French Wine’s Argentine Doppelgangers

Most of the red grapes grown in Argentina have their roots in France, yet the two countries vary enormously in their fondness for red blends. The vast majority of premium French wines are blends, which have never matched the popularity of single varietals in Argentina. Nevertheless, Argentine wineries are now looking to blends as a future source of growth, especially in exports. The gap is starting to close.

Argentina’s winemakers are ready – for years, they’ve come up with innovative and unique blends based on the vast range of terroir and their own ingenuity. Some of the blends, however, might as well have been plucked from the famed wine regions of France. If you like these often pricey French appellations, then you might like to try their Argentine equivalents:

Cahors. In France, malbec is often relegated to the back seat, for example as a blending grape in Bergerac wines, but in Cahors – its home in modern times – it has pride of place. In this region east of Bordeaux, France’s classification rules require 70% malbec grapes in the wine, with the remaining 30% coming from merlot and tannat, as in Kermit Lynch’s Clos la Coutale. For the merlot version of the mix, try Urraca Primera Reserva 2005 from Mendoza. For tannat’s woodier, more acrid tinge, go for the Hermanos Malbec-Tannat 2010.

Saint-Julien. In Bordeaux proper, Saint-Julien is one of the few appellations (notably with Pauillac) whose blends are heavier on cabernet sauvignon than they are on merlot, echoing Argentine tendencies. Wineries like Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou use mostly cabernet sauvignon, varying the percentage of merlot according to the characteristics of the harvest. In Argentina, Fabre Montmayou’s Infinitus label has a similar blend using grapes from old vines in Rio Negro. Like other Patagonian wines, it tends to be more herbal and austere than its juicy cousins from Salta and Mendoza.

Pessac-Leognan. Many Bordeaux blends use a little bit of cabernet franc, sometimes with petit verdot in the mix as well. But in Pessac-Leognan, cabernet franc can join cabernet sauvignon and merlot in almost equal proportions – as in the 2006 Le Bahans, the second wine of the storied Chateau Haut-Brion – though its usage rises and falls from year to year. For an Argentine analog, try the Benegas Finca Libertad, which perfectly balances all three grapes in splendidly aromatic style.

Buzet. Malbec makes an appearance again in the wines of this small region between and slightly south of Cahors and Bordeaux. There are some 100% malbecs here, too, but blends like Georges Vigouroux’s Pigmentum Merlot Malbec 2008 offer an exciting spin on the local varietals. In Argentina, it’s hard to beat the Trapiche Iscay, a 50-50 mix of the same two grapes, for a rich and velvety river of dark fruit.

The Argentine alternatives to their French forebears are often much less expensive, without necessarily sacrificing quality. The terroir is different, of course, so the experience of the wines is as well. But when the choice is between spending $189 on Le Bahans or $19 on Finca Libertad, we know where our money is going. Salud!

Past articles