Argentina’s Next Big Grape

Argentina's Next Big GrapeRecently we wrote about Argentina’s potential to be the next great source of cabernet sauvignon, but that’s not the grape that wineries are pushing these days. In fact, a couple of others are queuing up to share the mantle with malbec. But can they follow in the footsteps of Argentina’s greatest alcoholic export?

To hear vendors tell it, malbec’s success had a lot to do with timing. Australian shiraz had been a favorite budget wine for American consumers, but prices rose along with costs and exchange rates down under. At the same time, Americans’ tastes were changing; they even started buying less domestically produced syrah. The aftermath of the global financial crisis was putting the squeeze on American wallets, too.

All of these factors created the perfect opportunity for a tasty, inexpensive option from Argentina. In the first few months of 2010, sales of malbec and other Argentine wines rocketed skyward, racking up double-digit growth rates, and they haven’t looked back since. The question is whether another Argentine grape will be able to fill a similar breach.

Many wineries in Argentina are pinning their hopes on bonarda, which goes by names like douce noir and charbono in other countries. It tends to be a bit more rustic than malbec, but it can offer the same sweetness and some of the same red fruit flavors. The grapes must be treated with care, however, or the wines may come off as unduly sharp or austere. Moreover, “flying winemaker” Michel Rolland, who has consulted for several top Argentine wineries, thinks bonarda will never attain the heights of great malbec.

Among bonarda’s biggest backers are Hector Durigutti (of Durigutti and Lamadrid) and Alberto Antonini (of Altos las Hormigas and Colonia Las Liebres). The best bonarda we’ve tasted came from Mendoza’s Cavas Wine Lodge – strawberry-sweet, dense, and with a luscious, long finish. But where does bonarda fit into the American market? It seems more likely to cannibalize some of malbec’s sales rather than those of other varietals, though Italian sangiovese and California zinfandel would be reasonable candidates.

Where cannibalization is not such a concern is among white wines. Argentina, where the most popular white grapes include muscat and Pedro Ximenez, has never been known for whites. Yet torrontes offers something no other wine-exporting country can. It is essentially an indigenous variety, moreso even than malbec, with a mix of the herbal feel of semillion blanc and the piquancy of viognier, along with the potential for sauvignon-blanc-like sweetness. Despite the reliable summer thirst for inexpensive whites, however, torrontes has yet to dent go-to options like prosecco and cheap chardonnay.

For now, malbec still carries the flag for Argentina, as cabernet did for California decades ago. Since then, chardonnay, merlot, and zinfandel have all had their moments. Who’ll be next for Argentina? Salud!

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