Wine in the Blood – great wines from Argentina

Viña Alicia with the Andes in the background

It is amazing how the term ‘New World wine’, and the concepts that it carries with it, stick. It makes all the wines made in non-European countries sound, well, new.

That of course is very far from the truth. Lord Byron’s grandfather waxed lyrical about the wines he found in Chile in the 1740’s on Commodore Anson’s circumnavigation of the world. Napoleon 1 found great solace in sipping Constantia whilst contemplating the wallpaper on St Helena and Robert Louis Stevenson loved California’s Schramsberg – to list just three relatively early brushes with ‘New World wines’ – which together span around 140 years. It almost sounds like an oxymoron, but most of the really old vine material in the world is grown in the, you’ve guessed it, ‘New World’.

Europeans went to the ‘New World’ for all sorts of reasons and over many centuries. Legions of British people left these shores for colonies that still thought of themselves as British, the same applied to Spaniards going to South America, but many also journeyed to places that had no direct link with their homeland. British people and Germans flooded into the fledgling United States, while enormous numbers of Italians headed for Argentina where they intermarried with Spanish immigrants to create this exciting, vibrant country.

The sheer romance of Argentina, the passion, the fire, the glamour and the excitement is hard to define. I have been there all too briefly and seen too little of it, but I loved the place. It seemed to have all the best bits of Spain and Italy combined – I think that any country that can produce the Tango has got to be quite something.

Rodrigo Arizu

So, I was thrilled to meet Rodrigo Arizu the other day. He is descended from Italian immigrants from Piemonte and Spanish immigrants from Navarra, both top notch wine regions, and his family have spent the last 150 years or so growing grapes and making wine in Mendoza in Argentina. See what I mean, how could he avoid making wine, he has wine in the blood? Centuries of tradition and knowhow carry on in the ‘New World’, but at some point members of his family had actually been involved with wine in Europe, took themselves overseas and applied their experience in the new setting – it is a continuum, not a break with the past as we often see it.

In 1901 his family created Bodega Luigi Bosca, but would appear to have been growing grapes for much longer than that. Luigi Bosa is one of the great names of Argentinian wine in both terms of importance and scale. They farm around 700 hectares on seven fincas spread across Mendoza and were partly responsible for helping the Luján de Cuyo sub-region of Mendoza become Argentina’s first appellation, Denominación de Origen / D.O., in 1993.

Given all this history and progress it is not really surprising that they decided to create something even more ambitious. In 1998 Rodrigo and his mother,  Alicia Mateu Arizu,  created a boutique, single estate winery in Luján de Cuyo called Viña Alicia. The winery itself is surrounded by the fifteen hectare Viña Alicia vineyard that is among the very oldest in the country. The average age of the vines is 110 years old, but some were planted in the 1850’s or 1860’s, which must mean that it contains some of the very first Malbec vines planted in Argentina.The estate also comprises the much younger, 15 year old, San Alberto vineyard. The vineyards are organic by the way, but they have not bothered with certification, preferring to let the wines speak for themselves, but they use no fertilisers, herbicides or insecticides at all.

Total production is pretty small, just 25,000 bottles of the Viña Alicia label wines with 80,000 more of their two Paso de Piedra wines – a  Malbec and a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Mendoza is overwhelmingly a traditionally red wine producing region, but Viña Alicia does make one white from a blend of the white grapes on the San Alberto vineyard:

2010 Tiara
D.O. Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

This captivating wine is made from 50% Riesling, 40% Albariño and 10% Savagnin, none of which are widely seen in Argentina. Savagnin is almost solely grown in the Jura region of France, although some sort of relationship to Gewürztraminer has long been assumed. Interestingly a little is grown in Australia, where it had been mistaken for Albariño, which begs many questions.

Rather unusually the three different grape varieties were co-fermented and the wine was aged for a year on the lees with battonage

The nose had lovely aromatics, fresh & scintillating with a promise of creamy richness.
The palate was succulent with rich peach and apricot fruit and creamy, baked fruit richness like a peach cobbler. The finish is powerful with mineral complexity dominating. The acidity is always in the background, but sneaks back like a rich apricot note on the finish.
Subsequent sips get better and better, it is quite delicious and hedonistic to drink – 91/100 points.

Next we moved onto the reds and started with the two Paso de Piedra Malbec wines:

2007 Paso de Piedra Malbec
D.O. Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

Made from 150 year old vines grown in the Viña Alicia vineyard and aged 8 months in 2nd and 3rd fill barrels – French and American.

The colour is a vibrant purple hue and it has a pristine, nose that is floral and perfumed, offering violets and some black pepper notes too.
The lovely medium-bodied palate has rich plum, raspberry and black cherry fruit, together with touches of sugar plum ripeness and smooth, soft tannins. It feels very fresh, clean and vibrant and is quite delicious. If it has a fault it is a little alcoholic heat on the finish, but with food that would not be noticed, the fruit and the soft tannins dominate – 89/100 points.

2007 Paso de Piedra Cabernet Sauvignon
D.O. Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

Made from 40 year old vines grown in the San Alberto vineyard and aged 8 months in 2nd and 3rd fill barrels – French and American.

This had a more brooding nose with earthy, leather and mineral chalky notes.
The palate delivers lovely ripe cassis fruit enrobed in fine grain tannins with some bitter chocolate and espresso flavours. It feels very bright and pure again, but drier and more structured with firmer tannins and some fresh, balancing acidity. Somewhat bitter on the finish, but will work very well with food and once the oak has settled down too – 89/100 points.

Then we came to the Viña Alicia reds themselves:

2007 Viña Alicia Malbec
D.O. Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

Made from 150 year old vines grown in the Viña Alicia vineyard and aged 12 months in new French barrels.

This Malbec is deeper, darker, opaque and slightly garnett.
Creamy ripeness dominates the nose which is otherwise slightly closed at the moment with just some coffe and spice notes peeping through.
It is very smooth and supple on the palate with a lovely succulent texture to the rich fruit, a melange of black and red fruit notes. Smoky, fine grain tannins bob along in the rich fruit giving some structure and a savoury richness to the medium-bodied palate.
Spice and savoury notes dominate the finish, it is beginning to age very well and remains very clean and pure and elegant – 90/100 points.

2007 Viña Alicia Brote Negra
D.O. Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

Made from 95-150 year old Malbec vines of a clone unique to the Viña Alicia vineyard, they have black shoots – ‘brote negra’ . The wine is  aged 16 months in new French barrels.

Lovely nose, earthy, mineral and gently spicy, it is fragrant and savoury with mushroom and truffle notes.
It has a joyous palate, smooth and juicy with refreshing floral characters as well as complex touches of leather and gamey characters. There is a lovely elegance and completeness to it with balanced smoky oak, fruit and tannins and a long, enticing finish. Elegant, medium bodied and understated – 92/100 points.

While we are on the subject of Malbec, Rodrigo told me that Malbec is actually the name the grape variety was given in Argentina. I knew it was called Cot and Auxerrois in some areas of France, but I had assumed that Malbec was another French name for it. However it seems that it is a comment on the powerful tannins and dry mouthfeel of the grape that used to be the dominant characteristic of wines made from the grape, Malbec apparently means ‘bad beak‘ or ‘bad mouth‘.

I had never heard this before and am not sure how true it is, as I understand that the Argentinean Malbec clones are less tannic than the traditional French ones and it is Cahors that had the reputation for producing hugely tannic ‘black’ wines. However, I remember tasting Malbec from Argentina in the early 1980’s and finding it very austere and drying in the mouth, so perhaps it is true of Malbec in the past?

2007 Viña Alicia Cuarzo
D.O. Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

Made from 40 year old Petit Verdot vines together with 2.5% each of Grenache and Carignan grown in the quartz soils of the San Alberto vineyard and aged 18 months in new French barrels

Black plum colour, intense and opaque.
This offers a brooding, earthy nose, with spice and even a little booze.
Rich, rich creamy fruit dominates the palate, blackcurrant, redcurrant, raspberry, strawberry even, so ripe it hints at sweetness and makes the tannins soft, even though they are there in a supporting role, which makes it beautifully balanced and well knit.
I was tempted to simply write ‘yum’, but it is much more complex and fine than that, I wish I had tried it with a meal – 93/100 points.

We were also fortunate enough to try the 2006 Quarzo and that was equally superb, the fruit had given way to a tad more savoury characters, I also rated that 93/100 points.

Their Nebbiolo was rather good too, which made me wonder if they have any Tempranillo to celebrate the other half of their origins. I just wish that I had been able to try these wines with food as I think they would be even better, however as you can see I really was thrilled by the wines of Viña Alicia as they are superb, do try them if you can. I found them to be beautifully made, very well balanced and very elegant with – dare I say it? – a touch of their old world heritage as well as the lush new world fruit.

They are available in the UK from Cavas de Gaucho and in Gaucho restaurants.

They are also available from their UK agent who is the rather wonderful Ruta 40 who import a range of boutique Argentinean wines.

Their agent in the United States is Southern Starz Inc.

10 thoughts on “Wine in the Blood – great wines from Argentina

  1. Great stuff Quentin! I think that some of the old growth vines in Argentina are producing some great results. Often in the hands of some very young and capable winemakers.

    Having travelled to Mendoza and Cafayaté in July what I saw that could be labelled new are resurrections of some old varietals like Bonarda and Torrontes.

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