Mendoza's growing number of good white varietals
Mendoza might be best known for its reds, but an open-mindedness regarding new varietals means there are a growing number of good blancos as well. Clinton Cawood reports
Nothing great ever came from following the easiest and most obvious path. Torrontés is undoubtedly Argentina’s go-to white grape varietal – it’s unique to this country, cultivated in all of its grape-growing regions. This has traditionally been the case in Argentina’s vinous heartland, Mendoza, but recently many producers have begun to experiment with other white varietals as well.
This was evident on this, the second in a recent series of Wines of Argentina sommelier trips to the region. A first impression may be that the region’s climate may not be favourable to white-wine production – winemakers have a hard enough time handling high temperatures for their reds. But they’ve not been deterred, and this persistence is undoubtedly one of the factors behind the improvement in Argentina’s wine in recent years.
At Terrazas de los Andes, the need to manage various climatic conditions is particularly clear. The winery’s intention is to find the right altitudes for particular wines. Its Reserva Chardonnay, for example, is grown at 1,200 metres. ‘It’s a good climate to ripen grapes,’ says Gustavo Sanchez Esteves, senior winemaker at Terrazas. ‘We need the lower temperature to reach acidity levels.’ For Terrazas, which was founded by Bodegas Chandon (a subsidiary of Moët Hennessy), a proficiency in Chardonnay production is obvious: ‘We produce a lot of Chardonnay for sparkling wine, so we understand the grape at various altitudes,’ explains Estevez.
This results in wines that have ripeness and body, but bolstered by acidity, giving them the necessary complexity to earn them their place on a wine list. These are undoubtedly food wines.
SUN AND SAND
Elevation isn’t the only factor, of course. For Edgardo del Popolo, head viticulturist at Doña Paula, soil contributes significantly to decisions about which varietals to produce. ‘In the whites, we get a mineral, stony character from the calcium carbonate,’ he says.
More specifically, del Popolo concedes, ‘It’s challenging to make Sauvignon Blanc in Argentina. Because of the intensity of the sun, we almost lose the asparagus and capsicum characteristics – the main descriptor we get is white peach.’ He explains that by picking early, leafy characteristics counteract inevitable tropical flavours. Conversely, he believes that the climate is particularly suited to Viognier. ‘We pick late, so there’s a good balance in the mouth. It’s a wine for food.’ Viognier from Argentina not only provides a point of difference, but has a deserved place on a restaurant list.
François Lurton’s emphasis on white wines in Argentina is well founded, given the company’s success in this arena in other countries. It uses various unexpected varietals in Argentina, such as Friulano and Pinot Gris.
VIOGNIER ET AL
Lagarde, in the Luján de Cuyo region of Mendoza, claims to have introduced Viognier to the country, back in 1993. ‘We got the vines from the Côtes du Rhône. It’s now the white wine we make the most – more than 50% of the whites are Viognier, followed by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.’
Another proponent of Viognier in Mendoza is Santiago Achaval Becú of Achaval Ferrer. Although his winery exclusively produces red wine, he believes that in Mendoza ‘the whites do very well, especially in the Uco Valley. I’m intrigued by the potential of Viognier and Viognier-based blends.’
Masi Tupungato’s Passo Blanco 2008 acknowledges the winery’s Italian heritage, consisting of 60% Pinot Grigio and 40% Torrontés. The winery’s agricultural engineer, Diego Ortiz-Maldonado, explains that the intention is to ‘get the best of the Torrontés, but in small amounts, together with the freshness and acidity from the Pinot Grigio’ – which is exactly what this wine achieves.
It may not be the most obvious route to take, but as with other white wine pioneers in the region, the additional effort will no doubt prove to be worth it. Much like the strides made in red wine production in Argentina, expect these developments in Mendoza to mean more varietals, and a better choice of food-friendly wines for restaurants.
From the sommeliers...
CHRISTINE PARKINSON, HAKKASAN, ON MALBEC:
‘When it came to the Malbecs we tried on the trip, the best wines had astonishing fruit – fragrant, floral and intense – yet they were not fruit bombs; these were all structured, grown-up wines with fine tannins and distinct minerality. There were some good whites too, but the reds were so often both charming and satisfying.’
PAULO BRAMMER, ETM GROUP, ON MENDOZAN WHITES:
‘The quality in the middle range white wines is developing fast. Modern agriculture and winemaking techniques are able to protect the aromatics from the intense Mendocino heat. Varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc, some Chardonnays and Viognier, have shown great potential. The latter is totally different in style to its motherland, the Rhône, showing a rather clean and lively structure.’
ROB GRAVES, HARVEY NICHOLS, ON BLENDS:
‘It would be easy to aim for an international, fruit-driven, high-alcohol style favoured by certain wine critics and in particular the US market, but each wine shows care and restraint in the winemaking process, picking at optimum ripeness, gentle extraction and a sense of integration and harmony. What sets these apart is the way in which the components are married together without one facet dominating the other.’
MATT WILKIN, PRINCESS VICTORIA, ON MENDOZAN WHITES:
‘Argentina is drawing ambitious wine producers from all over the world like a magnet. There are some good food whites being produced from international varietals like Chardonnay. What I was looking for in these was the fingerprint of the area – a true expression of the varietals.’
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine - September / October 2009