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What I've Never Seen Before

Source: Wine Spectator
By: Matt Kramer
03.16.2010

One of the pleasures of my current prolonged stay in Argentina is that I’m a newbie. I’m hardly a newbie to wine. I have been writing about it for 32 years, after all. But I am a newbie to Argentina—to its wines, its culture, its language and to its unique perspective on the world, which derives in large part from its roller-coaster politics and economics.

For although I knew a bit about Argentina’s wild economic swings, I hadn’t any feel for the profoundness of its effect on life here. For example, everywhere, U.S. dollars are happily accepted—in supermarkets, restaurants and for private transactions. Indeed, many individuals prefer being paid in dollars rather than pesos. In a nation that is nothing if not passionately nationalistic, at first I found this rather odd. What about the sanctity of the peso?

Soon, I discovered that of all the things that are sacred in Argentina (soccer, beef, ice cream, family), the peso is not one of them. It’s easy to see why. In January 2002, Argentina abandoned its 10-year experiment of tying the peso to the dollar at one-to-one parity. Almost overnight, Argentineans saw their peso-denominated wealth evaporate, as the peso, previously worth one dollar, suddenly plummeted to 25 cents.

“The reaction in the United States to the recent economic crisis—people practically jumping out of windows as their wealth disappeared—seemed a little odd to me,” remarked Andrés Rosberg, president of the Asociación Argentina de Sommeliers. “Here in Argentina, when the peso crisis occurred, we just kept going. It’s what we do.”

I mention this because it provides a little backdrop, I think, to what can only be described as the extraordinary “invasion” of outsiders into Argentina’s wine culture.

I have never been in a country where the opinions of foreign wine critics are more publicly pervasive than in wine shops in Buenos Aires.
Seemingly every bottle is festooned with a neck tag proclaiming how Wine Spectator or some other American publication gave the wine 91 points or whatever. But I have yet to see a single shelf-talker or neck tag citing an Argentinean wine critic. When I asked why, a local wine luminary laughed and said, “Nobody trusts them!” (Think of the peso and you’ve got it.)

I have never been in a country where so many of the prominent wine producers come from afar. A recent trip to Mendoza further reinforced this.
Now, make no mistake: The vast majority of the 1,000 or so wine producers in the Mendoza region, which accounts for about 60 percent of Argentina’s entire wine production, are Argentineans born and bred.

Yet there’s no disputing that you can’t wander more than a few kilometers along Mendoza’s vast expanse of 356,000 acres of vines (that’s equal to two-thirds of all the wine grape acreage in California, by the way) without stumbling across yet another winery from yet another “outsider,” usually European. And this is hardly confined to Mendoza. It’s also the case in Salta province in the north and Patagonia in the south.

I have never seen so many foreign wine consultants. Their names are used like designer initials on a handbag, imprimaturs of worldly sophistication and upmarket quality.
French winemaker Michel Rolland is employed by dozens of wineries, his name paraded as shamelessly as a Las Vegas showgirl. The same is true for Alberto Antonini, formerly the head winemaker for Antinori in Tuscany. He consults for at least 10 wineries in Argentina, as well as being a partner in one (Altos Las Hormigas). Then there’s fellow Tuscan consultant Attilio Pagli, as well as Californian Paul Hobbs, who preceded them all, arriving in Argentina as a consultant in long-ago 1988.

Do the native producers resent this? Apparently not. According to José Manuel Ortega Gil-Fournier, the Spain-born creator of one of Mendoza’s most lavish “foreign” wineries, O. Fournier, they take the likes of him and his fellow Europeans in stride. “Last November, the board of Wines of Argentina [a trade group] proposed that the president of the association could only be Argentine,” he said. “Yet it was voted down by the membership.”

Mr. Fournier further noted that, “At my winery, and nearly every other winery owned by foreign investors, all of the staff, top to bottom, are Argentines. So it’s not a matter of the French or the Spanish or the Italians coming here and isolating ourselves from the local culture and work force. After all, in Mendoza people have been growing grapes and making wine for more than a century.”

Alicia Mateu de Arizu, of the small and exceptional winery Viña Alicia, inherited a choice vineyard in the Luján de Cuyo district from her grandfather. For her, the distinction between “local” and “foreign” is merely a small matter of time. “All these people who talk about their Argentine roots,” she laughed. “Well, they were immigrants just a few generations ago, just like my family. Except for the Indians, nobody’s been here all that long.”

As best as I can tell, nobody disputes the benefits of all this outside investment of money, ambition, talent and technology. At one level, it’s indisputably advantageous. Nearly everyone agrees that Argentina’s wines before the 1990s were, at best, crudely made, if no less savory for that. (High-tech cannot impart character, only cleanliness and stability—which is, of course, essential.)

I have never seen such a radical transformation of quality from a traditional winegrowing nation.
While it’s true that we have witnessed some amazing wine transformations elsewhere—Chile, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and even California come immediately to mind—I’m prepared to say that I have never seen such a steep wine-quality acceleration curve as in Argentina.

I have never seen a country benefit so much from “outsiders.”
I confess that, initially, I had misgivings about what I’ve been seeing since I arrived. Call it a prejudice if you like, but I’m always wary of these big-buck “outside” investments. It’s not that these investors have cynical intentions. But part of me senses a certain, well, colonialism.

I recall visiting the Chilean winery Los Vascos back in the early ’90s. Funded by the folks at Château Lafite Rothschild, they created a fine winery at Los Vascos. But it was clear to me then—and still is—that structurally there was no way that the Chilean winemakers at Los Vascos were ever going to be given the chance to create Chile’s own Lafite. That wouldn’t have served their foreign master’s interest, now would it? I concluded that such an ambition, and accomplishment, would come only from someone with no such corporate conflicts.

What I’ve seen here in Argentina makes me think differently. Whatever misgivings I may still have (and I do) about the effects of all this foreign investment, I can’t help but come to what I admit is an unflattering conclusion: What did Argentina have to lose?

Argentina’s old wines—and by “old” I mean from the 1980s and earlier—were damn near undrinkable by modern tastes. I was reminded of this the other night in a simple restaurant where I was served a red wine from one of Argentina’s old-line bulk wineries. It required a generous splash of sparkling water to make it palatable, so oxidized and muddy-tasting was it.

I have never previously seen so many outside investors serve to magnify such local greatness.
Take Tuscany, for example. Over the past three decades, too many Tuscan producers (many of whom came from elsewhere) spurned the native Sangiovese for the meretricious attractions (dark color, dramatic fruitiness) of such “international” varieties as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. It wasn’t enough to create a great Chianti Classico—indeed many producers rejected that geographic designation. It was super Tuscan or bust. Tuscany had something really fine and ancient to lose—and for a while it did. Only now is Tuscany returning to its worthy tradition of Sangiovese.

Here in Argentina, in comparison, the great glory is that the Argentineans kept their own defining grape, Malbec. And the new investors, nearly all of them European, far from spurning it, are the ones who have celebrated Malbec.

More than many of the Argentineans ever did, the newcomers are creating finer, cleaner, purer, more expressive Malbecs from lower-yielding vineyards. They are slowly pursuing more site-specific (often vineyard-designated) Malbecs. Far from deracinating (good word, that) Argentina’s wine heritage, they are amplifying it.

Are these big investors also creating “international” wines? They sure are. There’s too much new French oak in many of these wineries for my personal taste. But that’s just a phase. Fashion (and finance) will eventually diminish its usage, just as it has in Italy and California.

I have never seen such dependence on a single foreign market as Argentina’s fine-wine ambition wineries have on the United States.
Whenever I ask an ambitious wine producer where their wine is sold, the answer is always the same: the United States. On a recent visit to the great Mendoza winery Achával Ferrer, winery owner Santiago Achával Becú said that 40 percent of his entire production goes to the States. At O. Fournier, fully 58 percent of production goes to the USA. Comparable proportions are cited by many others.

Yes, Argentine wines are sold in many other nations. But the numbers are minor compared with what’s sent to the United States.

You would think that Great Britain would be an equally huge market, as it once was for Australian wine, but apparently it’s not so. According to Gustavo de Arizu, who runs Viña Alicia with his mother, “The British always want an ever-lower price. Americans want a good deal, of course, but they are willing to pay a fair price. They believe in a win-win approach.”

In sum, as you can see, Argentina and its wines are making my head spin and my palate sharpen. They are also—wonder of wonders—making me reconsider long-held beliefs.

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