A good sommelier is at once a tour guide and a gatekeeper, with the know-how to lead wine drinkers into fresh territory and the influence to break emerging labels into a new market.
It's a fact that hasn't been lost on the winemakers of the world, and the reason why they regularly foot the bill to bring the industry's top sommeliers to their doorsteps. But more than just an all-expenses paid trip packed with epicurean delights (although there is plenty of that), these fact-finding missions also give sommeliers a chance to learn more about the growing list of winemaking regions making a mark on the industry.
Near the top of that list is, of course, Argentina, which, to many Canadian wine lovers is probably most known for its inexpensive Malbec.
Once ubiquitous in France, the purple Malbec grape has since become something of a national varietal in Argentina, and its most significant wine export. But, as Alta Bistro sommelier Eric Griffith will tell you, Argentina offers a wide-ranging diversity in styles, flavours and experimental farming techniques that rivals some of the world's biggest wine producers.
Griffith was one of six industry professionals from across Canada invited down by Wines of Argentina (WofA) to get a firsthand look at where the ever-burgeoning wine region is headed.
One of the first stops on the itinerary was a visit to sparsely populated Patagonia, something of "a frontier" in winemaking, Griffith said, with a cool, crisp climate ideal for grape growing.
"It's actually one of the most southern latitudes of winemaking in the world, and it's a very unique territory," Griffith explained. "You get down there and they're doing pinot noirs and chardonnays and cooler climate grapes, but they're still doing Malbecs and cabernet as well. It's a very natural area with pure water coming off the Andes."
Next up was the Yucca Valley, a region that pioneered high-altitude grape growing, and one that's home to a mix of largescale and boutique wineries.
The group also trekked north to Mendoza, where many of the popular Malbec labels you find in abundance in B.C. liquor stores originate. Eventually, Griffith explained, Mendoza will have appellations delimited for grape growing, with winemakers carving out their own individual signatures.
"Malbec is huge in Canada in general," said Griffith. "There's a reason WofA is looking at bringing Canadian sommelliers there, because the market's strong and it can be stronger."
With Argentinian wine's easy drinkability and relatively low price point, Griffith believes Canada is on the verge of deepening its appreciation of the country's wines.
"For $50, Argentina gives a lot. And rarely do you get above that price point. Even for their top wines, it might sell for $40 to $50," he said. "Then when you talk about spending, say $30 on an Argentinian wine, you're looking at some pretty stunning wines that could go in your cellar and age for 10 years."
The key to exposing diners to new yet familiar-tasting labels is getting them to "trade up," Griffith said. It starts with an appreciation of flavour, and builds from there.
"(The Argentine wine industry) wants to make sure that people are... not just saying, 'Argentina's for cheap Malbec' — that's what they don't want," Griffith said. "They want to maintain volumes — they don't want to stop selling cheap Malbecs, they want to sell tons of it because it drives the cash flow — but they want people to know there are other things on offer."
As both the sommelier and co-owner of Alta Bistro, Griffith is in the rare position of having complete control over his wine list, which, while not rivaling the size and scope of, say, an Araxi or Bearfoot, still manages to wow both customers and restaurant critics alike. (Alta Bistro has taken home three gold medals in Wine Program Excellence as voted by the Vancouver International Wine Festival.)
"I've worked the big list before, I've done the million-dollar inventory, and there are challenges with that and there are challenges with being small," Griffith said. "Coming to Whistler is like a haven for wine drinkers; we've got amazing wine lists and great sommeliers. My inventory just takes less time, that's it. My inventory takes about two hours to go through, and at Bearfoot it takes three days."
*Editor's Note: Instead of a recipe this week, award-winning sommelier Eric Griffith will recommend a handful of wines meant to showcase a different Argentine region or blend. Each wine is available for purchase at Whistler's Marketplace Liquor Store at 4360 Lorimer Road. Prices include tax.
Tinto Negro Malbec 2012 Mendoza: $15.86
A Blend of Mendoza regions: Lujan de Cuyo and Valle de Uco fruit. A vibrant ruby colour, hints of blackberry, blueberry, espresso and dried violets. A medium-full body with silky tannins that results in a balanced, round, long finish.
Bodega Vistalba 'Corte C' Malbec Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Luyán de Cuyo, Mendoza: $23.56
From a single estate in Luján de Cuyo. Malbec dominates the blend. A deep ruby colour, with hints of bright raspberry, currants, herbs, eucalyptus and licorice. A medium-full body, with a velvet attack of fruit and tannin. Lively fruit notes throughout, with a balanced, long finish.
Doña Paula Estate Malbec 2013 Valle de Uco, Mendoza: $17.81
From the Valle de Uco, grown at a 1,200 metre average elevation. Contains distinct violet notes, with a deep ruby colour and hints of blackberry, plum, and vanilla. A medium-full body, with fine tannins, and a smooth, sweet spice finish.
Bodega Amalaya Malbec 2014: $18.96
From the Valle Calchaqui, Salta. Grown at a very high altitude of 1,800 metres to achieve suitable conditions for the grapes. A deep ruby colour, with hints of dried cherries, raspberry, currants and pepper. With fine tannins, and a mineral, textured, long finish.