More than just Malbec

19 March, 2010

Barrica Wines evolved from a hobby. My intention was to sell a few bottles of wine to four or five private customers and host the odd wine tasting where I would share a glass of wine or two with like-minded people. Less than two years on and my life has changed out of all proportion.

Being shortlisted for Independent Wine Retailer of the Year at OLN’s Drinks Retailing Awards this year was a real highlight for me, shortly to be surpassed by being named as the overall winner. At Barrica Wines, we pride ourselves on customer service and a friendly atmosphere – as do many independent merchants. But to have your efforts recognised by the great and the good in the trade makes this a very special award.

This year my category was sponsored by Wines of Argentina and, as a result of receiving the award, I was invited to attend the Argentina Wine Awards in Mendoza. “Would I be available to travel to Mendoza to visit fincas and bodegas for a week?” WOA asked. After considering the options for about 10 seconds, I cancelled my tickets for a quiz night in our local village hall and packed my bags.

I have to say that 36 hours of travelling did nothing to suppress my excitement. I have long been an advocate of Argentinian wines, believing they offer a quality and value for money where many countries struggle with shaky exchange rates and hikes in transport costs. The present availability of Argentinian wines to retailers in this country, with some notable exceptions, tends to be those of the larger bodegas with considerable production – and I looked forward to discovering more about the wines from small producers to provide a real point of difference.

As one of the largest wine-producing countries in the world, Argentina has had the reputation of offering high volume, mediocre quality wines, mainly for the domestic market. From the first of my bodega visits it was very clear I had been labouring under a misconception. I was struck by the quality of the wines, made with uncompromising commitment to the ethos of individual estates. Each one has its own agenda in its quest to produce the very best wines possible. To some, that means biodynamic and organic production, to others it’s the Fairtrade practices to ensure the wellbeing of its employees.

Ideal conditions?Although my visit was largely centered in Mendoza, I spent an illuminating day in Tupungato in the Uco Valley, where I visited three vineyards all producing different styles of wine. The soils are generally disease free and so well protected there are roadside health checks on trucks carrying fruit and fresh produce from Mendoza. Those without appropriate certification have their loads confiscated.

The viticulturists in Tupungato are fortunate not to have the need for artificial treatments, as conditions are ideal for organic production. My day was made all the more memorable by being taken up a mountain road by a well-meaning taxi driver who wanted to show me the sights. The road led to the Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), a large commemorative monument erected there as a guardian of the peaceful relations between Argentina and Chile. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak a word of English and my Spanish leaves much to be desired. The statue stood at the great height of 4,200 metres and I suffer from vertigo, but, still, the view was fantastic.

Mighty Malbec?Naturally, Malbec featured heavily in my visits. The perception many people have is that one Malbec from Argentina is much the same as the next. If I learned one thing during my trip, it was the diversity of style which can be achieved using the grape variety which Argentina has made its own. I expected these wines to be at the pinnacle of my tastings, and indeed they were up there, but hotly contested by the premium red blends which most winemakers take such pride in.

The character and individuality of some of these wines, especially from the higher-altitude estates, shone through. It’s interesting that, because the quality wine industry is relatively young, there are few older vintages. I look forward to tasting these wines in the future and am convinced they have great ageing potential.

Learning from the Masters?Apart from the visits and tastings with winemakers, I also spent some time with the 12 MWs who, along with six winemakers from Argentina, made up the panel of judges for the Argentina Wine Awards. It was an opportunity to get an insight into the competition, which is now in its fourth year, and the planning and hard work that goes into its execution. This culminated in an award ceremony hosted by Piattelli Vineyards, where 18 trophies and 30 gold medals were awarded.

Argentina isn’t just about wine. When you’re there it’s impossible not to be seduced by the friendliness of its people and culture. No wine trip is complete without a visit to one of the many tango shows, which was well worth the effort. Being a farmer’s daughter, I’m a devout carnivore and have never tasted steaks as big and with so much flavour – although they’re not for the faint-hearted.

The final highlight of the week was tasting wine with the head sommelier of the Hyatt Park Hotel in Buenos Aires. His wide knowledge and enthusiasm are two attributes I can only aspire to, and meeting him made a fitting end to a trip which has had a remarkable effect on my approach to Argentinian wine.

As a result of the trip, I am looking into shipping direct from Argentina to access the wines I tasted and share them with my customers. My aspirations are certainly a long way off just selling a few bottles of wine.

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