Argentina

The Concentrated Malbec Of Salta

16 June 2016

Don David MalbecYou may well wonder what a post about Argentine Malbec is doing on a blog about unusual/obscure wines and spirits. Few wines are less obscure than Argentine Malbec. It makes an appearance at almost every BYOB party I attend. At a recent one, I asked a fellow attendee if she liked the Malbec she was drinking. She shrugged and replied, “It’s Malbec,” as if to say, “How good do you think this can get?”

Cheap Malbec is everywhere, which isn’t at all a bad thing — it’s usually fruity and drinkable, at least, and there’s nothing wrong with that. So ubiquitous is cheap Malbec, in fact, that I suspect that many wine drinkers out there would balk at the idea of paying $15 or $20 for a bottle, even though the jump in quality easily matches the jump in price. It’s just Malbec. Why pay those kind of prices?

My recent visit to Salta, Argentina’s northernmost wine region, rekindled my love and respect for the grape. In the right terroir, a conscientious winemaker can work real magic with Malbec. Mendoza makes the most famous Malbecs — and many of them are an absolute delight — but these days, I seek out the gorgeously rich and concentrated Malbecs of Salta.

What’s so special about Salta? According to The Oxford Companion of Wine, the region has “soils not dissimilar to those of Mendoza,” but it has “a mesoclimate that ensures a combination of good sugar levels at harvest… and above-average total acidity, thereby ensuring a wine of depth and balance.” Ample sugar combined with above-average acidity makes for very exciting wines indeed.

Salta’s remarkably high altitude is one of the biggest factors in its success. The Oxford Companion explains:

Even the lower vineyards in Salta are at 1,650 m/5,413 ft, and because of this elevation, the vine is forced to protect itself from extreme weather, resulting in lower yields and thick skins, which produce concentrated, full-bodied wines that are also extremely fragrant.

And just as important, the region’s winemaking has recently made a major leap in quality. Alejandro Nesman, the winemaker at Piattelli‘s Salta facility, explained the changes: “When I arrived five years ago, Cabernets were herbaceous and tannic,” he said. “Now they have more balance. Everything is starting to change.”

He noted that winemaking in Europe is “much easier,” but in Salta, “we’re discovering something — we are new. I think there is a lot of future here in Argentina, and especially in Cafayate.” (The town of Cafayate is at the heart of Salta’s vineyards, but you’re much more likely to see “Salta” on a wine label.)

In many cases, the future is already here. These Malbecs were especially memorable:

El Esteco "Elementos" Malbec at Legado Mitico

El Esteco “Elementos” Malbec at Legado Mítico

2014 Bodega El Esteco “Elementos” Malbec: The hotel Legado Mítico welcomes guests with a complimentary glass of this dark, dark wine. It smelled of plums, raisins and something savory. It felt dark and meaty, with an almost chewy texture and some velvety tannins on the finish. It tasted ripe and luscious, but it had notable focus keeping it all together. Available in the U.S. for about $18 a bottle.

2014 Bodega El Esteco Michel Torino Estate “Don David” Reserve Malbec: Again, this wine smelled rich and dark. It tasted very fruity, with lots of plum and blueberry, balanced by plenty of acid, a touch of wood and some light white-pepper spice. I loved how smoothly it shifted from flavor to flavor. Paired with a llama steak, it became even bigger and spicier. Available in the U.S. for about $14 or $15 a bottle, a ridiculously good value.

Vineyards at Estancia de Cafayate

Vineyards at Estancia de Cafayate

2014 Estancia de Cafayate Malbec: You’ll likely have trouble finding this example, the house wine of the Grace Cafayate resort, but in the event it’s exported to the U.S. in the near future, you can expect a similar rich, dark aroma, but inflected with a bit of chocolate. This Malbec had plummy fruit to spare, leavened with some green peppercorn spice, and a smooth, voluptuous texture. “A feather bed of a Malbec,” I wrote in my notes.

2014 Piattelli Vineyards Malbec Reserve: A lovely opaque magenta color, this wine had an enticing aroma of dark fruit, vanilla and a hint of violets. Again, it tasted of ripe, dark fruit, but the acids and spice were especially zesty. Although not without density, this Malbec felt impressively light on its feet, and even the finish was bright. I craved some steak with chimichurri to pair with it. I had trouble finding somewhere to buy this wine, but if you encounter it, it should run about $15 (not to be confused with the winery’s Malbec from Mendoza).

2014 Piattelli Grand Reserve Malbec: The “best of the crop” goes into this wine, and after drinking a glass with lunch at the winery, I believe it. The aroma was sensationally rich, with notes of blackberry jam, fresh wood and some tobacco. I loved the sumptuous dark fruit, focused acids and gorgeously supple tannins, as well as the whiff of tobacco on the finish. We all have personal preferences when it comes to wine, and this Malbec checked just about all of my boxes. I found a store on the Wine Searcher website selling it for $22 a bottle, which is an absolute steal. (Again, not to be confused with the Grand Reserve from Mendoza.)

Finding Malbecs from Salta requires a little effort even in stores which carry them, because rarely does a wine shop separate those bottles from Mendoza wines. But spend a little time squinting at the wine labels, and you’ll be amply rewarded.

If you like rich, dark fruit balanced with vibrant acids and focused spice, Malbecs from Salta will be right up your alley.

Torrontés Reconsidered

7 May 2016
Overlooking the vineyards in Cafayate

Overlooking the vineyards in Cafayate

I had my last glass of Torrontés about 10 years ago. A cross of Muscat of Alexandria and Mission (Criolla Chica), the signature white wine of Argentina, as I remembered it, felt a little off-kilter. I recalled an overabundance of flowers and a rather bitter note on the dry finish. It lacked balance. And though Torrontés may be much more obscure than Chardonnay, with so many delicious Chardonnays now coming out of Mendoza, it seemed foolish to opt for a Torrontés instead.

On my recent trip to Salta and Cafayate, I had little choice. Even the “wine bar” in my resort offered only one still white wine by the glass: Torrontés from the surrounding estate. In the high-altitude vineyards here in the Calchaquí Valley, Torrontés has few white competitors.

Vineyards at Piattelli

Vineyards at Piattelli

Seeing the actual vineyards didn’t fill me with confidence, I must admit. Although scenically spectacular, with a backdrop of rugged mountains in every direction, the sandy vineyards are home not only to grapevines, but the occasional cactus as well! Vines are supposed to have to suffer to produce great wine, but this seemed a bit extreme.

Nevertheless, the conditions in the Calchaquí Valley can foster wines that are truly world-class. Vineyards receive some 300 days of sun each year, and as I can attest, the winds blowing through the valley ensure that the grapes remain free of mold, mildew and fungus. Elevation is an even more important consideration, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains:

Even the lower vineyards in Salta are at 1,650 m/5,413 ft, and because of this elevation, the vine is forced to protect itself from extreme weather, resulting in lower yields and thick skins, which produce concentrated, full-bodied wines that are also extremely fragrant.

I certainly tasted no shortage of sensational Malbecs, as well as the occasional superb Bordeaux-style blend. They were rich, ripe and sometimes even chewy, with lush fruit, velvety tannins and frequently impressive focus. If you have yet to taste a red wine from Cafayate (Salta), I encourage you to set aside your other plans and drink one immediately.

Some of the lights have gone out at House of Jasmines.

Some of the lights have gone out at House of Jasmines.

But I couldn’t keep eating beef at every meal, and I didn’t want to drink a rich, chewy Malbec with a dish of local trout. I finally capitulated and ordered a glass of Torrontés. I was in the restaurant of the House of Jasmines, a Relais & Chateaux member which should theoretically have a restaurant of high quality. It was with some surprise, then, when I saw the waiter bring over a bottle of Torrontés with “16/4” written in pen on the label. I realized that those numbers indicated the date the wine bottle was opened, which meant that it was a week old! I requested that he uncork a fresh bottle.

The food at House of Jasmines matched the service in its mediocrity, but the (newly opened) Torrontés was a delight. The 2015 El Porvenir “Laborum” Finca El Retiro Vineyard Torrontés had a clean, crisp and exotically spicy aroma. The pear/apple fruit tasted ripe and taut, and I appreciated the ample lemon/lime acids, which were followed by some gingery spice. It felt quite balanced, this Torrontés — it wasn’t at all the flower bomb I feared.

Piattelli's winery and restaurant in Cafayate

Piattelli’s winery and restaurant

Nor were any of the other Torrontéses I tried. The organic 2015 Nanni Torrontés had delicious melony fruit undergirded by zesty acids and more of that fine gingery spice. An unusual 2015 Amalaya “Blanco Dulce de Corte” Torrontés/Riesling blend had notes of sweet corn and hay, forceful orangey acids and a surprisingly dry, ethereal finish. And a fresh 2015 Piattelli Torrontés Reserve had wonderfully round fruit shot through with sharp acids and warm white-pepper spice.

I had a chance to chat with the winemaker of Piattelli, Alejandro Nesman, shortly after I tried his Torrontés. I mentioned how I barely recognized the examples of Torrontés, I tried, such was the leap in quality. He told me that things really started to change in Cafayate only recently. “That [high-quality] Torrontés started five years ago,” he said.

Torrontés right from the tank at El Porvenir

Torrontés right from the tank at El Porvenir

The last winery I visited was El Porvenir, where I had the chance to sample the 2016 vintage straight from the fermentation tank. Still cloudy, it felt rather rowdy and rough, but the component parts — tropical fruit, racy acidity, sharp spice and floral overtones — were all there.

But the wine I’ll never forget was the 2015 El Porvenir “Laborum” Finca El Retiro Vineyard Oak-Fermented Torrontés. Unlike the similar wine I had at House of Jasmines, this Torrontés ferments for one month in oak barrels. It had a huge aroma of both flowers and buttery oak. “I’ve never smelled anything quite like it,” I exclaimed.

“It’s very strange,” the export manager remarked, with admirable candor. The flavor was absolutely fascinating — a combination of tropical fruit, butter, cream, flowers and green peppercorn spice. I really liked it. Who would have ever guessed that you could successfully oak Torrontés?

Vineyards in SaltaSomething truly exciting is happening in Cafayate. If you have long ignored wines from Salta and the Calchaquí Valley, as I have, consider giving them another try. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a bottle for more than $30, and most retail for $15 or less. They’re fantastic values for the money. They’re making great wine in those sandy, cactus-riddled vineyards, and I have a feeling that it won’t remain under the radar for much longer.

Legui: Argentina’s Best Digestif

24 April 2016

La Esquina de MertiAfter traveling in Argentina for a week or so, finding luscious Malbecs seemingly on every street corner, I began to wonder what sort of liquors the country produced. It was around this time I found myself in the town of San Antonio de Areco, a center of gaucho culture about 90 minutes northwest of Buenos Aires. This town did not strike me as a place to order a glass of wine.

I strode into an atmospheric bar called La Esquina de Merti, with art nouveau display cases along the walls and shelves laden with ancient bottles of unfamiliar spirits. It probably would have felt touristy in another town, but here, it was exactly what I was looking for.

Behind the bar, I spotted a shelf of local-looking spirits. “Esta licores — esta licores Argentinos?” I asked in my not-very-good Spanish. “Que me recomienda… una licores Argentinos?” The bartender looked a little puzzled. I pointed to a promising-looking bottle. “Esta Legui… Esta bien? Recomienda esta?” She said something that sounded very positive. “Bien. Uh, bebida esta con hielo? No? Solo? OK — perfecto. Una Legui, porfavor.”

LeguiShe somehow managed to understand me and served me quite a large shot of Legui, which is named after a notable jockey, Irenaeus Leguizamo. He won, according to this website, some 3,200 races in Argentina and he ranks among the greatest jockeys in history. Legui, it turned out, was the perfect drink to try in this center of Argentine horse culture.

I took a sniff, and I can’t deny that I recoiled. This liqueur of herb-infused alcohol and sugar reminded me of cough syrup, a certain yellow cough syrup that disgusted me in my youth. And indeed, it had the same yellow-green hue. I might charitably describe the aroma as herbaceous and bitter, with a note of anise. With great reluctance, I took a sip.

The Legui started sweet, moving on to cinnamon spice and green peppercorn. There was little bitterness; in fact, it tasted quite balanced. And because it has only 29.9 percent alcohol, I felt little alcoholic burn. Indeed, drinking it felt quite soothing.

If, after dinner in Argentina, you’re looking for a digestif — and after the uninterrupted meat parade I’ve experienced here, I certainly was — Legui is the liqueur to order. It doesn’t seem to be available in the United States, according to Wine Searcher, but in Argentina, it’s certainly worth seeking out.

And don’t worry about trying to down it like a shot. The cowboys here wear berets, after all, so you can feel free to drink your Legui in civilized sips.

The Best Wines I Drank In 2015: The Reds

26 January 2016

Red wine from the Pfalz at the Schlosshotel im Grunewald's Vivaldi restaurantThis list, especially when taken together with my companion list of whites, illustrates how absolutely delicious wines are being made in all sorts of unexpected places all over the globe. Nowadays, there is simply no reason to confine your drinking to wines from two or three classic regions.

Taking a risk on something lesser-known can reap significant rewards, both in terms of saving money and broadening the palate.

The planet is encircled with tremendous wine-making talent. Fantastic wine makers can be found in just about every wine region on the map, and just as important, insightful wine growers are exploiting vineyard sites to their full potential, finding new terroir for classic grapes as well as resurrecting nearly forgotten ancient varieties rich in character and history.

We wine lovers have never had it better. Cheers to the vintners in far-flung places taking risks on unorthodox wines, hoping that we’ll notice their beauty, and cheers to the importers, restaurants and wine shops courageous enough to work with them. My life is much the richer for it.

The most memorable reds I tasted in 2015, in alphabetical order:

 

August Eser Spatburgunder

August Eser Spätburgunder at the Schlosshotel Burg Schlitz in Mecklenburg, Germany

2010 AUGUST ESER MITTELHEIMER SPÄTBURGUNDER BARRIQUE TROCKEN

First, a quick translation: This dry (trocken) Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) from the Mittleheim section of the Rheingau is aged in small oak barrels (barriques). It had a surprisingly dark, almost porty aroma, full of red currant fruit. It felt deeply flavored but light-bodied, with some slow-building black-peppercorn spice and a woodsy note on the finish. An excellent pairing with some duck.

 

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

2007 BAGLIO DI PIANETTO “CEMBALI” NERO D’AVOLA

I’ve long enjoyed Sicilian Nero d’Avola, and this example ranks among the best I’ve tasted. The grapes come from 45-year-old vineyards and the wine sees nine months in barriques and 36 months in the bottle before it’s released. Although 2007 isn’t an especially new vintage, the wine still felt young. I could detect its aroma well beyond the rim of the glass: red fruit, fresh green herbs, spice. It had big, ripe fruit, focused green-peppercorn spice and a finish of wood and leather. Just beautiful.

 

Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata's experimental winery

Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata’s experimental winery

2013 CATENA ZAPATA ADRIANNA VINEYARD MALBEC PASSITO

I tasted this remarkable wine, made from partially dried grapes in the Italian passito method, right from the barrel in the experimental section of Catena Zapata’s pyramid-shaped winery. The Adrianna Vineyard ranks among the very best in all of Argentina, and after sampling this Malbec, I could see why. The wine exhibited gorgeously rich, jammy fruit, with lots of plum and raisin flavors. Bright spice, which built to a blast at the finish, kept things well in balance. Sensational.

 

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

2013 CELLERS UNIÓ “PERLAT”

Catalonia has more to offer than just Cava — the Spanish region’s red wines can compete with the best Rioja has to offer. I felt particularly impressed at a recent tasting by the 2013 Cellers Unió “Perlat,” a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Carignan and Syrah from Montsant. The wine exuded elegance with its well-integrated and notably supple tannins, and it had a striking purity of fruit. Its red fruit aroma was clean and clear, and the dark cherry flavor rang like a bell.

 

My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur Ocio at right

My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur “Ocio” at right

2012 CONO SUR “OCIO” PINOT NOIR

If this wine is any indication, Pinot Noir apparently grows exceedingly well in Chile’s cool-climate Casablanca Valley, just off the coast. Cono Sur (note the pun) made Chile’s first premium Pinot Noir, according to its website, and the Ocio certainly lives up to the “premium” designation. It had a rich aroma of deep red fruit along with a surprising mocha note. When I tasted the wine, ripe black-cherry fruit was quickly shoved aside by forceful spice, followed by some earth and a softly tannic finish. I loved it.

 

Element's oversize bottles were quite the hit at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Element’s oversize bottles were wine blogger catnip at this year’s Finger Lakes conference

2013 ELEMENT LEMBERGER

Sommelier and winemaker Christopher Bates gave an excellent presentation at this year’s Wine Blogger’s Conference in New York’s Finger Lakes region, and his winery’s Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) proved just as memorable, if not more so. It had a seductive aroma of dark fruit and violets, and though it was light-bodied, it displayed big dark fruit offset by ample and refined spice. Riesling gets all the press in the Finger Lakes, but Lemberger is equally at home there.

 

Fred Merwath holding Hermann J Wiemer Cabernet Franc

Fred Merwath pouring his Cabernet Franc

2012 HERMANN J. WIEMER VINEYARDS CABERNET FRANC

Wiemer winemaker and co-owner Fred Merwath also knew how to impress a table of wine bloggers, pouring his Finger Lakes wine from a magnum. This Cabernet Franc has a sultry aroma of dark fruit, dark chocolate, violets and spice, and oo, what a lovely flavor. Lots of dark fruit, big white-pepper spice, mocha-inflected tannins… It had power, but it remained cheerful and light on its feet.

 

Rodney Strong Malbec2011 QUINTA DA LAPA TINTO RESERVA

From Portugal’s Tejo region, this blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragónez, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah was an absolute joy. It had a wonderfully dark plummy aroma and it tasted big and full. I loved the journey from rich fruit to big spice to some mocha on the finish. This was a wine with some depth, and it paired perfectly with some pork cheeks. The price of about $25 is higher than many Portuguese reds on the shelf, but considering the very high quality, it’s still an excellent value.

 

2012 RODNEY STRONG ALEXANDER VALLEY MALBEC

“Oh my lord,” my tasting companion remarked about this wine. “That is sexy.” It really was. Rodney Strong’s first Malbec varietal (usually the grape appears in Bordeaux-style blends) had an aroma of old wood, vanilla and dark fruit, and it felt rich and voluptuous on the tongue. Ample, ripe fruit mixed with oak and vanilla, which could have been a rather flabby combination in lesser hands. But in spite of its lush richness, this wine kept itself together, with a shaft of focused spice. Indeed, it felt almost taut, and it had no trouble standing up to some pork loin. Sonoma isn’t known for its Malbec, but maybe it should be.

 

Pouring Salton wines at last year's Wine Blogger Conference

Pouring Salton wines at last year’s Wine Blogger Conference

2012 SALTON “INTENSO” TANNAT

The wine representative who poured this Brazilian wine promised me that it would be “light and elegant.” A light and elegant Tannat seemed about as likely as a light and elegant Arnold Schwarzenegger. I nearly spit this wine out in shock before I managed to spit it out with composure into the spit bucket. Where were the overpowering tannins? This Tannat tasted fruity and well-balanced, with some restrained spice and supple — supple! — tannins. Uruguay has got some Tannat competition.

 

Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah's restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia

Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah’s restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia

2012 STELLA BELLA MARGARET RIVER VALLEY TEMPRANILLO

I mentioned to the sommelier how much I enjoyed this wine, and he nodded, saying, “It’s really hard to make bad wine in the Margaret River Valley,” a distant wine region set on the coast in the far southwestern corner of Australia. The aroma of this Tempranillo sold me right away, with its notes of dark fruit, earth, vanilla and violets. Powerful but classy, the wine moved from plummy fruit to big white-pepper spice to supple tannins to a savory finish. Some lamb made for a superb pairing.

 

Viña Vik's red blend

2010 VIK

A hotel’s “house red” doesn’t usually quicken the pulse, but Viña Vik, standing like an alien space base on a Chilean hilltop, is not your usual hotel. Its onsite winery makes just one wine, and it’s a doozy. I could tell from its enticing aroma of dark, rich fruit mixed with some meatiness and some vanilla that the wine was going to be memorable. It had notable structure, with dark fruit and big spice, which changed from green peppercorn to red paprika. Something fresh underneath kept the wine from being heavy, and the tannins were big enough to make me want to lay a bottle down for another few years. The finish went on and on.

 

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

2012 VIÑA PEÑALOLÉN CABERNET SAUVIGNON

This elegant and complex Chilean Cabernet impressed me most with the finesse with which it shifted gears from ripe red fruit to focused white-pepper spice to velvety tannins. It’s yet another illustration of Chile’s great success in developing its fine-wine industry.

You might also enjoy reading about my favorite whites and spirits from 2015. And you can see past red winners from 2014, 2013 and 2012

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