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Wine: What is it about Argentina?

Source: Washington Post
By: Dave McIntyre

Wine grapes are ripe for the picking in Mendoza, Argentina. (Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press)

I'm sipping a delightful bonarda from Colonia las Liebres in Mendoza, Argentina, while planning what to say at Thursday evening's presentation on Argentine wines, "More Than Malbec," at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The evening is part of a year-long program called Argentina at the Smithsonian, and I will be on stage with some august company: Laura Catena, of the first family of Argentine wine, and Arturo Alberto Arizu, president of Wines of Argentina and chief winemaker at Luigi Bosca.

So what's a Yankee wine scribe to say? Argentina is the darling of the US wine media, which seems enthralled with malbec and, to a lesser but still enthusiastic degree, bonarda (an Italian variety related, if not identical to the juicy charbono that used to be popular in California field blends), and torrontés, an aromatic white wine. Mendoza reigns supreme, but other regions, such as Salta and Neuquen, are increasingly recognized in the US market for their quality and value.

What makes Argentina's wine so attractive to the wine press? Foreign investment certainly helps. We are suckers for famous names like the notorious consultant Michel Rolland, and his ownership of Clos de la Siete is catnip for wine columnists. Other famous foreigners such as Paul Hobbs also gain media attention. And it is important that leading figures such as the elegant and eloquent Nicolas Catena, his daughter Laura and Ché Guevara-doppelgänger son Ernesto are all mediagenic. Then there is the irrepressible José Alberto Zuccardi, who is one of the easiest interviews ever. All you have to do is say "Hello."

Of course, this is all sizzle -- but since we're talking about Argentina here, there is also steak. It helps that all these media stars make good wine at really good prices. Argentina's wine has also captured the attention, and even the imagination of American wine consumers. Argentina's wine exports to the United States have risen dramatically over the past five years, and while the quantity of Argentine wine imported leveled off in the past year, the value of those imports continued to rise. This indicates that we are buying more expensive wines.

Argentina is still far behind third-place Australia, but the comparison may be instructive. The winestream media has all but abandoned Australia, in part because of the overwhelming market success of an underwhelming brand (Yellowtail), but also because of a backlash against the heavy, syrupy sweet, high-alcohol style of shiraz that came to define Australian wine in the 1990s and the first half of this decade. The American consumer has not yet forsaken Australia (though its imports have slipped), and Argentina does not have a dominant brand to challenge Yellowtail; but Argentina is clearly on the rise. It helps that Argentina's expression of malbec tends to be moderate in alcohol and soft in acidity and tannins, ideal for the American palate and today's sensibilities.

And there is a one-word explanation for Argentina's success: Value. Argentina's winemakers succeed in producing terrific malbec that offers great value at $5 or $100, and all along the price range in between. As long as they don't lose sight of that value -- especially in the sweet spot of $10-$20 -- Argentina will remain a market force for some time to come.

I knew Argentina had succeeded and become a wine force to reckon with when I attended last year's Vinexpo, the great biennial trade fair in Bordeaux. The trade association for Cahors, the region in southwestern France that can legitimately claim to be the homeland of malbec (though they call the grape by a variety of names) set up its booth adjacent to the Argentine section in a direct challenge to the New World upstarts from Mendoza. Their slogan: "Cahors -- The French Malbec."

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