Wine Column: International adoption for Argentine wine

The swarthy gaucho came tearing across the pampas, his muscular steed foaming with sweat as they galloped toward the campfire. Around them, the Andes rose in a wall of rocks and ice. Pulling the horse up short, the gaucho leapt off his mount and reached into the pit of flames, where he grasped a long skewer laden with chunks of charred beef. Ripping into the bloody meat with his shiny white teeth, he drew a leather porrón from his belt, and, deftly unscrewing its spout with one hand, raised the swollen bag to his lips, letting a stream of deep-red wine mingle with the blood and molten fat of the beef running down his face. Refreshed, he turned to the beautiful woman who waited, by the fire, until he encircled her in his arms and exclaimed, “Ay, mi amor! Ay, mi corazón!”

This is the scene that might run through your mind if someone mentions Argentine wine. But think again. Argentine wine has evolved way beyond gauchos with porróns. It has gone global. After Argentina’s economic meltdown in the 1990s, international investors bought up large tracts of devalued property there and made Argentina’s iconic grape variety, malbec, an international brand. Now, the image of Argentine wine has all the suave, debonair sophistication of its famous (ex-gaucho) polo players.

One of the best things that ever happened to the fleshy, raw malbecs of yore was that they came under the scrutiny of the celebrated (and controversial) French winemaking consultant Michel Rolland. Having grown up in Pomerol, a Bordeaux region where merlot dominates the other, more aggressive Bordelais varieties (cabernet sauvignon, malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot), he knew how to soften a wine and give it character by blending the usual varieties with a view toward softer, riper tannins and by using premium quality French oak barrels for aging.

As a trained enologist, he also brought technological innovation such as reverse osmosis concentration, micro-oxidation and delestage (seed removal) to create more fruit-driven, complex wines. Although Rolland has been criticized for “Parkerizing” wine (deliberately making wine to appeal to wine critic Robert Parker), he has brought winemaking in many far-flung regions where he has consulted up to standards high enough that, suddenly, they can compete in the global marketplace.

One of Rolland’s projects in Argentina is a joint partnership with a group of seven prominent French winery owners who have purchased 847 hectares of common vineyards, called Clos de los Siete (enclosure of the seven), and built seven separate wineries. Among these is the Bonnie family, owners of the Grand Cru Classé Chateau Lamartic-Lagravière in Bordeaux. Their first wine, Diam­Andes, was just released with great fanfare.

I, with that gaucho still galloping through my head, brought my skepticism to the table but lost it with the first whiff of this impressive wine. Diam­Andes 2007 has spicy fruit, classy oak and real quality. A blend of malbec and cabernet sauvignon, it reminded me of my recent tasting of new wines at the Lenz Winery in Peconic (reported here on Feb. 17), when winemaker Eric Fry insisted that his malbec and cabernet sauvignon need each other. Obviously, Rolland had the same thought. Malbec alone can taste too much like raw hamburger, even when made by top-notch winemakers.

The Bonnie family invested $15 million in DiamAndes, but that was cheap compared to what the same money would have gotten them in another, more established region. Their investment includes an underground irrigation system that enables them to grow wine grapes in an area that would otherwise be too arid. And for a fraction of what it would have cost in France or the United States, they have built a spectacular winery, visitor center and garden, winning Argentina’s Best of Wine Tourism Award 2011.

Argentina has embraced its international investors, and is proud of its emerging reputation as a premier wine region. In November, the president of Argentina declared wine the country’s national beverage, and the Mendoza Wine Fund signed an agreement with the Mendoza school board whereby 1,300 teachers will attend the seminar “Learning and Teaching the Culture of Vine and Wine.”

At the same time Argentina increases its support for this ascendant industry, New York’s winegrowers are struggling to retain some important state funding. In particular, Cornell University has announced the early termination of its Integrated Pest Management Program, a worthwhile, cross-commodity program that has addressed many vineyard pest management issues over the years. The research conducted and results shared by this program have been instrumental in improving grape quality while reducing environmental impact.

Maybe we need those gauchos here.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.