If Mendoza, Argentina isn’t the perfect place to grow grapes, it can’t be far from nirvana. Less than one per cent organic matter in the soil ensures naturally low yields, while dry weather and complete control over the amount of water used in the vineyard means the production of high quality grapes is as much about attitude as it is about altitude.
A lot has changed since the early days of winemaking, which was spearheaded by Italian and Spanish immigrants. Of particular interest are the high altitude slopes of the Andean foothills, where extreme exposure to sunlight and cool temperatures shapes the savoury/peppery aspects of Mendoza reds.
While the malbec gets the glory, the structure and savoury flavours tend to permeate all red varieties. White wines have been slower to change to the fresher, less-oaked, more fruity definition, but much progress has been made with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and, lately, even viognier.
Alas, a quick tour of the B.C. Liquor Store shelves reveals Argentine listings to be sparse, to say the least, at 74 labels in total. Compare that with nearly 200 shiraz or shiraz blends from Australia alone, and you sense the inequality — or at least the size of the hill Argentine producers face to climb into the market.
That said, you have to play the hand you’re dealt, and it’s especially true when it comes to buying wine in B.C.
There isn’t much Argentine white wine listed, but what’s here is worth looking at. The bargain is the Santa Julia 2005 Viognier ($11). This has a fresh mineral, honey, butter, citrus, flavour with a touch of Creamsicle. A versatile aperitif or serve with Thai/Indian food.
Argentine chardonnay has a bright future as it trends toward the crisper, cooler fruit styles and less of the oaky, buttery, fat aspects. Certainly the cooler, high altitude vineyards of Mendoza, and in particular the Uco Valley, are well-suited to its production.
Local picks should include Catena Zapata 2005 Chardonnay ($24) at the premium end; the Dona Paula 2004 Chardonnay ($17) and Alamos 2005 Chardonnay ($17) in the middle range; and two tasty budget 2006 chardonnays, Finca Los Primos 2005 and Trivento 2005 Reserve , both of which retail for less than $10.
Malbec remains the king of Mendoza reds and would top my buying list. I see no reason why 75 malbec listings couldn’t be available immediately. Mendoza’s terroir appears uniquely suited to this variety, especially from key locations — higher sites in the Uco Valley, Lujan de Cujo, Maipu, or the hot (actually cool) new area down south, Neuquén.