Argentina is So Much More Than Malbec

Every wine lover knows that Argentina is a reliable source for awesome Malbec. But did you know that Argentina is stuffed with winemakers who are busting out of the Malbec mold and making some gorgeous, creative wines that are not Malbec?

I received five samples of wines from the “next generation” of winemakers in Argentina who are exploring ways to make new wines that appeal to today’s tastes and keep the heritage and history of the best qualities of Argentine wines.

I’ll start with a flashback to 2005, when I visited Argentina for a vacation. This was waaaay before I was “into” wine and I was your regular, everyday wine drinker. I remember discovering Malbec paired with lot of delicious meat. Argentina is known for their grass-fed beef and you’ll find it everywhere, from rustic grilled cuts at parrillas – Argentine steak houses (the word always means an actual grill) to fine, fancy cuts at upscale restaurants. So I’ve had a soft spot for Argentine wines for a long time.

It was really fun to taste through these bottles – most of which are not Malbec (but one is and it’s a beauty) and get to know what the current generation of Argentine winemakers are up to. It’s also interesting, because right about now – in March – is when harvest is happening in Argentina, so the 2021 wines are underway!

A note on “findability” of these wines: Often, samples that I get are not readily available on a national level. I always visit Winesearcher and search for them and encourage you to do the same. If they are not available in your market, sometimes you can order them online. But you can always ask your local wine shop whether they could get it for you. So – let’s taste!

Vaglio Blanco 2018: THIS was a treat. As a Chardonnay lover (all types, all the time, from all places), I was super interested in this wine, because it’s 90% Chardonnay and10% Semillon – which is a Bordeaux grape. Wha? So you’ve got Chard – a Burgundy grape – mixed with Semillon – and it is FANTASTIC! The Semillon adds acidity and a bit of mineralogy to temper the Chard. This wine comes from the Valle de Uco, which is in Mendoza, Argentina’s largest wine-producing region (70% of Argentina’s vineyard acreage).

The wine practically drips with ripe peach and apricot notes – even a little banana (that could be the oak talking) and lime! It’s a super interesting and delicious white, both rich and zesty at the same time. Kind of like the lovechild of Chablis and California Chardonnay. This wine spent 12 months in 2nd and 3rd use French oak, so the oak influence is most definitely not overwhelming. The oak is used really smartly to complement and round out the flavors that the grapes are bringing to the party. Winemaker José Lovaglio (a 3rd generation winemaker) made Vaglio Wines his own project in 2012, and this wine all made sense when I read that José studied and practiced winemaking in both California and France, giving him a broad view of the potential of Argentine wines. Yum! (And at about $18, this wine over-delivers, big-time.

Zorzal Cabernet Franc 2019: Here we have another Bordeaux varietal making a modern splash in Argentina. When I first tasted this, I was struck by the complexity. In fact, why don’t I just share my tasting notes, verbatim? Here we go:

Earthy, vegetal / herbaceous (signature green pepper note of Cabernet Franc), black licorice, funk, wet tobacco, fresh white mushrooms, rich, roasted, dried black fruits, unctuous texture, smooth, muscular tannins, where is my ribeye steak?

After all that, I realized it is a big, dark, delicious wine! It’s kind of unusual to find a 100% Cabernet Franc anywhere, much less in Argentina. This wine comes from the Tupungato region of Mendoza, which is really high elevation – like 4000 feet (almost a mile high!) This elevation means wide temperature swings between day and night, leading to perfect ripening conditions for the grapes.

I actually had this wine with Thai Chicken Rama – call me crazy – but it was awesome! Something about the spicy richness of the Thai peanut sauce just made the wine sing and the wine made me want another bite of the chicken with peanut sauce! So you never know! Sure, this wine would be a dream with a big Porterhouse or ribeye steak, or a rack of lamb, but Thai take-out or a sausage pizza also works!

Winemaker Juan Pablo Michelini views his generation as breaking new ground when it comes to expressing the Argentine terroir, and I think he’s accomplished that with this Zorzal Gran Terroir Cab France. ($13 SRP)

El Esteco Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 Things are getting even more interesting – as this wine comes from way up north in the Calchaqui Valley within the Cafayate Valley, in Salta, which ranges from dessert to subtropical forest. The valley is at 6000 feet elevation, with all the elements in which grape vines thrive: dry, lots of sun, wide swings in temperature between day and nights (known as “diurnal shifts”). All these things make the vines work hard to get nutrients and the resulting grapes are really intense in flavors.

I loved this wine for its rich red and black fruits, underlying spices, and a sneaky mocha note, wrapped up in a a rich texture with just the right touch of oak.

Winemaker Emile Chaumont is an eight generation winemaker! His great grandfather came from France and settled in Mendoza. Emile eventually migrated north to Cafayate and he is known for his relentless attention to detail and is always thinking about how he can improve his winemaking skills. No more room for improvement on this wine, though! ($22 retail).

Vistalba 2017 Okay, this was the mac daddy of the bunch. A) Kind of expensive ($60 retail) and 2) a powerful, elegant red blend of Malbec, Bonarda and Cabernet Sauvignon. The aroma alone had me on my knees: rich, sexy and luxurious with notes of roasted raspberries and plums, dried herbs, baking spices and mocha. Ooh, mama … On the first sip, it was a silky river of elegance. The finish goes on for days … and toward the end a bright note of fresh earth.

Damn, it’s delicious! Luckily, I had some beef stew on hand, but you name the red meat and this wine will come running to the table: steaks, burgers, lamb chops, roasts, even grilled sausages. It’s got the muscle to complement all types of meats and I think it would even be a dream with a ripe Camembert or other double creme cheese.

The winemaker is Fernando Collucci and I love his passion for protecting the work and accomplishments of prior generations and elevating it through innovation. He loves making fresher, more vibrant wines and pays attention to a very balanced use of oak. This considerate approach to winemaking makes this one a winner!

Terrazas de los Andes Grand Malbec 2017 So yes there IS a Malbec in the bunch here and it’s a beauty! I’ve drunk a lot of the cheap stuff when it comes to Malbec and this is most definitely in the upscale category. The aromas are rich, dark earth, over-ripe black fruits, floral notes like dried violets and a bit of edgy funk. I went into into the first sip with a tiny bit of skepticism – it was that vegetal funk – but SHUT THE SHUT UP – it’s gorgeous. Rich and luxurious on the palate, I’m not gonna lie – my first impression was, “tastes expensive.” (It sort of is, at about $45). Super expressive, with bright blackberry, cassis and those violets, laced together with a bit of spice and well-muscled, well-integrated tannins.

This wine is another super high-altitude champion, with fruit coming from vineyards at about 4000 foot elevation. I can say it is by far the most elegant expression of Malbec that I have ever tasted. I was sad when the bottle was empty!

The winemaker, Marcos Fernandez, thought for sure he would become a doctor, but after an internship at Bodegas Norton at the age of 18, he knew that his future was in wine. I, for one, think he chose wisely, because if his other wines are as glorious as this Malbec, he has the magic touch.

I had so much fun exploring these mostly not-Malbec wines from Argentina, and hope this inspires you to seek out some Argentine wines of your own. Malbec is always a good choice, but it’s a delight to taste what the new kids are doing in Argentina. Cheers!

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