October 2, 2013

On Wine: Don't give short shrift to the low-profile Argentine Cabernets


Here's something I bet you've never thought of: Argentine Cabernet Sauvignon. You may have drunk it, because that varietal is grown abundantly in the Southern Hemisphere. And Argentine Cabs -- mostly from the enormous Mendoza uber-region, but Patagonia and elsewhere too -- are relatively widely available.

click image to enlarge

Two everyday wines: The Domaine Bousquet is a bit less controlled than Catena's Cabernet Sauvignon, which is approachable, but not boring.

Courtesy photo

But just because you've drunk it doesn't mean you've thought of it: Consider it as distinct and representing the confluence of grape, place and method that is necessary for fermented grape juice to become wine.

Maybe I'm projecting; let's just say that I hadn't ever really thought of Argentine Cab. I'd seen it around. But I rarely drink Malbec, so (totally illogical and unfair) why drink anything else from where they make Malbec?

One reason for trying Argentine Cabs is that they can be very, very good, at doable prices. Just as with Malbec, a lot of Cab is indistinct. But when you come across a good one, it's like finding a great hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a foreign city that you didn't see mentioned in the guidebooks (or Yelp). The real deal.

And look, unless you run a hedge fund, it's exceedingly difficult to find good Pinot Noir from Burgundy anymore; all the rich people have snatched it up. So the avid Pinot-lover with average income needs to explore Oregon and Germany (and quickly; prices for such Pinots are going up all the time).

Same goes for Bordeaux. There's finally a new generation of people in Bordeaux who are struggling to work outside the brokerage system there that runs according to an official classification set in 1855. But that struggle is in its infant stages. And if you want to taste great French Cabernet Sauvignon (the majority grape in left-bank Bordeaux), you need to be rich and patient. Californian Cab is almost always expensive or gross.

So, what to do? Cab has an irresistible pull. We want to drink it. As someone in a position afforded by my work life to at least taste great Cab every once in a while, I have a somewhat different goal: I want to like it. I don't want it overly green, overly tense, overly compacted, overly tannic, overly brutish. I want it approachable enough that I can drink recent or current vintages. I want it calmly expressive, loose-knit and at least somewhat nuanced. I don't want to taste it and say, "Wow, that's cool, and I can't wait to drink it in 15 years when it's ready." I don't eat steak very often, and I want it to be practical.

I've recently come across several Cabs from Argentina that meet these desires. The easygoing, everyday ones beat most similarly priced, mass-production, sourced-juice Cabs from California. The Argentine Cabs have better integration of fruit and spice, more intrigue in the flavors (less generic red fruit), and greater acidity.

Much of this is because of Argentina's blessed climate and topography. High altitudes, copious sunshine and huge diurnal temperature shifts (up to 50 degrees in a single night) encourage full but slow ripening, concurrent with acid development. Low humidity provides an inhospitable environment for disease and rot, and makes it relatively easy to farm organically. Natural irrigation from snow melt plays into the theme of balance over bombast.

Some regions experience fierce winds across the vast, open vineyards that are 1,500 to more than 4,000 feet above sea level. That reduces yields, thereby packing more nutrients and flavor compounds into fewer grapes. And the phylloxera louse that devastated so many wine-growing regions across the globe never found a home in Argentina, so the majority of vines are planted on original, ungrafted rootstock. A hot-weather grape like Cabernet Sauvignon couldn't be happier.

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