Over the course of the 10-hour flight to Argentina a few months ago, I convinced myself that this tasting trip would be, first and foremost, an immersion into Malbec. After all, the great red grape variety of Argentina has enjoyed one of the most remarkable rises in popularity in recent wine history, and making a pilgrimage to its most famous country of production would have to be a study of its many and varied nuances.
Turns out I was wrong—kind of. Of course, the Malbec flowed freely during this journey through Buenos Aires, Patagonia, Mendoza, and San Juan, but there was more to the country’s wine life than I expected. Much more, in fact, than most consumers realize.
As anyone who has looked at a restaurant wine list recently surely knows, Malbec has become a staple here in Philadelphia. Its generally rich fruit, the hint of spice, a whiff of licorice and the appealing texture make it perfect both on its own and alongside a range of foods. Add to this the fact that it is easy to find a delicious one at less than $15 (typically under $50 in a restaurant), and you have all the building blocks for wild success. But there are many more options than this one great grape variety to discover, and seemingly all of it is produced in a supremely food-friendly style.
Pascual Cancelliere, of the BYOB 943 (943 S. Ninth St., 267-687-2675), sees plenty of Argentine wines in his dining room, and at all price points and styles. He attributes this not just to the popularity of the wines of Argentina, but also to the inherent wine-friendliness of the cuisine. “In Argentina they’re big on the meats, as you know,” he says. “But also, there’s a lot of pasta, a lot of vegetables; their menus have expanded.” This, Cancelliere points out, provides myriad pairing opportunities no matter what guests order. (Personally, I have seen restaurant patrons take advantage of a range of Argentine wines at spots all over Philadelphia, from Southwark to the Fountain Restaurant.)
Over the course of my tasting sessions and meals with some of Argentina’s top winemakers, it became apparent that the entire industry is working hard to make the most of all that its varied natural geography and climate have to offer. Carlos Tizio Mayer, general manager of the fabulous Clos de los Siete in Argentina’s Uco Valley, explained the development as such: “Since the middle and late 1990s, there have been very important changes in our industry”: planting vineyards in “the best places,” an upsurge in international investment, and improvements in vineyard management and winery techniques and equipment. “This combination,” he says, “has made possible this solid and constant improvement of wine quality of Argentinean wines in different price segments.”
I was more than impressed with the huge range of grape varieties and the various expressions that different producers coaxed out of them. Down in Patagonia, Bodega del Fin del Mundo is responsible for some seriously appealing sparkling wine. NQN made one of the best Pinot Noirs (its Malma bottling) I tasted all year. Familia Zuccardi, in Mendoza, produces standout bottlings of everything from Bonarda and Tempranillo to Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay—and beyond. Then there are the producers that Philadelphians might not be as familiar with right now but that will likely grow in the coming years: Look for wines from Familia Belasco, Piattelli, Casarena, Mendel, Serrera, and Doña Paula.
Eric Simonis, general manager and sommelier at Lacroix at The Rittenhouse (210 W. Rittenhouse Sq., 215-546-9000; lacroixrestaurant.com), stocks his famous cellar with a wide range of wines from Argentina. He attributes their success to both their value and their overall quality, adding that the wines of Argentina are generally easy to love: Even at their most complex, the focus on expressive, often layered fruit flavors make them exceptionally appealing to consumers at all levels of knowledge—both those who simply want to enjoy a nice glass of wine, and those who want to analyze a bottle for all its constituent complexities.
Explains Mayer: “What we are getting are wines with characteristics that showcase the regions—their climate, soils, and the fine art of the men that work the vineyards and make the wines. They are equilibrated, balanced. They do not override or cover the taste of meals. Our wines get along very well with meals.”
“Our wines,” he sums up, “give pleasure.” Wine-lovers all over the United States, and certainly right here in Philadelphia, would enthusiastically agree. I know I do.