According to the trade group Wines of Argentina, Argentine wines are in vogue worldwide. The star varietal is malbec, a red wine made from the malbec grape that is native to Bordeaux but actually thrives better in the high-altitude terrain of Mendoza than anywhere else in the world. A decade after first taking the wine world by storm in the early 2000s, when burgeoning foreign investment sparked a boom in Argentina’s wine exports, malbec is as synonymous with Argentina as zinfandel is with California or sauvignon blanc with New Zealand.
There are exciting emerging wines too. Torrontés, an aromatic varietal unique to Argentina, is tipped to be the world’s next high-demand white wine. The torrontés from the evolving Cafayate wine valley in northwest Argentina balances amazing floral aromas with zesty flavours of citrus and tropical fruits. Bonarda (a fruity red) and pinot noir from the cooler climes of northern Patagonia are also whispered about as the 'next big thing' by wine industry experts. Argentine wines, it seems, are on everybody’s lips.
In 2011, Decanter magazine awarded more International Wine of the Year trophies to Argentina than any other country. In the same year, worldwide sales of torrontés, which pairs beautifully with Asian-fusion cuisines and is winning popularity among young, female wine drinkers, rose by an astonishing 30%, outpacing even Malbec.
“Argentine wines tick all the right boxes,” explained Andrew Maidment from Wines of Argentina. “They share Old and New World qualities; they’re fruity but have backbone. In the US people see Argentinean malbec as similar to the great wines of the Napa and Sonoma valleys, but at half the price. It has fallen quite beautifully into a sweet spot.”
Paradoxically, in the ultra-competitive UK market, which is viewed as a barometer for the wider European market, Argentina positions its wines upmarket. “They are incredibly popular in the London area among high-spending professionals, the type of person interested in vacationing in Argentina. There’s been an explosion of Argentine restaurants in London, some 25 at the last count,” said Maidment.
In the UK, where sales of malbec rose by 40% in 2011, Argentine wines command the second-highest average price per bottle, after New Zealand.
The secret is clearly out, and as Argentine viticulture flourishes, savvy entrepreneurs from Buenos Aires are busy uncorking the creative potential of the degustación (wine tasting). Deliberately distancing themselves from the city’s slightly stuffy hotel-and-wine-club circuit, these new ventures emphasise the fun, informal elements of urban wine tasting.
Wine Tour Urbano is an urban wine route that invites participants to discover great wines at interesting locations in neighbourhoods around the city. For a flat fee of 130 Argentinean pesos, tour-goers receive an Italian crystal wine glass along with a map indicating each stop on the circuit. They can then set off independently to discover the route at their own pace. At each location a different bodega hosts a delicious tasting.
Wine Tour Urbano currently takes place in the historic Monserrat district, offering tour participants the opportunity to taste velvety pinot noirs by a Patagonian winery in the lantern-lit cloisters of a 1700s Jesuit church or rich malbecs by a Mendoza bodega at a frescoed, 19th-century pharmacy. In September, the tour will relocate to the ultra-hip Soho neighbourhood, where a circuit of fashion and design boutiques will host tastings, giving shopping-and-wine enthusiasts a chance to quaff lush varietals while browsing funky designer wares.
Still in hip Soho, Autre Monde is an independent bookstore and wine dealer that organises inventive tastings with wine prizes. These take place at the store’s chic loft space, where a sommelier invites guests to guess a single rogue malbec, say, amid a selection of syrah wines. Autre Monde is also planning more creative tastings on philosophical and cinematic themes, such as combining complex wines (pinot noir, for example) with a night of art-house cinema (like 1970s American New Wave) and hosting a discussion on the joyful complexities of both; or toying with the Kantian ideal of universalisation alongside a tasting of cabernet sauvignon, a wine recognised for its structure and universal appeal.
At 0800-Vino in Abasto, an old tango neighbourhood, British sommelier Nigel Tollerman hosts memorable tastings amid the oak barrels of his private cellar. Regular themed events feature the best of Patagonian high-altitude wines and the whites of Argentina, led by the rising star torrontés and finishing with playful guesstimates as to the cost of each bottle.
In the upscale neighbourhood of Recoleta, Prado y Neptuno is a boutique cigar bar that hosts cigar and wine pairings. It marries Cuban cigars with complex white and sparkling wines, complementing the hot, smoky notes of rolled tobacco with smooth chardonnays.
Based in Mendoza, but also hosting regular special events in Buenos Aires is Awaken Your Senses, run by a Canadian ex-pat and chocolatier, which pairs its wines with lush chocolate and truffle selections. Delicious.