Argentina: Malbec and More

BC loves Argentine malbec. Sales have almost doubled since 2009, and two of BC’s top ten sellers are malbecs. Impressive stuff, but we’re a fickle bunch and it never pays to assume that we’ll still be drinking the same tipple tomorrow. A seminar organized by Wines of Argentina (the official organization charged with promoting the country’s wines) at Ulla Restaurant was the perfect opportunity to explore how Argentina plans to hold our interest.

Argentina has built its reputation on malbec, a grape that hales from Cahors in the south west of France. It languished in relative obscurity until Argentina turned its attention to exports in the 1980s and 90s. I asked seminar leader DJ Kearney, a renowned sommelier instructor and wine critic, why this grape captured the hearts of wine drinkers in BC, “malbec is a great success story in BC for several reasons: malbec’s generous fruit and sweet, ripe tannins romanced our palates, presenting itself around the time that wine lovers were ready for a change from Aussie shiraz. The prices were unbeatable, and the wines absolutely over-delivered. As malbec matured in the BC market, a greater diversity appeared on the shelves, offering stylistic choice and a range of price points. All this has helped to keep the category invigorated. And Argentina has a great story — a new world country with an old world history and a signature grape packed with pleasure, making wines that were fruit-forward and easy-to-love as well as examples with structural complexity and terroir character.” Sounds like a slam dunk.


The seminar offered up ten wines that included malbec either as a single varietal or as part of a blend. Tasting the wines I was struck once again by the grape’s mercurial character. While the colour is reliably a hallucinogenic purple, and while there are usually delicate floral and spice notes in the wines, the fruit profile happily switches from black fruit to red fruit to blue. To account for this, Kearney points to the varying altitudes and soil profiles. Given that different conditions produce different expressions of the grape, this makes sense.

The torrontes grape leads the way for Argentine white wines. Torrontes is a beautifully aromatic grape, similar in many ways to viognier, but much brighter and crisper. Kearney reports that “There is remarkable style diversity amongst torrontes — a feature that you are more aware of when in Argentina than here in BC. Torrontes can be such a complete wine, with the perfume of muscat, the body of viognier, crisp riesling-like acidity, and a saline/mineral finish that links brilliantly to seafood or exotic pan-Asian cuisine.” Expect to see more torrontes — in both a crisper, less aromatic style, and in a more floral and perfume-y version.


But there’s more to Argentina than malbec and torrontes. Argentina is blessed with “cool sunlight,” perfect conditions for fully ripening grapes while retaining the much needed acidity for balance. And Argentina is big — not as big as Canada, but at over 3.7 million square kilometers, it’s the second biggest country in South America. There’s a range of ecosystems: ice fields, jungles, towering Andes mountains, and plains, that promise and deliver diversity in the wines. We certainly tasted that at the seminar. All the big international varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, syrah, pinot noir, merlot, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc made an appearance. They were joined by the less common tempranillo, tannat, and bonardo (interestingly the latter is the 2nd most planted black variety). All were well selected and well-made wines that showcased the typical characteristics of the variety and demonstrated that Argentina isn’t only about malbec. There were some killer value wines in there too; a certain $16 syrah made it onto my personal wine list.

Argentines are known for their love of food, especially big barbecues. In that spirit, the Ulla culinary team, led by Chef Brad Holmes, prepared a paired lunch. No surprise that the steak served with chimichurri (a green, garlicky sauce) was a perfect match for these big reds. The success of that pairing explains why the Argentines choose to eat so much beef, drink so much malbec, and spend hours doing it. I would fit right in.

What’s next for Argentina? “I would love to see some of Argentina’s great sparkling wines get more exposure in BC; the best are made like champagne from classic grapes grown on limestone terrior. Cabernet Franc is making thrilling wines, full of graphite, dense dark fruit and smoky herbal notes, and blends that include syrah and tannat are turning heads everywhere. Bonarda has massive potential as well, in blends and alone, scented wines with acidic verve and fruit energy. Best of all is the devotion to pushing malbec to its limits; the best winemakers in the country are doggedly focusing on regional identity and understanding how subtle difference in soil and altitude can be expressed in the wines. Everyone is chasing elegance. It’s exciting, you can feel the hum of human ambition when you are there, and as good as it is now, the best is yet to come.”


So we can relax: we won’t be suffering a shortage of malbec any time soon. Even better, we are also likely to see more regional offerings coming onto the market, and the emergence of specific styles being associated with each region. The revolution and explosive growth may be over, but Argentina still has much to explore and signs are they have the energy and passion to do so.

Comments are closed.