Argentina may be famous for its malbec but it’s not the only grape in town, writes Peter Ranscombe.
BACK in 1991, when winemaker Hervé Birnie Scott stepped off a plane in Argentina for the first, he was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts – only to find it was -5c outside.
Like many first-time visitors to what is now the world’s fifth largest wine-producing country, Scott was surprised by how the altitude affected the temperature.
Standing in the relative warmth of drinks company Moët Hennessy’s London office, he explains that a two-hour drive up a mountainside in Argentina is the equivalent of travelling from the heat of North Africa to the cool of the Champagne region in Northern France when it comes to the outside temperature.
Altitude allows grapes to retain their acidity, soaking up the warmth of the sun during the day but then being cooled at night.
During Scott’s time at Bodegas Chandon – Moët’s Argentinian outpost – he’s overseen a more and more detailed exploration of the company’s vineyards.
Each site is divided into smaller and smaller sub-plots, allowing for “precision viticulture”, with farmers tending to groups of vines according to the underlying soil.
You need deep pockets to farm like this – and to then handle each parcel separately in the winery afterwards – but that’s no problem for Bodegas Chandon’s Terrazas de los Andes brand, which shares a stable with labels such as Ardbeg and Glenmorangie Scotch whiskies, Hennessy cognac and Moët & Chandon Champagne.
Once a winemakers knows and understands each individual parcel then they can decide whether to bottle the wine made from those grapes plot-by-plot or mix them together to form more complex blends.
It’s the art that’s made Champagne a world-beater; being able to appreciate which variety grows best in which area within the region and then bring them together to create a drink that’s more than the sum of its parts.
That’s especially apparent in Scott’s mountain of malbecs, Argentina’s flagship red grape variety.
Climb every mountain
At the base of the mountain sits the 2017 Terrazas de los Andes Malbec (£16.99, Ocado), the brightest and fruitiest of the incarnations, with complex aromas of dark chocolate, blackcurrant, blackberry, raspberry and raspberry jam.
There’s a similar mix of red and black fruit flavours, with noticeable acidity and mouth-filling body and warmth from the 14% alcohol.
Climbing higher up the malbec mountain, we reach the 2016 Terrazas de los Andes Reserva Malbec (£16.99, Majestic), which accounts for about 60% of the brand’s output.
It even smells darker on the nose – with damp earth, black cherry and blackcurrant – with softer tannins on the palate and a syrah-like savoury finish, laced with liquorice.
At the peak sits the 2017 Terrazas de los Andes Grand Malbec, a new wine that will sell for about £42.
While Bodegas Chandon has made “Grand” wines since 1997, this vintage is the first to blend liquid from three vineyards: Las Compuertas in Lujan de Cuyo; Paraje Altamira in the Uco Valley; and Los Chacayes, which is also in Uco.
The complexity is turned up a notch, with violets joining the raspberry and blackcurrant jams on the nose, and then a redcurrant and cranberry lift creeping in amongst the sweet fruit notes on the palate.
It was interesting afterwards to compare the new blend with the 2015 Terrazas de los Andes Single Vineyard Malbec, the final year for the standalone Las Compuertas bottling.
Although it’s hard to compare different vintages – with some burnt meat notes developing on the nose of the 2015 – the new Grand Malbec felt more restrained, with sweet vanilla and spicy black pepper notes rearing their heads in the single vineyard example.
Argentina’s output isn’t limited to malbec – the other new wine from Bodegas Chandon is the 2017 Terrazas de los Andes Grand Cabernet Sauvignon, which again is expected to tip the scales around the £42 mark.
It’s a pretty impressive beast – lots of surprisingly-red fruit on the nose, along with floral aromas of clean bed sheets and warmer woodsmoke and cedar.
There’s a mouth-filling concentration to the fruit on the palate, starting with blackcurrant, blackberry and raspberry jam, then morphing into well-integrated sweet spices with cinnamon, cloves and vanilla.
For me, it was more complex than the malbecs and well worth a look after lockdown ends.
If malbec is Argentina’s flagship red then torrontes is its standard-bearing white and the 2017 Terrazas de los Andes Reserva Torrontes (£16, Clos 19) has tonnes of fresh acidity to prevent it from falling into the trap of becoming too flabby, which often happens with cheaper supermarket examples.
All the classic peach, grape and honeysuckle notes are present and correct, yet there’s an attractive savoury lemon rind element too.
In contrast, the 2018 Terrazas de los Andes Reserva Chardonnay (£16, Clos 19) displays more subtlety, with sophisticated aromas of woodsmoke, rich tea biscuits, lemon rind and cream.
It’s a very fresh style, which will appeal to many Burgundy drinkers, with its flavours stretching from green and red apples through to wholemeal toast with a light lick of butter.
Malbec may have put Argentina on the map, but it shouldn’t mask the country’s potential when it comes to other varieties too.
Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s blog entries about wine, whisky and other drinks on The Grape & The Grain at https://www.scottishfield.co.uk/grapegrain/