Argentina, beyond Malbec
By Mauricio Llaver – Photographs: courtesy of the estates, posted on 17 April 2023
Argentina is renowned around the world for its Malbec, but in its fertile soils, many vibrant wines are also being produced from other varieties, both autochthonous and European.
El Valle de Uco, where Rutini Wines is located, lends Cabernet Franc unique characteristics.
Argentina? Ah, Malbec! In the world of wine, this is a reaction which fills Argentinian producers with pride. But things are changing, and for the better.
For any wine-producing country, having a flagship variety with the potency of Malbec is a blessing, because it opens doors in international markets. However, it would be a mistake for wineries to relax and forget that consumers are people who are always looking for something new.
And here comes the good news for Argentina. Its makers know that Malbec is only the starting point. And in the wake of its success, they can showcase wines of excellent quality in red or white varieties, and in an infinite series of blends.
Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Torrontés, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin… on their own or in blends, the possibilities today in Argentina are enormous. This is evident in tours to vineyards in every geographical region in the country, where there is a tremendous drive to explore new possibilities.
At Rutini Wines, “the sky’s the limit for Cabernet Franc!”
Mariano Di Paola, CEO and winemaker at Rutini Wines, puts it in simple terms: the possibilities for Cabernet Franc in Argentina “are endless.” The development of this variety started at Rutini in 1996, when the first vines were introduced to the Gualtallary region in the Valle de Uco in Mendoza.
Mariano Di Paola, the winemaker at Rutini Wines.
“Our idea was to use it for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon, but at the same time, we started to make single varietal wines with it to explore its potential,” Di Paola recalls. In this way, they learned that they could make great wines. In 2011, they launched the Rutini Cabernet Franc line; in 2014, the first Single Vineyard Cabernet Franc; and in 2020 the Trumpeter Cabernet Franc.
The result is that, since the first Single Vineyard appeared, it has been highly regarded by many international publications, and in some cases, has ranked among the five Top Cabernet Franc wines in the world.
Rutini owns nine hectares of Cabernet Franc in El Cepillo and Gualtallary, in the Valle de Uco, and it is currently turning 10 hectares over to plant new vines. Moreover, it is preparing a dam to optimise water usage – a historical limitation in Mendoza – and to plant a further five hectares. In addition, it leases 15 hectares to independent producers, over which it has full agricultural management.
“In Mendoza, Cabernet Franc has found a climate that is totally distinct from its native country, France. Here, the sun and humidity bestow unique characteristics of fruit, pyrazines, floral aromas, typical local fruits, such as aguaribay, and other herbs which make it totally different,” says the winemaker. As soon as work began with Cabernet Franc at Rutini, “we were amazed by its quality and its reception in the marketplace. We immediately began winning important international awards and as a result, we needed more and more grapes of the same variety,” states Di Paola.
According to Mariano Di Paola at Rutini Wines, “the sky’s the limit for Cabernet Franc.”
Today, their hopes lie in the heights of the Andes, which is why “we are searching for better areas, going higher and higher, some of them at 1,600 metres above sea level.” From the total production of Cabernet Franc at Rutini today, only 20% is used for blending. The number of bottles sold as single varietal wine under different labels is 350,000. “If we had more water, growth would be limitless. The sky’s the limit for Cabernet Franc in Argentina,” concludes Di Paola.
Rutini is increasingly exploring higher altitudes in the Andes.
El Esteco Winery and its investment in Torrontés
Located in the north of Argentina is the Valles Calchaquíes (Calchaquí Valley). It is here that the El Esteco winery is firmly committed to a varietal that is unique in the world: Torrontés.
Alejandro Pepa, manager of winemaking at El Esteco, categorically stresses its importance: “Torrontés is a flagship white grape variety in Argentina. It is a noble vine and work carried out on it is demonstrating its full potential: it can produce still wines, reserve wines, spend time in oak or 100% concrete, produce natural, late and sparkling sweet wines.”
Alejandro Pepa, manager of winemaking at El Esteco.
Torrontés is enormously flexible. “It is one of the grape varieties called ‘criollos’, that is, it originates in America, is one of a kind, and over time it has adapted to the different Argentinian regions. This makes it better suited year by year to contrasting terroirs, having been introduced to different regions, at different altitudes and in different soils and climatic conditions. So, in each terroir, we encounter wines with distinct characteristics, aromas and tastes, which enables us year-on-year to showcase Torrontés wines with greater elegance and finesse, or to try out different winemaking techniques,” Pepa explains.
Throughout the entire Calchaquí Valley, a large number of hectares have been planted with the Torrontés Riojano grape, most of them using a traditional vine-training system called parral (pergola). Pepa explains that, at El Esteco, they concentrated heavily on the development of the pergola system because “a good balance during the growth of our vines, with appropriate management of shade and light during the ripening process, enables us to obtain very healthy, fresh and fruity bunches of grapes with great aromatic potential.”
Bodega El Esteco, located in Cafayate, Salta
Torrontés is an exotic, fragrant white wine, pairing with cheeses or traditional summer dishes like salads, seafood or fish. It also works well with Oriental cuisine or regional dishes from the North of Argentina, like empanadas, tamales and humita. Differences aside, the winemaker at El Esteco likens it to aromatic wines from the Alsace region, German Gewürztraminer, Albariño from Galicia and young Muscat wines from Italy.
Can Torrontés be an age-worthy wine? Pepa shares his opinion: “Generally these are wines for drinking fresh within the year, but there are exceptions like our Old Vine Torrontés, designed to be aged in bottles and consumed after several years of aging. Our experience tells us that it is possible to find a Torrontés which has aged for over 10 years and has developed in an amazing way”.
Antigal Winery: “Demonstrating that other very good wines can be made”
In 2000, Chile’s Cartoni family arrived in Argentina, purchasing Antigal Winery, which was founded in 1897. They used to have a local partner who has since withdrawn from the project and their own importer in 50 states across the USA.
CEO Alessandra Cartoni explains that they export to 60 countries and that the company’s business is divided between a brother based in Miami, another in charge of exports, her father managing the winery located in the wine region of Maipu in Mendoza, and herself.
Alessandra Cartoni, CEO of Antigal
Cartoni recounts that, despite the fact that 70% of their production is Malbec, their portfolio is steadily expanding with new varietals and blends. “Malbec is the way in, but we want to demonstrate that other very good wines can be produced in Mendoza.”
Her viewpoint is shared by winemaker Miriam Gómez who joined the company in 2007 and is committed to wines such as Aduentus Petit Blend, which is 40% Malbec, 35% Petit Verdot and 25% Cabernet Franc. The central idea is to take advantage of the stability which Malbec offers in Argentinian soil, but to combine it with increasing percentages of other varieties. In this case, they sought “to use French varieties from the Old World to showcase them in the winegrowing culture of the New World with its own expression.”
Miriam Gómez, the winemaker at Antigal
Gómez explains that “Petit Verdot brings different characteristics to Malbec, in terms of aroma, with black fruits, more jammy notes and countryside herbs, which are typical of the varietal and the region of Gualtallary, where the grapes come from.” Blends also include Cabernet Franc, which lends “aromas of white chocolate, roasted sweet pepper, tomato, sweetness, elegance and strength.”
Another example of the quest at Antigal for wines with new profiles is Aduentus Blanc de Blancs 2022, a label so new that it has not yet been launched. It is a French blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin, where different winemaking techniques are applied to each varietal.
The Cartoni family is inspired by the philosophy of ‘continuous improvement’ and they are constantly working on quality certifications and sustainability protocols. “We have a long road ahead to continue improving and the team is committed to this vision,” Cartoni sums up.
Antigal Winery, an investment by Chile’s Cartoni family in Maipu, Mendoza, dating back to 2000.
Los Helechos seeks maximum expression from Chardonnay
Los Helechos winery was created in 2012 as a premium wine project by the co-operative winery Fecovita – Argentina’s largest – but it quickly became an independent brand. It is located in the Valle de Uco in Mendoza, with vineyards in specific areas such as La Arboleda, El Peral, Vista Flores and La Consulta.
Marcelo Parolaro is its top winemaker and is responsible for Los Helechos and Designado Single Vineyard wine lines, which showcase the diverse varieties offered by the Valle de Uco: Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.
He devotes utmost attention to all of them, but Los Helechos Chardonnay has already garnered high international ratings, and in it he sees enormous possibilities for the variety’s development in Argentina.
Marcelo Parolaro at Los Helechos.
“Chardonnay has huge potential. It adapts to all climates and soils, and we are faced with the challenge of finding its finest characters in our land and giving it maximum added value,” Parolaro argues. “In Argentina, there are some 5,900 hectares planted with Chardonnay and 35% of them are located in the Valle de Uco.”
Some of the Chardonnay at Los Helechos is used as a base for its sparkling wine, using the traditional method of secondary bottle fermentation. The rest is used to create still wines for the Los Helechos and Designado lines. The former is a blend of grapes from different terroirs, and the latter, a single vineyard offering from a specific plot.
As a rule for winemaking, Parolaro explains, “We focus on the primary fruit and only 35% of the grapes spend time in French oak, used for the first or second time. There, we ferment and preserve this 35%, which we then blend with the rest of the grapes that are fermented in stainless steel tanks.”
In recent years, sales of Chardonnay from Los Helechos have increased by 15%, which is why the company is looking for new suppliers from the region to sustain this growth. The wines are exported to the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Russia and other parts of Latin America.
Parolaro compares his Chardonnay with wines from South Africa, describing them as “more New World than Old World”, with a tropical touch. “The important thing is the fruit and local knowledge, in addition to the use of wood to define the wine’s profile on the palate. All this allows us to gain maximum expression from this extraordinary variety.”
The challenge at Los Helechos is to give Chardonnay maximum added value