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Argentina’s white wines: a double opportunity

Argentina’s white wine production is undergoing a ‘revolution’ as the country rescues ancient vineyards and trials new varieties in cooler climates, according to some of the country’s top winemakers.

Argentina’s winemakers are embracing high-elevation areas to produce new styles of white wine, as well as rescuing historic vineyards

During a seminar in February this year in Mendoza, entitled Argentina’s White Wine Revolutionwhich was laid on for 40 visiting Masters of Wine – a selection of producers highlighted the changes taking place with the country’s white grapes, which were once dominant in terms of plantings.

In particular, José Lovaglio Balbo, winemaker for Susana Balbo Wines, explained that the country’s white wine development faced two options: either embrace the country’s surviving stock of old vines, or plant in new areas, which are generally cooler.

“We have two paths to innovate,” he said, “Firstly, we can recover and recondition old vineyards, or secondly, we can plant in new regions – and that’s what many winemakers are doing.”

In terms of the country’s historic white wine vineyards, the main commercially-relevant varieties found in the ground are Semillon and Torrontes, with the former once being the most planted grape in Argentina (as well as neighbouring Chile).

Until the late 80s, Argentina had more white grapes in the ground than reds, a reflection of domestic consumption, which had previously centred around white wines, above all blends of Semillon and Chenin Blanc, made in an off-dry style.

It wasn’t until the end of the 80s that Argentina began planting Chardonnay to make high-end whites, inspired by the success of California with the grape, and turning its attention to red varieties, especially Malbec.

Currently, José said that 47,600ha of white grapes are planted in Argentina, but added that only around 25,000ha “are relevant”, with around 8,000ha of Torrontes, the country’s most planted white grape.

As for new areas, he mentioned in particular “very high altitude” regions such as Las Carreras, San Pablo, Uspallata, Gualtallary and Humahuaca, noting that the new wave white winemakers were in search of sites which were cool, but also had poor soils with good drainage and calcium deposits.

Looking in turn as some of the country’s most successful varieties, he considered in detail the styles of Torrontes, for many, the emblematic white grape of Argentina, because it first emerged in the country due to a natural crossing of the so-called ‘Uva Negra’ and Muscat of Alexandria, making it the country’s closest thing to a native grape.

Pointing out that there were three massale selections of the grape, the Mendocino, Sanjuanino and Riojano, he said that the latter was the most aromatic and the preferred choice for higher end whites, most famously from Salta.

Since 2000 he recorded “a change in style with more elegant wines, with less bitterness,” while experimental winemakers have trialled early harvesting, new sites and barrel fermentations.

“The idea is to gain structure and expression but not phenolics, and that is the challenge with Torrontes,” he said, before commenting, “And the key for the future is the use of Torrontes in white blends.”

Indeed, supporting such views, Madeleine Stenwreth MW, who was instrumental in the organisation of the Master of Wine trip to Argentina, explained that earlier-picked Torrontes can bring “green apple flavours and freshness,” but it will mean that winemakers “lose out on the floral muscaty charm” of the grape.

Tim Atkin MW, who took part in a tasting panel on the first day of the MW tour, identified the two approaches to Torrontes.

“There are two schools: you either pick it ripe and acidify, or pick it underripe or at different stages to get acidity with texture and aroma; it is easy to make something that tastes boring and bitter and blousy,” he said.

José then considered Semillon in detail, recording that it is part of Argentina’s viticultural history, arriving in Mendoza in 1853 with Malbec, making it the oldest white grape in the region.

With only around 1000ha of the grape surviving in Argentina today, it is comparatively rare, and José said that it performs well in the country both in a blend, and as a varietal wine, as one finds in Australia’s Hunter Valley (and almost nowhere else in the world).

For old vine Semillon, José said one must look to the Lujan de Cuyo, although he also said there is some in the Uco Valley, as well as the Rio Negro and Patagonia.

He also said that it blends well with Torrontes.

Finally, he singled out Sauvignon Blanc as a grape gaining recognition in the country.

“Sauvignon is white grape that is widely distributed in Argentina, with many different profiles, from areas in the north, which are Winkler 1, such as Humahuaca, or the Uco, which has 30% of the hecterage, and ranges from Winkler 1 to 3,” he began.

However, he said that the “first serious development of Sauvignon Blanc was in 2000 from Dona Paula”, adding that the success this producer has had with Sauvignon from the Uco has prompted others to follow, and plantings have increased by 250% in the last 14 years to total more than 2,000ha today.

Commenting on its development, Stenwreth said that the style had a strong domestic following, even if Argentine Sauvignon might struggle to succeed in exports markets, due to the competition from elsewhere.

“Sauvignon can be expensive relative [to international examples] but the local market can’t get enough of it; people love the crunchy fruit in contrast to all the red wines.”

Finally, commenting on the longer term, Santiago Mayorga, winemaker and agronomist at Nieto Senetiner, observed that other grapes were starting to be planted.

“Part of the white wine revolution involves the planting of more suitable varieties to see what we find, such as Marsanne and Rousanne, as well as Spanish grapes Verdejo, and Albarino.”

Indeed, Atkin had previously picked out an Albarino as one of the most exciting wines to emerge in recent history from Argentina, hailing from Trapiche’s new project south of Buenos Aires, the first coastal vineyard development in the country.

As for Argentina’s work with Chardonnay, that was looked at in detail in a separate seminar, and will be covered later by the drinks business, along with a round-up of the country’s most exciting whites.

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