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Toasting the success of Argentine wine

Source: BBC News
By: Daniel Schweimler
03.08.2012

In the past 20 years there has been a revolution in the Argentine wine industry, driven partly by the success of one of a grape that in many countries is used only for mixing - the rich, velvety Malbec.

One is small, dark and juicy.

The other is loose and sandy, blasted by scorching sun during the day and cooled by mountain air at night.

The Malbec grape and the soil of the western Argentine province of Mendoza were introduced to one another in the middle of the 19th Century.

However, it was more than 100 years before local producers realised that this combination of the thin-skinned, sun-loving grape and the sandy soil of Mendoza could produce a wine that was both tantalising and lucrative.

It does not rain much here.

The relationship is therefore lubricated by the ice melting off the Andes mountains.

There are other grapes grown in Mendoza - Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tempranillo to name just a few. But there is only one Malbec.

It has transformed the region. Wine runs through the veins of Mendoza. It smells of wine.

There are wine barrels, wine posters and wine shops from the moment you step off the plane at the provincial airport. For large producers, it is big business. For the smaller operations is more a labour of love.

"We don't make much money out of wine," explained Gabriela Furlotti as she guided me through the 90-year-old vineyard behind her hotel on the outskirts of the city of Mendoza.

She is the fourth generation from her family to produce wine, the first being her great-grandparents, who came to Argentina from Italy in the 1890s.

The word that kept cropping up was passion, as she caressed the bunches of grapes on the vine just now turning from green to purple, or popped out the cork from a bottle of Finca Adalgisa produced from her own vineyard and named after her great-grandmother.

"It's more than a business," she said. "It's a way of life, it's something you belong to."

The French would blend Malbec with other grapes to make Bordeaux wines. In Argentina, it has become a grape in its own right, a stand-alone grape.

As the established producers realised the potential of the Malbec, they brought in experts from the more traditional wine producing regions of Italy, Spain and France to enhance and improve what was obviously something special.

Many big producers are now operating in Mendoza. Not just Argentines but Americans, Spaniards and Italians.

They even come from countries not generally associated with quality wine-making such as India and Holland. They have been seduced by the grape.

The Mendoza region has been producing wine for generations. But previously it was for domestic consumption, to accompany those succulent beef steaks cooked on the barbeque.

I tried some more than 20 years ago on my first visit to Buenos Aires at a stand-up pizzeria near the main railway station.

The first glug felt as though it was blistering the skin on the inside of my throat and it settled in my stomach like something that had been siphoned from a tractor engine. I asked for more.

But that was then.

Now I was encountering robust tannins, the rich, velvety texture and intense fruity flavours of the three Malbecs I tasted with Marc, the Swiss operating manager at the Furlotti Bodega.

Three Malbecs from the same region but each, he explained, with its own character thanks to different winemakers, different procedures and varied soil.

We were looking for colour, holding the glass against a white background to highlight the deep crimson wine. We were sniffing for aroma, first from a still glass then a little gentle slopping to activate and release the distinctive smells.

Finally, we were tasting, a healthy sip sloshed around in the mouth for 10 seconds or so, looking for texture, for body and character.

Then the part I was most looking forward to, spitting it out into a small bucket before rinsing the mouth out with water for the next tasting. I was becoming a wine connoisseur.

It all sounds so romantic, so captivating. And it can be. But it can also be grinding work with producers at the mercy of variable weather conditions, pests, volatile markets, bureaucratic and invasive government practices and fierce competition.

Marcelo Alisiardi runs an organic vineyard in a semi-desert region a two hour drive east from Mendoza city.

As we stood beside the reservoir, dug by him and his father in the late 1990s, I asked him what his favourite wine was.

"They all are," he said. "All the ones that we produce, each is like a small child. It's in the blood."

I have spoken to producers of many things - of beef, of soya, of tobacco - but none has the passion bordering on obsession that I encountered among the wine producers of Mendoza.

Now that is something worth drinking to.

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