5 March 2020 We thought, in view of the Argentine tasting article published today, it might be interesting to draw your attention to the very first article we published about Argentine (and Chilean) wine almost two decades ago. (We've updated the links in the first paragraph but not in the tasting notes.) It was inspired by the first major generic tasting of Argentine wine in the UK – on 11 September 2001...
24 September 2001 Note – prices and stockists are given for the UK only, but should at least provide some guide to prices elsewhere. For more information (in Spanish) on Chile try www.planetavino.com [and now also www.winesofchile.org] and on Argentina www.winesofargentina.org. An English version of the Argentina site is at www.winesofargentina.org/en.
The old rivalry between Chile and Argentina is a well-polished touchstone of South American life. And competition between the two countries' wine industries, just an hour's flight over the Andes from each other, is particularly acute.
This is why reactions to recent generic tastings in London for the wines of Chile and Argentina respectively are so interesting, with implications way beyond the British Isles. For both of South America's two most important wine exporters, Britain is the prime target for new wines and new wineries. What we tasted earlier this month will soon be aimed at the North American market and elsewhere.
Chile was the first to look seriously at exporting wine – not least because Chileans are much less enthusiastic consumers of their own wines than the Argentinians. Thanks to a much more stable economy and what can seem an impenetrably homogeneous mass of Cabernets and Merlots at £4.99 a bottle, Chile had established a respectable toehold in Britain, with more than 4% of the wine market by value by 1998.
Enter Argentina, all smouldering dark moustaches, a whiff of sizzled meat and the glamour of the tango and Buenos Aires (albeit much further, as a condor might fly, from the winelands of Mendoza than is the Chilean capital Santiago). Argentine wine has only about 1.5% of the British retail wine market currently but to judge from the buzz at the overcrowded Argentine tasting in London's Banqueting House (soon muted by what was then happening to the World Trade Centre), that share will grow rapidly over the next year.
Selling wine to the British wine trade is as much about fashion as about intrinsic quality or value. The Chilean tasting, admittedly over two days, seemed cold and empty in comparison, for professional wine buyers here have decided that it is now Argentina's turn.
They are right in that Argentina has some indisputable advantages over Chile. Most obviously in this grape-obsessed era, it can offer far, far more than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Thanks to successive influxes of immigrants from Italy, France and Spain it has its signature velvety red grape Malbec, its own aromatic white Torrontès, as well as particularly bumptious versions of Bonarda, Syrah, Tempranillo, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Chardonnay and Viognier.
Argentina can also argue that it benefits from a much broader variety of growing environments than Chile. In Chile the great majority of vines are planted on the flat, fertile floor of the Central Valley flanking the Pan-American highway. Latitude is so far the chief variable (although as vineyards move up the hillsides this will change). Argentine vineyards on the other hand already vary chiefly by altitude. Even within Mendoza, responsible for three-quarters of all Argentine wine, vineyards can be anything from 450 to 1500 m above sea level. And the new plantings in the high Uco Valley benefit from such cool nights that remarkably fine Chardonnays can be produced, as well as the odd promising Pinot Noir.
As for the Chileans, they have gone on the defensive. All too aware that Argentina produces almost five times as much wine as they do (even if half of it is of such low quality as to be unexportable), they seem to be suffering a crisis of confidence. In Britain they last year disastrously abandoned any generic wine presence (although recently announced a resumption of normal service). Some of the biggest Chilean producers have now swallowed their pride and invested in Argentine wine.
When a French ampelographer worked out that a high proportion of Chilean vines previously thought to be Merlot were in fact an old Bordeaux grape variety called Carmenère, there were sighs of relief all round. At last, it was thought, Chile had a point of difference. At this year's London tasting, varietal Carmenères abounded. Only to prove in most cases unfortunately that this is essentially a blending grape rather than a beauty in its own right. Even Chile's top wine writer Patricio Tapia maintains that Argentina 'will probably be a great nightmare for Chile in the very near future'.
But wine writers and wine merchants have an exaggerated respect for novelty. While the Argentine peso is tied at its current rate to the US dollar, Argentine wines will continue to be notably more expensive than Chilean at a similar quality level. The average wine consumer might well value a dependable, if unremarkable, Chilean Merlot over a flashier Argentine Malbec costing half as much again.
Now, some attention-grabbing wines from recent tastings.
Argento Malbec 2001 and Chardonnay 2000/2001 £4.99 Tesco and beyond
Argentina's most successful brand, created especially for the British market from the expanding interests of the country's leading producer Dr Nicolas Catena. Great packaging and value when all goes right (which it did not for the 2000 Malbec).
Santa Julia Viognier 2001 £4.99 bigger Sainsburys, Tesco, Thresher branches
Lively, big and getting more convincing with every vintage.
Alamos Malbec 2000 £5.99 Tesco, Majestic, Oddbins
Very confident and lively, for current drinking. This range will move out of retail distribution, so gather this fullblown rose while ye may. Another Catena wine.
Etchart Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 Cafayate £5.99 Asda
From one of the world's highest commercial vineyards at 1,750m, this French-made wine is easy and refreshing. The much less successful 1998 vintage may not be replaced in stores by this one until the end of the year.
Anubis Malbec 2000 £5.99 Bottoms Up, D Byrne of Clitheroe, Reid Wines of Hallatrow near Bristol
Full, soft and exciting with real structure from vineyards in the top quality Agrelo and Vistalba subregions of Mendoza. Made by Susanna Balbo, wife of Catena's head wine man, and Italian consultant Alberto Antonini.
Norton, Barrel Select Malbec 1999 £6.99 stockists from Berkmann Wine Cellars of London N7
Full, sweet and opulent.
Salentein Estate Merlot 2000 Valle de Uco £6.99 Stockists from D & D Wines of Knutsford (£6.99 from Les Caves de Pyrene of Guildford, tel 01483 538820)
Argentina's finest Merlot? Made in one of the country's highest wineries. Silky and sophisticated from 30-year-old vines.
Catena Zapata 1997 approx £40 Bibendum of London NW1 – on allocation
First vintage of Argentina's most ambitious wine made from Cabernet with some Malbec stood up well in a recent blind tasting to Bordeaux first growths and Opus One. 1999 will be the next vintage. Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec 1999 are also very fine, less expensive and made in greater quantity.
San Pedro, 35 South Syrah 2001 Lontue £4.99
Some real Syrah character; good value, exuberant young-vine Syrah in a very expensive-looking bottle.
William Cole, Albamar Pinot Noir 2000 Casablanca approx £5.50
Winning mixture of sweet fruit and obvious oak; for immediate drinking from a new American-owned bodega.
Casa Lapostolle Merlot 2000 Rapel £7.49 Oddbins
Time was when you could buy this French producer's sumptuous Cuvée Alexandre for this price (it is now almost double) but this wine is still fair value for those who love Pomerol but not its prices. The Cuvée Alexandre Chardonnay 2000 is one of Chile's best Chardonnays.
Valdivieso, Single Vineyard Cabernet Franc 1999 £8.99 bigger Tesco, Unwins, Sainsburys
Full, rich, flattering yet lively – though the location of this vineyard has always been a bit of a mystery.