Argentina Red Blends - Decanter tasting

POSTED ON 03/11/2008

One of the key words that inevitably crops up in a quick tour d’horizon of the Argentinian wine lexicon is diversity: diversity of grape variety, of terrain and of producers of varying size and philosophy. All of which can easily obscure the fact that behind many of Argentina’s best red wines is a blend: a blend of grape varieties and a blends of vineyards. In fact, while varietal malbec is as often as not the entry level bread and butter wine or the second wine for most Argentinian wineries, it’s by their blends that you will often know the true calibre and quality of Argentina’s best red wines.

Given the preponderance of malbec in the Argentinian vineyard and its importance to the Argentinian psyche, it’s not surprising that most such blends contain either a majority of malbec or at least a proportion of malbec. Unlike in so many other New World countries, cabernet sauvignon is a relative upstart, but thanks in part to the pioneering Nicolás Catena and in part too to the substantial bordelais input into Argentina, cabernet sauvignon is generally the favoured partner for malbec. Long a proponent of cabernet sauvignon, Catena demonstrated after much experimentation that Argentinian malbec could benefit from careful blending with the Médoc’s dominant variety. Hence the origin of his Nicolás Catena Zapata, which, along with Paul Hobb’s Vina Cobos ‘uNico’ is one of Argentina’s most successful cabernet sauvignon-dominated blends.

These are the exceptions that prove the rule that malbec in blends defines the majority of Argentina’s top red blends. It’s true that Cuvelier los Andes, Paul Hobbs for his Cobos and Dominio del Plata with ‘Nosotros’, are among those who use 100 per cent malbec. Most producers however prefer to submit their top wine to the demands of the location and its varying soil and climatic factors. Roberto Luca’s lesser Finca Sophenia Synthesis is 100 per cent malbec but given the fact of the Valle de Uco’s heterogenous soils, his ‘grand vin’, The Blend, with 43 per cent malbec and 57 per cent cabernet and merlot, is a result of the selection of the best blocks in the vineyard and lowest yields. The same reasoning is behind other ‘grands vins’ such as Roberta de la Mota’s 70 per cent malbec Mendel ‘Unus’, Colomé’s 85 per cent malbec Reserva from Salta and Luigi Bosca’s 52 per cent malbec ‘Icono’.

Overseas producers like Jacques and Francois Lurton have argued in favour of a preponderance of malbec to give their blend ‘Argentinian identity’ and Chacayes, their top wine, duly obliges with 80 per cent malbec and 20 per cent cabernet sauvignon. For its Grand Vin, Hervé Joyaux’ Fabre Montmayou adopts a similar proportion, 85 per cent malbec, the balance cabernet and merlot. From equal proportions at the start, Cheval des Andes, Cheval Blanc’s joint venture red with Terrazas, now veers towards malbec with 55 per cent malbec and 45 cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, while Alta Vista and Poesia, both offshoots of the original Clos de los Siete ‘magnificent seven’, are 75 per cent and 60 per cent malbec respectively, with cabernet sauvignon bringing up the rear.

A majority of malbec is not necessarily favoured by all however. The choice depends as much on philosophy and attitude as on the selection of the best grapes for the top wine. Caro, Lafite’s joint venture with Catena, and Benegas Lynch Meritage, maintain a diplomatic 50:50 proportion. Even the Argentinians themselves are not necessarily wedded to malbec as the mainstay of the blend. The more pioneering among them will typically use malbec to splice in a mix of Bordeaux and non-Bordeaux varieties such as tempranillo, syrah, bonarda and tannat. Finca y Bogeda Vistalba Corte B, Michel Torino’s Altimus, Andeluna’s ‘Pasionado’ and Trivento’s Amado Sur all blend a minority of bonarda in with malbec, while Masi has brought corvina to its Valle de Uco malbec.

Catena also take the view that blending malbec from different vineyards at varying altitudes can take different components of aroma and flavour to create a more complex blend. That’s the philosophy behind the Malbec Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino, with its blend of malbecs from the Angelica, Altamira and Adrianna vineyards. Argentina is also introducing new blends that rely neither on malbec and merlot as their main component, for instance Bodegas Gran Callia’s ‘Gran Callia’, a San Juan blend of 40 per cent syrah and 20 per cent tannat, plus a balance of malbec and merlot, Jose Manuel Ortega’s O.Fournier Alfa Crux in the Valle de Uco with its majority of tempranillo, Doña Paula’s Shiraz-Viognier, Trivento’s Shiraz Malbec Reserve, and from Patagonia, Domaine Vistalba’s Viñalba Patagonia Malbec Syrah. Which all goes to show that the lexicon has is right: Argentina really is a world of diversity.

Vintages 1999 - 2008

2008. A difficult year because of the February rains and some hail, but thanks to a dry and cold autumn and a natural low yield in many vineyards, malbec could be very good, as could later-picked whites.

2007. A ‘winemaker’s’ vintage with close attention needed to prevent sugars getting too far ahead of phenolic ripeness given warmth and humidity. Very good for whites but a difficult year for cabernet sauvignon because of the late rains.

2006. Improved winemaking helped to make this the best of the decade to date with deep-coloured intense reds thanks to a dry, warm summer and perfect cool, extended ripening conditions, better generally for malbec than cabernet sauvignon.

2005. A cool ripening season and late harvest producing good to very good wines, especially whites, and even some outstanding wines.

2004. A hot dry summer (but not as hot as 2003) and later than usual harvest producing good albeit powerful reds and whites with a tendency on occasions to heaviness.

2003. As in Europe, a torrid year saved by a relatively cool autumn with good to very good wines and often exceptional cabernet sauvignon.

2002. The best vintage of the decade after 2006 thanks to cool, dry weather conditions and good concentration of flavours even if the tendency was for heavier more concentrated wines than those of today.

2001. An irregular year for the reds, especially malbec with a very hot, dry end to the summer although wineries with modern technology and savoir faire made good to very good wines.

2000. A very long, cool season with above average rainfall. Cabernets were great and in general wine quality was good to very good thanks to improved canopy management.

1999. Hot and dry with moderate, end of summer weather, it was a classic year for reds which were powerful but not yet overconcentrated at this stage of Argentina’s evolution.

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