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Argentine wines are the next big thing

At this moment, notes the esteemed wine guru Oz Clarke, Argentina may be the world’s most exciting wine-producing region. Although Argentina recently slipped from fourth to fifth in the world in total volume of wine produced (overtaken by the US), its wines have increased noticeably in value and overall quality, particularly those priced under $40. The buzz generated by Argentine wines results mainly from the efforts of Vine Connections, a new importing company that specializes in small-volume producers and connects North American buyers with some of South America’s finest vintages.

The principals in Vine Connections are Nick Ramkowsky and Ed Lehrman, who built their year-old business on a shared passion for artisanal wines. Nick had been a wholesaler of wines for more than a decade, while Ed, who attended UCLA business school, had created a successful wine club, which he eventually sold to Geerlings & Wade. In May 1999, the two traveled to Argentina and fell in love with the country’s wines; it happened to be a spectacular harvest year following a dismal 1998.

The Vine Connections “book” now includes some of the highest-rated wines ever to come from Argentina. Although Argentine wines traditionally have not broken Wine Spectator’s 90-point plateau, seven of the ’99s imported by Vine Connections garnered between 89 and 91 points. With funky varietals like bonarda (an Italian grape also known as croatina, which one expert speculates may actually be charbono), malbec, even syrah and pinot noir, there is a lot to choose from. Favored producers include Ben Marco, Tikal, Luca, Susana Balbo, and Mapema; look for them to become household names.

If they’re so good, why are these prize Argentine wines so darn cheap? In part, because land and labor costs are low. Also, it helps that almost every year is a winner (again, ’98 was a notable exception), so wineries can pretty much count on a certain volume and quality level (corresponding to price) year-in and year-out. Because Argentina is very dry, it has never had to contend with the devastation caused by phylloxera, the vine-destroying root louse. Finally, Argentineans consume a lot of wine (92 liters per year per capita, as opposed to five liters in the US), and I have heard that they tend to be less discerning. For this reason, much of the Argentine wine that made its way to the US has been value wine — easy to drink, very affordable, but not interesting enough to be served on a regular basis.

This barrier was first broken by Catena, a high-end producer, which introduced superb wines into the US at higher prices ($20 to $40). Now, Vine Connections has a whole portfolio of such wines, and the ones I tasted are well worth the price. Malbec becomes much more approachable when cut with bonarda, and bonarda gets deeper when made with low yields as an intense and fruity wine.

Oz Clarke is right: this is the next big thing in wine. 1999 and 2000 were both spectacular years in South America, and these wines are nice now, although they will probably continue to improve for several more years to come. Buy now, and try for me, Argentina.

1999 Mapema Mendoza ($33). Dry and with leather notes up front, this wine features a lot of spice and tannin (and a load of wood, which should settle some over time). It’s got 50 percent cab, 30 percent malbec, and 20 percent merlot. Well-blended, very expressive, it wants red meat or something meaty with a hearty sauce. Long finish, plenty of berry fruit — a serious wine.

1999 Gusto Vita Mendoza ($30). Made by Guy Davis (a Sonoma winemaker), this is both lush and luscious, with rich fruit and lots of potent, earthy notes. Great with game and duck spring rolls, it will complement most robust, meaty flavors. The blend is 60 percent malbec, 23 percent bonarda, 12 percent syrah, and five percent cab. A dense and chewy wine that will age well.

1999 Ben Marco V.M.S. Mendoza ($30). V.M.S. stands for “vineyard master selection,” and the viticulturist is the owner, Pedro Marchevsky, son of Marco. He teaches others the arts of drainage and irrigation, and he knows how to grow awesome grapes. Old vines from all over Mendoza (Argentina’s Napa) produce low yields of malbec, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and bonarda. This vintage is made by the “Evita” of wine, Susana Balbo, and it is over the top: redolent of ripe black fruits, it offers great balance and can accompany venison in a berry sauce or Szechuan salmon.

1999 Susana Balbo Malbec Mendoza ($27). This is steep for malbec, but what the heck — it’s worth it. Dense, seductive, this is a butt-shaking boogie-on wine, tight in all the right places. It goes to the core of the black fruit, with a nub of full berry flavors, and a pie-crust quality on the finish with just a hint of salt. Probably the best pure malbec I have ever tried; it will age gracefully, and works well with a steak on the grill.

1999 Tikal Corazon Mendoza ($22). “Corazon” means heart, and this wine has lots of it. It’s full-bodied, with a long, almost arduous finish. The bonarda grape, whatever it is, loves the hot, dry Argentine climate; here, it’s cut with 35 percent malbec, grown high in the mountains. The wine shines, with clove and other winter spices, including anise. It’ll be grand with tuna tartare, pork chop, or roast chicken — any savory dish, really.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: March 8-15, 2001

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