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MW seminar in Mendoza outlines future for Malbec from Argentina

An introductory seminar in Mendoza last week looked at the past, present and future for Malbec as 41 Masters of Wine began a six-day tour of Argentina.

Chairing the introductory seminar was, left to right, Tim Atkin MW; Paz Levinson; Madeleine Stenwreth MW, and Andrés Rosberg

“I’m often asked what comes after Malbec? And my answer is more Malbec, but better Malbec”, said Tim Atkin MW, speaking to 41 MWs as they started a tour of Argentina last week, which was put jointly organised by Grupo Peñaflor, Wines of Argentina and the Institute of Masters of Wine.

At an introductory seminar on Saturday 17 February, the army of MWs were shown the key strengths of the Argentine wine scene in a tasting and discussion chaired by Madeleine Stenwreth MW, Paz Levinson, Andrés Rosberg and Tim Atkin MW.

The session was designed to highlight the diversity of the Argentina’s offering, but also draw attention to the quality attainable from a range of grapes, and sources.

Taking in newly-planted areas and historic regions, long-standing grapes and more obscure varieties, the two-hour masterclass was a whistle-stop tour of the country within the historic Trapiche Winery in Mendoza, and was engineered to give a background to the scope of the Argentine wine scene before the 41 MWs would delve more deeply into the nation’s extensive offer through winery visits and further seminars.

Unsurprisingly, Malbec featured heavily, as the country’s most planted grape variety, and the primary source of the nation’s export success.

Atkin, speaking about the variety, stressed that this single grape would remain vital to Argentina’s offer, but would continue to excite consumers as the wines made from it would not only improve but also take on more stylistic diversity, according to where the Malbec is grown.

“I’m often asked what comes after Malbec? And my answer is more Malbec, but better Malbec, with more of a sense of place,” began Tim Atkin MW.

The seminar and week-long tour was designed to immerse 41 MWs in the latest developments in the Argentine wine scene

“We are only just starting to get to a stage where you can tell them apart, so we are starting to say that it tastes like it’s from La Consulta, or Agrelo or Gualtallary, and the differences are just as marked for different places for Malbec as they are in Burgundy for different places for Pinot Noir; it’s just a case of being attuned to it,” he added.

Similarly, Andrés Rosberg, who is president of the Argentine Sommelier Association (AAS), admitted to attendees that site expression was only just beginning to be perceptible in Malbec, and, as a result, the range of wine styles was multiplying.

Furthermore, he pointed out that this grape was particularly sensitive to differences in soil and climate.

“We are very lucky to have Malbec because it is a great variety for transmitting terroir, the origin where it comes from, and the differences in terroir are huge,” he said.

He also identified the influence of Malbec vine selection on quality and expression.

“We have over 100 different massale and clonal selections of Malbec, and we are only now starting to fully appreciate the diversity of Malbec,” he stated.

He also drew attention to the long history of viticulture in the nation.

“Argentina has been making wine with Vinifera grapes for 450 years, without them dying from Phylloxera – it is only Argentina, Chile, and Cyprus for which that is true,” he said.

Pointing out that the country was rich in a healthy stock of old vines, he added, “The average size of vineyard in Argentina is 7ha and the average vine age is 40 years.”

Some of the country’s oldest plantings of Malbec can be found around the city of Mendoza, in an area called the Primera Zona, which spans a large area covering Maipú to the west and Luján de Cuyo to the south.

Although such places today are considered less fashionable compared to the Uco Valley further south, the Primera Zona is where European immigrants first established their wineries in the late nineteenth century.

Swedish wine consultant and Argentine specialist, Madeleine Stenwreth MW, commented, “The Uco Valley has star status – it is royalty in Argentina, and everyone wants to be there – but don’t forget the 100 year-old vineyards in the Primera Zona.”

The masterclass comprised a snapshot of the Argentine wine offering, including Malbec from different regions, Malbec blends, as well as varietal reds from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Bonarda, along with a range of whites

Continuing, she recorded how an expansion of the city of Mendoza meant that development was encroaching on these valuable old vineyards, and she urged the attendees to celebrate the wines from the Primera Zona to help protect Argentina’s viticultural heritage.

“As the city expands it is tempting for producers to sell off vineyards, which means that they will be ripped out for building houses, but a producer like Matías Ricitelli is pushing this area, and doing it well,” she recording, having shown a Malbec from extremely old vines in Vistalba – a sub-zone of Luján de Cuyo – that was made by Ricitelli.

Aside from regional variation and old vine influence, the introductory seminar also briefly considered the style and quality of Malbec blends from Argentina.

Having tasted a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Franc from Gualtallary in the Uco Valley, Rosberg said that this combination was proving particularly popular.

“Cabernet Franc and Malbec blends from Uco are hitting the sweet spot,” he recorded.

“Only around 800ha of Cabernet Franc are planted [in Argentina] and yet it has a huge reputation – but that’s because it has been planted in the right place and it’s in the hands of the right producers, so it is making a noise for Argentina,” he added.

Looking beyond the borders of Mendoza, the seminar concluded with a Malbec from the Calchaquí Valley within the northern province of Salta, home to the highest vineyards in the world.

“Salta is a province on steroids,” began Rosberg. “It has 320 days of sun per year, and the daily thermal difference is over 20 degrees; you find cacti next to the vineyards, and you have to buy 100 hectares of land just to have enough water to irrigate 1-2 ha of vineyards.

“And because you have high UV from the altitude, and the wind from the mountains, the grapes naturally develop thicker skins and small berries.”

Inspired by the region, but speaking more generally about the Argentine wine scene, Atkin, who has been visiting the country for the past 25 years, commented on the appeal of the country and its wines.

“The pull of the Andes is amazing, it is beautiful, and it changes every minute you look at it; it is a gravitational and spiritual pull. And without the Andes there would be no Argentine wine – it is a source of water and a barrier to the climate from Chile. The Andes makes Argentina,” he stated.

Meanwhile, concluding the first seminar of the week-long visit, Stenwreth said that the Argentine wine industry was presently in a perfect shape to show its wares to the visitors, which hailed from all corners of the world.

“If we had done this trip five years ago I don’t think we would have been so impressed, the timing is so right… and blends in the reds are just so good,” she said.

Finally, Atkin congratulated Duncan Keen from Grupo Penaflor, who had instigated the trip. “Duncan has managed to get all the different wineries to work together…. He is a diplomat – the biggest and smallest wineries have all contributed to this trip.”

As previously reported by the drinks business, Keen said that he had kick-started the idea of an MW trip to Argentina because he wanted to promote the country’s wine, people and culture.

Summing up his expectations for the trip in a single sentence, he said said that he hoped to create 40 new ambassadors of Argentina.

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After the evening seminar, Grupo Penaflor hosted the MWs and winemakers at Espacio Trapiche, the company’s 80-seat restaurant located at the winery’s estate in Mendoza

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