Argentina is now far enough along in its investigation of terroir and development of sites at altitude that it is capable of producing white wines that retain their natural acidity and aren’t “dead” after two years in bottle, says trailblazing winemaker Matias Riccitelli.
Winemaker Matias Riccitelli
Riccitelli, owner and winemaker of Matias Riccitelli Wines, only began producing white wines five years ago, as it was only then that he felt Argentina had developed its knowledge of terroir and sites at higher altitude to a point where the production of higher end white wines was possible.
Speaking to the drinks business during a visit to the region earlier this month Riccitelli explained: “Some wineries are making beautiful whites so I feel that now, with the new areas, we can keep more of the freshness and obtain more quality white wines. The problem with Argentina’s white wines in the past was that after two or three years in the bottle they were dead – very low acidity, no expression and very boring wines. My objective with whites in Argentina in Mendoza is try to find the best places that we can keep this freshness naturally. I don’t add any tartaric acid to our white wines.”
The Uco Valley in Mendoza, which offers higher altitude, cooler sites with calcareous, stony soils, has been key to the development of Argentina’s premium white wines, which nevertheless is still just a decade, maybe a touch less, into its exploration. While Altamira and Gualtallary have grabbed much of the limelight, for Riccitelli the lesser-known region of Las Carreras, in the Uco Valley’s northern Tupungato province, is showing potential.
“In Las Carreras we can get 10g/litre of acidity and 3.1 PH naturally,” he said. “The ripeness is so slow, so we keep the phenolics and aromatics and everything. In the future I want to build a winery there, only making white wines and Pinot Noir.”
In terms of varieties, Riccitelli has hopes for Chardonnay, producing a 100% Chardonnay from grapes grown in the Uco Valley (80% Gualtallary and 20% Las Consulta) – 60% fermented in barrel and 40% in concrete eggs – for which Riccitelli recommends an ageing period of six years.
“I think Chardonnay is the white variety of Argentina,” states Riccitelli. “You can make beautiful Chardonnay here, different styles but there is a lot of potential.
“Now, if you give a Chardonnay in a blind tasting you would never think it was from Argentina, and it has good potential for ageing. I am looking forward to the future for this wine.”
GOING ROUND THE BLEND
In May of this year, Riccitelli will release his first Uco Valley white blend, Blanca de Casa 2016, made from blend of Sauvignon Blanc from Gualtallary, Semillon from La Consulta and Chardonnay from Las Carreras – aged for nine months on its lees in concrete eggs.
“My focus is in varieties, 100%, but I made this blend because I wanted to make something with Semillon in Mendoza,” explained Riccitelli. “People abandoned this variety because they didn’t care about it. Mendel was the first to produce a 100% Semillon. They did an excellent job and I believe we have to keep this heritage – we have 60-70 year old Semillon vines in [Mendoza]. The people abandoned this variety and we lost many hectares of Semillon.”
As well as his projects in Mendoza, Riccitelli is also making a Semillon in Patagonia from 50-year-old vines in Rio Negro, citing its low rainfall, cooler climate, low yields and stony soils as contributing factors to the production of wines with natural acidity, freshness and intensity of flavours.
“Argentina has a big opportunity for whites,” said Riccitelli, adding: “It’s not new, we have a tradition for whites. If you find the correct places, go up to the mountains and find the correct soils, you can make beautiful Sauvignon Blanc and gorgeous Chardonnay. We can go to Patagonia and find old vines, Cafayate and get the beautiful Torrontes. I think the potential is there, but we have to work harder to try and find the specific places for whites in Argentina and in Mendoza. We have a beautiful place to make wines with many different varieties – not only red wines or Malbec, which is easy for us. It’s beautiful in many different places but Bonarda, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and white varieties, we have to choose better places for those varieties, and we have the potential.”
Winemaker Jose Lovaglio
Susana Balbo is another producer championing the production of high-end Argentine white wines, producing a barrel-fermented Torrontes, barrel-fermented Chardonnay and a white blend, Susana Balbo Signature, first released with the 2015 vintage. Made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Torrontes and Semillon, the latter primarily to aid its ageing potential, from Finca la Delfina and Altamira in the Uco Valley, the purpose of a blend was to create greater complexity, according to Balbo’s son, and winemaker, Jose Lovaglio.
“Having Torrontes in the blend gives Argentina identity,” he told the drinks business. “It’s important that we can achieve this style of wines. They are getting more and more recognised, first by the press and then eventually sommeliers and after that the general public. We think that if we can achieve that with the variety we can start to be recognised as a category for high end whites – that’s the main goal.
“I really think it is the future. We really believe in these wines and we love the feedback we are getting. We are getting access to markets that we just can’t access with Malbec. This is the beginning of everything, it is high end and needs to age and we need to wait a little bit.”
Blanchard & Lurton’s Grand Vin, made predominantly with the white grape Tokay, also known as Sauvignon Vert
A more obscure white variety being championed by white wine pioneers Blanchard & Lurton – a collaboration between winemaker Andres Blanchard and Bordeaux producer Francois Lurton, founded in 2014 with the sole purpose of producing white wines – is Tokay.
“Everyone thought we were a little bit crazy,” recalls Blanchard. “When you think of Argentina you think of red and Malbec. For everyone it was a shock and they said they didn’t know how we would grow. Our idea with Francoise was to make only white wines and help tell the world that Argentina can create elegant, complex white wines that can compete against the best wines in the world, and show that we are in that category too.”
Taking the concept of a Bordeaux blend to Argentine white wine production, the pair created Blanchard & Lurton Grand Vin, made from a movable blend of predominantly Tokay (Sauvignon Vert), Viognier, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, and sometimes Sauvignon Blanc.
“Tokay was one of the biggest discoveries that Francois made,” said Blanchard. “It ages amazingly well and doesn’t have explosive aromatics. For me the 2014 is perfect to drink now but in five years it’s going to be fantastic. The 2006 Gran Lurton [Francois’ other Argentine project) is a 100% Tokay. If you taste the 2006 it’s a fantastic wine. We are still selling 2009 Gran Lurton, just to explain the fantastic ageing potential of Tokay.”
WORK IN PROGRESS
While Argentina’s white wines are already raising their game and showing huge potential, the country’s white portfolio is still a “work in progress”, says Lovaglio, who recognises the difficulty that the country faces in making Argentine whites a commercial success, which are, it must be noted, still very niche and represent a tiny proportion of production.
“I think the river flows through the easiest path and the easy path is Malbec,” he says. “The world has asked for Malbec, so the producers have focused on Malbec. Selling these white wines is not an overnight success, it takes consistency and belief in what we are doing because you need to be consistently educating consumers all over the world, but i think now there’s a greater need for each winery to make wines that are unique and some producers are turning to whites to create unique wines.
“It’s very difficult to make completely unique Malbec at all price levels. So with that people are focusing more and more on trying to understand what they can achieve with whites and I think that’s one of the main reasons why white wines are starting to come out a little bit more.”
Blanchard & Lurton winemaker Thibault Lepoutre with winemaker Andres Blanchard