There are probably very few seasoned oenophiles who haven’t at least tried a glass of Argentine Malbec, an intensely aromatic, deeply colored red grape variety with a signature scent of dark fruit and raspberry. Indeed, this wonderful variety, and its massive worldwide fame, is largely responsible for putting Argentina’s now thriving wine industry on the international map. Yet we tend to forget that Argentina had little or no export aspirations before the mid-1990s, no sense of belonging to a global viticultural map, contenting itself with producing vast quantities of mediocre wine, often oxidized and aged for years in vast old vats.
However, the 1990s saw new cellars, international investment, and a renewed emphasis on growing Malbec in superior terroirs, all of which led to a meteoric rise in wine quality. Today, Argentina offers a promising blend of extreme landscapes, home-grown and international talent, and a uniquely wide range of cultural influences. Next to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, one could legitimately argue that Argentine Malbec is the most widely recognized wine style in the world.
But while much success and international attention are (understandably) focused on growing Malbec to velvety perfection, we should remember that Argentina is blessed with an enviable diversity of grape varieties thanks to mid-19th-century immigration from Spain and Italy. The palette of wine styles is very varied and colorful, including racy, textured Sangiovese, and Barbera, which is not widely known. Nevertheless, it is the deep-colored Bonarda, probably identical to Charbono, Argentina’s second most planted red wine grape, and arguably the country’s most underrated asset. Other significant red grapes are mostly international in nature – excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Tempranillo, and Pinot Noir/Negro, producing rich, savory wines with powerful flavors – albeit, few unbalanced, ‘top heavy’ alcoholic wines are made today. Pinot Noir is perhaps the most difficult variety to grow in the intense heat of Argentina in summer – the best examples are so far limited to Patagonia or Mendoza’s higher altitudes. Still, some promising, terroir-driven wines are beginning to emerge.
Argentina’s most distinctive white grape is Torrontes. Piercingly aromatic and floral in nature, the name Torrontes is applied to three distinct varieties. Torrontes Riojana, named after Spain’s most famous wine region, is the finest. However, as you’d expect, it is increasingly being challenged by international varieties such as Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and a smattering of Viognier – commercially successful wine styles that wineries need to export to stay afloat. There are other local curiosities, such as Criolla Grande, Cereza, Criolla Chica, and Pedro Gimenez, but these are usually grown strictly for local consumption.