Wine

Argentina’s White Wine Revolution

Winemakers are carving a new niche with old-vine and terroir-driven whites

San Juan, Argentina
San Juan, Argentina. Photo by Garcia Betancourt.

Argentina is a country best known for its red wine and steak, so its white wines can be surprising to find on wine lists. That could soon change, however, as a host of exciting new white wine categories are emerging from the South American country.

Argentina’s white wine production has an interesting history. White varieties, such as Muscat and Pedro Giménez, were among the first vines planted by Spanish colonists in the late 16th century. Over the next three hundred years white, pink, and red grape varieties spread from north to south across the foothills of the Andes, rotating in dominance, depending on the tastes of the time. By the 1970s, white wine was firmly on trend and its production eclipsed red wine production for some years, with investment in the production of whites continuing well into the ’80s.

“This was a period in which Malbec was all being pulled out—and even used for white wine [as a Blanc de Noir],” says Daniel Pi, the winemaker for Trapiche in Maipú, Mendoza, who researched Argentina’s white wine production at Mendoza’s Enology College in the mid-’80s. “Red grapes were being pulled out, and white grapes like Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc were being planted until the late ’90s.”

The first “flying winemakers” [foreign winemaking consultants] in Argentina were sought in the late ’80s to help with white wine production. Michel Rolland, for example, was hired by the Etchart family in Salta in 1988 to consult on their Torrontés production (along with their Malbec), and Paul Hobbs was hired by Catena Zapata in 1989 to consult on its Chardonnay.

Although the technology for making whites was advancing in the ’90s, the wines didn’t rouse much interest in the export market at the time. Matías Michelini, an Argentinean who is a longtime consulting winemaker (and now the winemaker of his own brand, Passionate Wine), describes the scene back then. “At a tasting in 1995,” he says, “I remember a British journalist telling me, ‘Let’s not waste our time tasting the white wines,’ and moving swiftly to the red wines, because he thought Argentina wasn’t capable of making good white wine. Years later, once I got over being angry at what he said, I realized he was right. Our white wines oxidized shortly after being bottled.”

The international market’s lackluster response to Argentina’s white wines at the time was in stark contrast to its growing enthusiasm for the country’s red wines, and as Malbec production boomed, there was a sharp decline in Argentina’s white wine production.

In the 1990s red varieties, such as Malbec, made up less than 20 percent of vineyard plantings, while white varieties made up 30 percent and pink varieties (such as Cereza, typically used for white wines, pink and light red wines, and juice) accounted for 50 percent, according to Argentina’s Institute of National Viticulture and Viniculture.

Within two decades, the vineyard landscape had changed. Red grapes—and red wine production—came to dominate, accounting for more than 55 percent of plantings (of which over 35 percent is now Malbec), while pink varieties represent just 25 percent and white varieties less than 20 percent. White wine production had taken a backseat—until recently.

In the last few vintages, Argentina’s white wines have been making waves with the emergence of some key premium categories—old-vine white single-varietal wines, terroir-driven Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and exotic varieties produced with innovative winemaking.

Photo illustration by Jeff Quinn.

Old-Vine Single Varietals

A new generation of winemakers is rediscovering old-vine white varieties, including Torrontés, Argentina’s aromatic native variety. Torrontés is the most planted white grape in the country (over 8,000 hectares), and old vineyards of the variety are found in Mendoza, San Juan, and La Rioja. The most exciting styles of Torrontés are coming from older vines (70-plus years old) in the high-altitude vineyards of Salta. Top examples include El Esteco, Yacochuya, and Colome.

Old-vine Riesling from Humberto Canale and Chenin Blanc from JiJiJi, in particular, are also making a mark in Argentina’s wine bars and impressing critics, although the old-vine variety garnering the most attention from critics and consumers at the moment is Semillon. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Semillon was the most widely planted white variety in Argentina, with more than 5,500 hectares under vine.

While much of that planting has been lost—just 750 hectares remain today, according to the trade organization Wines of Argentina—there has been a renewed appreciation of old-vine Semillon. Producers such as Matias Riccitelli and Humberto Canale have turned the spotlight back onto Patagonian Semillón, while in Mendoza, Roberto de la Motta’s Semillon at Mendel has been a staple of the top wine lists in Argentina for the last decade; that attention has helped change the perception of the quality potential of Argentine Semillon.

“Everybody remembers Semillon from drinking it in the ’70s as a table wine, and if you manage it with high yields it is just a simple wine,” explains de la Motta’s protégé Santiago Mayorga, who made wine at Mendel for several years before becoming the head winemaker at Nieto Senetiner (where he is also now producing a Semillon DOC). “But if you manage the vineyards [strategically], Semillon is a great grape.”

Master Sommelier Christopher Tanghe recently visited Argentina on a GuildSomm research trip and says he fell for the charms of Argentine Semillon. It’s “one of the most underrated wines of the country,” he says. “I’d drink Argentinean Semillon every day if it was available in my market.”

Terroir-Driven Whites

Terroir-specific single-vineyard Malbec has been one of the most significant developments in Argentina over the last decade, and white wines are following suit. New vineyards, sought out for their specific soil types and microclimates, offer an opportunity for Argentinean winemakers to use terroir-transparent varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay to express the distinctive sites.

Matías Michelini has been one of the most influential advocates for mountain Sauvignon Blanc from the Uco Valley since the early 2000s. He has produced game-changing Sauvignon Blanc wines for Doña Paula, Sophenia, and Zorzal, and today makes more than a dozen boutique white wines under his label Passionate Wines. “Today, I don’t feel like a winemaker but a viticulturist, looking at the plant and its environment,” he says, explaining how the general focus in Argentine winemaking has shifted from the winery to the vineyard. “Today, Argentina’s white wines have a sense of place.”

Photo courtesy of Juan Pablo Michelini.

Chardonnay has been another vehicle for expressing the characteristics of the high-altitude vineyards of the Uco Valley. Chardonnay wines from the calcareous soils of Gualtallary, in particular, have been earning great critical acclaim, with renowned examples from Catena Zapata, El Enemigo, Cobos, Monteviejo, and Rutini. “While there is no lack of Chardonnay [in the world], this style of Chardonnay from high-elevation vineyards gives a unique blend of Old and New World flavor characteristics that makes it quite distinctive,” says Elizabeth Butler, the Argentina brand specialist with San Francisco-based Vine Connections, which imports Luca Chardonnay from Gualtallary. “For the price,” she says, “the quality outperforms California pretty much every time.”

White varieties from other notable emerging wine regions include Sauvignon Blanc from Pedernal in San Juan, and Albariño from new vineyards in the coastal region of Chapadmalal, near Buenos Aires.

International Varieties and Experimental Winemaking

During the past couple of years, a diverse range of white wine varieties have come on the market, with some stellar examples of Marsanne and Roussanne by producers such as Ver Sacrum and Matervini, Fiano by Caelum, Malvasia by Escala Humana, and Verdejo by Zuccardi—all in Mendoza. Fresh white blends of nontraditional varieties are also an emerging category, as are more complex white wines made with longer skin contact, or aged under a layer of flor, as with the production of fino sherry.

“One of the best things that’s happening with white wine in Argentina is the high level of excitement from almost every winemaker we work with,” says Jonathan Chaplin, the co-owner of Brazos Wine, based in Brooklyn, which imports a wide range of whites from Argentina. “With Argentine winemakers traveling and working around the globe, you find them experimenting with vinification and farming techniques that were never used [in Argentina] before,” he says, including “harvesting earlier, using concrete eggs and tanks, and even experimenting with flor, as in the Jura. The general movement toward less oak, less manipulation, and lower alcohol leads to a better representation of the grape and the terroir, and some real gems can be found among Argentina’s white wines that are soulful and showcase the terroir.”

There’s no doubt that a white wine revolution is underway in Argentina. And while it’s unlikely to create a tidal wave of exports, as with Malbec a decade ago, Argentina’s winemakers are proving that their white wines today are certainly worth taking the time to taste.

Amanda Barnes is a British wine writer who since 2009 has been based in South America, where she specializes in the wines and regions of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay and writes the South America Wine Guide. Ever footloose, she is currently on a mission to travel Around the World in 80 Harvests.

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