The landscape artists

25 July, 2008

This month: a look at some of the icons of Argentine wine and how they have raised the status of a great winemaking nation

? Nicolás Catena: making Argentina iconic

Nicolás Catena is one of the pioneering spirits who helped establish Argentina's fine wine reputation and put Malbec on the map. This modest "quiet revolutionary" is a third-generation winemaker who left Argentina in the 1980s when he was made visiting professor of economics at the University of California. Inspired by what he saw in the Napa Valley, Catena returned home with a vision of producing world-beating wine.

Catena surprised friends and rivals with his decision to plant Chardonnay and Malbec at high altitude in Gualtallary. "I felt that the only way we would make a leap in quality would be by pushing the limits of vine cultivation, by taking risks," he later explained.

French Malbec vines produced wines that were too rustic in style, so Catena set about developing his own clones. By the mid-1990s,

Catena had identified the best vineyards and clones for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.

Three-hundred cases of Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon were made in 1994, with cool climate Tupungato Chardonnay following the next year. In 1996, the first Catena Alta Malbec was bottled.

Nicolás Catena Zapata appeared in 1997, a blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Malbec. The response was phenomenal, with the wine being compared in blind tastings to Château Latour, Haut Brion, Solaia, Caymus and Opus One.

? The Bordelais: continuing the link with France

Malbec was once a popular grape in Bordeaux, before it "discovered" its spiritual home in Argentina. It's not the only Bordelais traveller to have made the journey from the banks of the Gironde to the foot of the Andes.

Argentina has always welcomed French immigrants, and many

helped develop the domestic wine industry in the early 20th century. More recently, Argentina proved to be a magnet for a number of Bordeaux-based winemakers and investors - partly because the growing conditions in places like Mendoza are so superb, and also because there is less bureaucracy and regulation to contend with.

Michel Rolland's Clos de los Siete project involves six of his French friends and is developing iconic wines in various properties, with a combined vineyard area as big as Pomerol, dominated by Malbec. The first winery was Monteviejo, followed by Cuvelier los Andes.

"Argentina's potential is astonishing - the diversity of its future breathtaking," Rolland has said. "Perhaps this potential is better appreciated by those of us who are escaping the conservative production regimes of the traditional European wine countries. If there's one place where all the optimum conditions to develop a new and formidable wine industry - climate, soil, costs, human resources and minimal bureaucratic regulation - exist together, that place is Argentina."

? Bodega Noemia: making the desert bloom

Argentine wine country can be a harsh, even forbidding, landscape, and it takes winemakers with

guts and vision to see the potential of mountainous or desert-like conditions.

Bodega Noemia de Patagonia was in a poor state when it was rediscovered by Italian wine producer Countess Noemi Marone Cinzano and Danish winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers. Planted in the 1930s in the Rio Negro valley, 620 miles south of Buenos Aires, it was a remote spot for a vineyard, yet it

had several advantages.

The mere seven inches of rainfall a year ensure the area is disease-free, and the irrigation channels dug by 19th-century British colonists mean the vines can be watered five times a year. The producers describe the location as "a natural paradise for vine growing" and it produces stunning Malbec from its old vines, now nursed back to rude health.

Argentina's wine scene is typified by this sort of enterprising spirit. Bodega Noemia still seems like a modest place when you visit (its headquarters are little more than a shed) but its wines are rightly gaining a global reputation.

? Trapiche: celebrating local heroes

Every year, Trapiche winemaker Daniel Pi embarks on a quest to find three Mendoza Malbecs which emphasise the region's diversity and quality. The wines are then vinified and bottled by Trapiche as part of the exclusive Single Vineyard series and labelled with the names of the growers whose hard work might otherwise have gone uncelebrated.

Each year's wines are now eagerly awaited - and have made stars of growers like 83-year-old Victorio Coletto, whose Tupungato vineyard, planted in 1956 at an elevation of 1,127m, was one of the 2004 winners. Critic Tom Cannavan described the wine as "stunning", adding it displayed "some of the smoothest, finest tannins I have tasted in a Malbec".

Trapiche owns more than 1,000ha of vineyards across Mendoza, and has access to grapes produced by as many as 200 individual growers in the region.

Pi says: "It's been only recently, after 20 years in the industry, that I realise just how blessed I have been to work in Argentina, a country with the most diverse winegrowing areas and unique climatic conditions."

Wine Spectator's top 10 Argentine wines

Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino 2004 (Bibendum)

"An enormous core of dark chocolate, liquorice and loam."

Achával-Ferrer Finca Altamira 2005 (Corney & Barrow)

"Gorgeous nose of

plum and bluebell."

Viña Cobos Malbec Marchiori Vineyard 2004

"Muscular, with

bacony toast and coffee."

Achával-Ferrer Finca Mirador 2005 (Corney & Barrow)

"Vivid purple and black fruit notes, with a piercing intensity."

Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec Alta 2004 (Bibendum)

"Exotic fig, boysenberry* and blueberry fruit. A beauty."

Alta Vista Malbec Luján de Cuyo Alizarine 2004 (Cockburn & Campbell)

"Cocoa, tar and a buried minerality check in on the lengthy finish."

Altos Las Hormigas Malbec Viña Hormigas Reserva 2005 (Liberty Wines)

"An exotic array of graphite, tar,

dark chocolate, plum, fig and a touch of violet."

Bodega Chacra Pinot Noir Río Negro Treinta y Dos 2006

"Surprisingly sweet, supple and dense."

Viña Cobos Malbec Bramare Marchiori Vineyard 2004

"Vivid, with racy purple flower, liquorice, graphite and crushed boysenberry."

Dominio del Plata Nosotros 2005

(Las Bodegas)

"Ripe raspberry and boysenberry layered with alluring mocha, liquorice, floral and mineral."

* a cross between a raspberry, loganberry and blackberry.

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