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Catena's wines enjoy greater intensity of sunlight due to the higher altitudes. And this allows the grapes to achieve maximum ripeness while the cooler temperatures keep the sugars in check.

Argentina's altitude helps its wines show a bit more attitude

Feb 15, 2019 5:50 AM

ANYONE looking for value in wine, up and down the price range, should look to Argentina. The country produces wines of high quality at low prices, and the more expensive bottles - even those stretching into the triple digits as if they were grasping the Andes' peaks - often perform as well as, if not better than, similarly priced trophies from more classic regions.

Anyone interested in exploring wine beyond the simple buzz of the grocery store quaff should also look to Argentina. Although winemaking there dates back to the Spanish colonial era, Argentina's modern story is still relatively young.

Wine-growers are still exploring the heights of the Andean foothills in Mendoza, Patagonia to the south or Salta to the north, testing the extremes of altitude to produce the best wine possible. We consumers can, without spending a mountain of moolah, use Argentina as our personal laboratory to explore the nuances of terroir and understand how two wines made from the same grape can taste subtly but distinctly different because they were grown on different soils, at different altitudes, just a few miles - or even metres - apart.

And anyone exploring Argentina should begin with two names: Catena and Zuccardi. These family wineries, now in their fourth and third generations, respectively, have been setting the standard, especially in Mendoza, the country's main wine region. Not only do they offer wines of great value, but they have been Sherpas, leading the region's explorations up the Andes foothills to develop higher-elevation vineyards.

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Argentina's wines burst onto the US market in the 1980s, thanks to three people. Nicolas Catena, the third-generation head of a winery that fuelled the tango bars of Buenos Aires, realised that he could improve the quality of his wines by planting vineyards at higher altitudes.

He brought in Paul Hobbs, an up-and-coming winemaker from Napa Valley, to consult. They teamed up with Alfredo Bartholomaus, a Chilean-born importer based in the Washington area to create the Alamos brand of Malbec, a successful brand that is still widely available in US markets today.

Laura Catena, Nicolas's daughter, now manages the winery and is pushing the exploration of Mendoza's altitudes, especially in the Uco Valley, south of the city. But it was her father's intuition about the mountains that set the stage for things to come.

Here's Argentina's secret: Every additional 100 metres of altitude decreases the average temperature by 1 deg C. That means grapes with higher acidity and softer tannins. But the intensity of the sunlight increases as well, allowing the grapes to achieve maximum ripeness while the cooler temperatures keep the sugars in check. The combination of low temperatures and high-intensity sun yields red wines of high intensity and extraction, soft and almost imperceptible tannins, and impressive structure and balance.

"Our wines are wines of the sun, but also of the soil," says Sebastian Zuccardi, third-generation winemaker at Familia Zuccardi in Mendoza. He is also in charge of winemaking at his family's Santa Julia winery. It would be easy to say the Zuccardi wines emphasise quality, while the Santa Julia label offers value, but that would be oversimplifying it. Both lines offer value and quality.

The Zuccardi family built a new winery a few years ago in the Paraje Altamira area of the Uco Valley, about a 90-minute drive south of Mendoza. Zuccardi uses concrete tanks for fermenting and ageing his red wines, believing that way he can produce Malbec that is most expressive of its terroir. Oak barrels, he argues, add flavours that mask a wine's true character.

Zuccardi has introduced a new series of wines called Poligonos, priced under US$30 a bottle, to showcase the different areas of the Uco Valley, such as San Pablo, Tupungato and Paraje Altamira, and their expressions of Malbec. This line of wines will match Catena's appellation series, in the same price range. Together, they offer wine lovers a chance to explore the nuances of terroir at high quality but moderate price.

Jose Zuccardi, Sebastian's father, built the Santa Julia and Zuccardi label with an emphasis on quality, value and organic viticulture. "Argentina has never seen the quality that it has today," he said during a recent visit to Washington. "We are now producing wines with elegance and finesse." I could not agree more.

Five Argentinian bottles that run the gamut

Argentina is known primarily for Malbec. Wineries such as Catena and Zuccardi offer subtly different expressions of it by exploring the various terroirs around Mendoza, planting vineyards higher in the mountains along alluvial fans left millions of years ago by melting glaciers. But Argentina, the Mendoza region in particular, also produces fantastic Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, wines that tend to be overcrowded in the market by competitors from elsewhere around the world. There's also Bonarda, known as Charbono in California, that makes delicious, fun wines at reasonable prices.

This week's recommendations feature just a few wines from Catena and Zuccardi that demonstrate their exploration of Mendoza's various terroirs, while offering great value.

Other labels to look for include Bramare and Felino, from California winemaker Paul Hobbs, as well as Mendel, Terrazas de los Andes, and various labels produced by Ernesto Catena.

Great Value: Santa Julia Tintillo Malbec-Bonarda 2018, Mendoza

Intellectual wines can drive fascinating discussions of terroir and the meaning of life. But sometimes wine should just be joyful. That's what this one is - bursting with fruit and energy, the first sip ignites a party. Stock up on this for your house red this spring and summer. Great value: Santa Julia Reserva Mountain Blend Malbec-Cabernet Franc 2017, Valle de Uco, Mendoza

If Argentina makes you think of steak, here's a perfect wine for you. Bold and juicy, with flavours of plums, dark fruit and spice, it can stand up to big flavours of meat and char. The blend is 70-30, with Malbec in the lead role. Terrific value for the price.

Catena Appellation: Tupungato Chardonnay 2016, Mendoza

Catena produces two rare and expensive Chardonnays, called White Bones and White Stones, from its Adrianna Vineyard in the Gualtallary area of the Tupungato. At well over 4,000 feet altitude, it is one of the highest vineyards in Mendoza. This appellation series wine comes from vineyards throughout Tupungato, and it delivers some of the same character, if not the intensity of the Adrianna wines. There's racy acidity and a firm mineral character embracing generous orchard fruit flavours and a dash of spice.

Catena Appellation: La Consulta Malbec 2015, Mendoza

La Consulta is at the southern end of the Uco Valley in Mendoza province. Keep it in mind with Vista Flores and Paraje Altamira as some of the highest-altitude appellations from the region. (The town of La Consulta is at 3,300 feet altitude.) One could spend a very glorious evening sipping and comparing wines from these three areas. This wine speaks of both sunshine and earth, as if it reaches for the sky while remaining firmly rooted. The balance is superb, the fruit effusive, the texture supple. ABV: 13 per cent.

Zuccardi Concreto: Malbec Paraje Altamira 2017, Mendoza

Sebastian Zuccardi argues that ageing wines in oak barrels disguises the true expression of the vineyard's terroir, its soils and climate. The new Zuccardi winery in the Altamira area of the southern Uco Valley is high in altitude at about 3,600 feet, nearly as high as vineyards can be planted with hopes of consistently ripening a crop.

This wine shows the effect of altitude in its elegance and acidity, and the seasoning from rocky soils in its black fruit flavours. The concrete ageing gives it extra grip and texture. The lack of oak might prompt overzealous marketing types to call this a "naked" wine, but it's not a low-rent porn star; it's more like Michelangelo's David. WP

  • McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com.