By Richard A. Baxter, MD

It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that you can taste the history of Argentina in a glass of Malbec from Mendoza. As a country, Argentina still struggles despite great resources, only intermittently letting its immense potential shine. This is as true for its wine as for its social institutions.

To be sure, there are some fantastic wines, many of them a great value and widely available. Yet as recently as March of this year, thousands were taking to the streets in protest over falling grape prices in the face of another inflation cycle triggered by another government default.

Winery workers and producers gathered to dump wine on the provincial capital steps. The governor’s response was a call for curbs on subsidized production of low-quality bulk wine and a suggestion to plant other crops.

Dr Baxter’s Picks:

• Susana Balbo Malbecs. Argentina’s first female wine maker, her wines are polished and display good varietal character.

• Bodega Nanni, an organic producer from high-altitude single vineyards in Cafayate Valley in Salta.

• Nicolas Catena Zapata. This blend of cabernet sauvignon and Malbec is made only in outstanding years, and is age-worthy. I recently had the 2008 and found it still young, with a whiff of cocoa, pomegranate, molasses, and spice. Have it with steak and chimichurri.

I was fortunate to visit Mendoza before this latest upheaval. The first thing you notice when you arrive is the proximity of the Andes mountains, whose snowmelt provides irrigation—important since the high mountains create a “rain shadow,” much like the Cascades do in Washington State.

Averaging nearly 3,000 feet, Argentina’s vineyards are the highest in the world overall. In Salta, the northwest part of Argentina, the highest vineyards anywhere in commercial production approach 10,000 feet. Mean temperatures are lower at this altitude, but the diurnal temperature differential is thought to have a bigger effect.

Temperature amplitude translates into higher acidity and greater retention of polyphenols, hence more intense color and bouquet. Greater sunlight intensity is also said to foster the aromatic components.

Wine touring is also different here; few big tour buses, more sitting around a table and sharing a couple bottles as if old friends. At this pace, you might sense a wistfulness in the torrontés, Argentina’s signature white varietal, and the Malbecs may occasionally come across as being overly earnest. They seem so close to achieving greater subtlety and balance, but something holds them back. Like Argentina … so much potential.

This promise attracted a wave of immigration from Europe in the late 19th century, and the gaucho culture was born. Men outnumbered women, and this is often cited as a factor in the origins of Argentine tango. To get a woman’s attention, you had to be able to do something unique and interesting, and offer her an unexpected experience. Yet as tango developed layers of complexity, the wines prioritized affordability.

Visitor Tips

If you are visiting Argentina, don’t miss:

• A tasting lunch at Dominio del Plata or Bodega Melipal in Luján de Cuyo.

• A tour of Bodega la Rural wine museum. The tour is a trip back in time.

• The Vines of Mendoza tasting room. Founded by British import Michael Evans and Pablo Gimenez Riili, it’s a great introduction to wines of the region.

By the time tango took hold in the early 20th century, Argentina had become one of the world’s largest wine producers, most of it bulk wines. Malbec, originally from the Cahors region of southwest France, later supplanted Italian varietals as the iconic wine of the region, along with other Bordeaux varietals. Only recently has this translated into a push for quality.

This new emphasis is driven by a new infusion of European influence (and capital). Fluctuations in land values, especially the economic crash of 2002, created opportunities for partnerships with an eye to the export market. Examples include Caro (Château Lafite-Rothschild and Nicolás Catena) and Cheval des Andes (Cheval Blanc and Terrazas de los Andes).

The best of these joint ventures marry old-world traditions with respect for the unique and interesting aspects of Argentine terroir, and can offer something unique and unexpectedly good. Socioeconomic stability would also be an unexpected experience for many Argentines, a trait perhaps reflected in the forward style of the wines. Most are made for enjoying now.

Baxter 0172finalRichard A. Baxter, MD, is a plastic surgeon in Seattle. He is the author of Age Gets Better with Wine. Dr Baxter can be reached via PSPEditor@allied360.com.