their market share. As a critic, I’m finding them harder and harder to like or drink. Why hide great fruit and terroir with overripe fruit, overextraction, overpowering oak and sweetness? You lose the purity and sense of place with wines that are blockbusters, as they were so fondly called years ago, and many of us could not finish a glass. What a waste!
I have met many young winemakers who despise the old style, such as Sebastian Zuccardi, Marcelo Pelleriti, Fernando Buscema, José Lovaglio and Alejandro Vigil. They want to show the world their amazing vineyards through refined, focused and clear wines. They embrace the great European styles such as white Burgundy and Barolo, and they interpret their wines on those parameters. I applaud them.
“Too many winemakers in Argentina use old recipes and just follow them to make their wines high in alcohol and overly fruity,” says Vigil, who is the head winemaker for Catena Zapata. “That isn’t the future. I want my malbecs to make you thirsty. They can’t be full of wood and sweetness.”
Adds the namesake of the prestigious Zuccardi winery: “Today I’m not looking for fruit. I’m looking for texture. In the beginning I would have many doubts about this path in winemaking, but today it’s a boom with my wines. People are buying them. We want to do the least possible [in our winemaking] to show the most in our wines.”
I tasted more than 600 wines in Argentina during my visit. The 2013 and 2012 look to be excellent vintages in all regions, although 2014 is less consistent. And 2015 will be even more inconsistent due to hail and wet weather before and during the harvest, particularly in Mendoza.
So many of Argentina’s young and old winemakers now understand that less is more in winemaking, especially in Mendoza, but also in Salta and Patagonia, two other key wine regions. Argentina is a fine-wine power to be reckoned with. It’s leading the way with fine malbec. Buy some.