Argentina is the fifth largest producer of wine in the world following France, Italy, Spain and the USA. Until relatively recently Argentina had been in fourth position, ahead of the USA partly due to the global pattern in wine producing countries of falling domestic wine consumption levels. Two reasons are often cited: national government campaigns to encourage their citizens to drink less but better quality wine and, typical of rebellious youth, the younger generations experimenting with other drinks less associated with their parents such as beer.
Argentina’s wine industry owes its foundation to the five million people from Europe who sought a new life there between 1860 and 1930. The country developed a palate for the wine and gastronomic flavours of the European settlers. Spanish and Italian immigrants in particular were the heart of Argentina’s wine industry and, mirroring the traditions in their home countries, wine was an integral part of daily meals. At its peak, average annual consumption in Argentina was 90 litres per person and is now close to 40 litres, compared to just over 10 litres in Ireland and America and 20 litres in Australia.
The Irish Connection
Argentina shares a special bond with Ireland. Their country’s liberation from colonial Spanish control on 9th July (Independence Day) in 1813 was chiefly inspired and delivered by a 36 year-old from Co. Mayo, Foxford-born native, William Brown. Admiral Brown became the founder of Argentina’s Navy and his extraordinarily heroic life is still revered in Argentina today.
Among the 500,000 Argentinians who claim Irish ancestry was Che Guevara, born in Buenos Aires to Mary Lynch from Galway. The first man to hoist the flag of the Irish Republic on the GPO in 1916 was an Argentina born Eamon Bulfin. Eamon’s father, William was editor of the Southern Cross, the oldest Irish newspaper in the world outside Ireland. Not surprisingly, Argentina was one of the first countries to recognise Ireland as an independent State in 1922.
Glaciers in a desert
Playing the most crucial role in Argentina’s wine industry are the Andes Mountains, the world’s highest and still growing mountain range outside of Asia stretching to almost 7,000km in length, bordering Argentina with Chile. Created by the collision of the earth’s platelets and continuing to be pushed skywards to almost 7,000m above sea level, once the floor of the Pacific sea bed the Andes mountain tops contain evidence of their origins with fossils of marine life.
Most vineyards are located at the foothills of the snow-capped Andes. In this majestic backdrop Argentina’s wines follow in that dramatic style. The reds are big hearted, fruit forward wines with a pulse that beats to an up-tempo Latino rhythm – intense and assertive.
The Mendoza region produces 85% of Argentina’s wine. Paradoxically, it is technically a desert. Cultivating the parched vineyards is made possible only by irrigation. The vines are watered by a complex system of water channels supplied by gigantic reservoirs holding the mountain tops’ melted glaciers in springtime. Because the vineyards are too far inland from the Atlantic at 1,000 km to the east to benefit from any cooling and moderating benefits of the ocean and shielded by the Andes from the nearby Pacific ocean to the west, vineyards are planted on the east facing foothills over 600m. The option to plant vines on the cooler slopes at higher altitudes give the winemaker more options for greater complexity and refinement.
Malbec, Argentina’s signature red wine
Argentinean wines have many grape varietals planted from Europe, including Italy’s Bonarda and Spain’s Tempranillo. However, it is the mighty and long-lived Malbec wine that has dominated the reputation for quality Argentinean reds to become Argentina’s signature red wine.
Originating from France’s Bordeaux and Cahors appellations, the reason for Malbec’s supremacy in Argentina is simple, it delights in the dessert-dry climate. Malbec is particularly vulnerable to damp weather conditions and the threat of mildew and rot that rain can bring.
Other weather threats not usually associated with a desert are frost and hail. To counteract the threat of frost in the chilly desert nights, the parral high overhead trellis system is increasingly practiced in many vineyards where the vines’ growth is well aerated above the colder earth.
Similarly, devastating summer hail storms can wipe out entire vineyards. Most growers now spread the risk and their vines over many locations to reduce the threat while others invest in mesh shield hail protection systems. One effect of the mesh is filtered sunlight and therefore slower ripening which can benefit the vine by more time to extract trace elements and minerals from the soil and enhance the aromatics and flavours in the grapes and resulting wine.
Stylistically, most Argentinean Malbecs are typically generous in blackberry-like fruit and full-bodied with potent alcohol and an assertive oaky influence from barrel aging. The bold, full-throttle masculine flavours favour rich meaty dishes and barbecued smoky sauces to match the drama.
The wines below achieved the highest scores from a blind tasting of thirty Malbecs under €20 and are listed in no particular order of score.
Ariès Malbec 2015, Bernard Magrez, Mendoza
€13.12 online WinesOfTheWorld.ie
Concentrated spicy and inky black fruits supported by dry tannins.
Food friend: serve with duck in a plum sauce.
Pioneer Malbec 2014, La Celia, Mendoza
€13.99 in select Eurospar, Spar, Mace and Londis nationwide
Black berry fruits infused with black pepper and spice. Full-bodied and concentrated.
Food friend: crumble a burger into a salad with a blue cheese dressing.
Malbec Reserva 2014, Michel Torino, Calchaqui Valley
€15-€16 at Ardkeen Quality Foodstore, Waterford and La Touche Wines 4U, Greystones. In Dublin: Higgins, Clonskeagh; Deveney’s, Dundrum and Redmond’s, Ranelagh
Intensely flavoured with layers of black fruits and a polished oaky spiciness.
Food friend: a smoky chorizo, white bean and piquant tomato casserole.
Malbec Reserva 2014, Alta Vista, Mendoza
€16.50 in Dublin at Mitchell & Son, CHQ, IFSC and Glasthule Road, Sandycove.
Plummy fruit spiked with vanilla spice and pepper. Very well balanced, understated and classy.
Food friend: keep it classical with roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding.
Malbec Single Vineyard 2013, Luigi Bosca, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza
€15.50 online WinesOfTheWorld.ie and Ardkeen Superstores, Waterford and Joyce’s Supermarket, Tuam
Earthy aromas mirrored on the delicious palate with a rich terroir and a core of black fruits.
Food friend: enjoy with duck on puy lentils and smoked bacon lardons.
Malbec 2013, Norton, D.O.C. Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza
€18.95 at O’Brien’s nationwide and wine.ie
A wine with the wow factor. Delicious flavours of a rich terroir and black pastille fruits held in a firm but friendly grip of tannins. Food friend: grill a steak slicked with a smoky barbecue sauce.
Barrel selection Malbec 2014, Salentein, Valle de Uco, Mendoza
€16.99 at Dicey Reilly’s, Sligo and in Dublin: Wines on the Green, Dawson Street; Baggot Street Wines; Blackrock Cellar; Clontarf Wines; Martin’s, Fairview; McCabe’s, Blackrock
Oaky aromas. Inky deep and brooding flavours, integrated spice and very elegant. Unfiltered for maximum character but may throw a deposit, best to decant.
Food friend: lovely with lamb cutlets glazed with mint jelly.
Paso Doble Malbec – Corvina 2013, Masi, Tupungato
€15.95 from O’Brien’s nationwide and in Dublin: Mitchell & Son, CHQ at IFSC and Glasthule; Baggot Street Wines and The Corkscrew, Chatham Street
Made “Appassimento” with slightly semi-dried grapes for added fruitiness. Rich, ripe and raisin-like fruity bouquet. Excellent balance of the Corvina’s acidity with the Malbec’s opulent black fruit. Very well balanced.
Food friend: plenty of acidity to cope with a tomatoey Hungarian Goulash.
Malbec Reserve 2014, Bodega Piedra Negra, Valle de Uco, Mendoza
€19.99 at McEntee, Kells and in Dublin: Deveney’s, Dundrum; Donnybrook Fair; Nolan’s, Clontarf; Nectar, Sandyford; On The Grapevine, Dalkey; Kelly’s Wine Vault, Clontarf and Gerry’s, Skerries
Reductive bouquet would benefit from decanting. Concentrated and intense flavours, dry tannins with an oak forward and spicy character.
Food friend: try with corned beef and pickled red cabbage.
The Trilogy Malbec 2013, Catena Family, Mendoza
€20 at Tesco nationwide
Made from three exceptional high altitude vineyards. A little blackberry jam on the mature bouquet. Very tasty and ripe blackberry fruits highlighted by spice and made by an outstanding producer.
Food friend: the fruitiness will match with a gamey venison sausage.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.