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January 31st, 2017

Diversification in Argentina

by Sara d’Amato, with notes from Michael Godel and David Lawrason
Photos: WineAlign

Sara d'Amato
Sara d'Amato, Wine Critic, WineAlign

Despite pressure to diversify, malbec and torrontés do not seem to be waning in popularity, especially if you consider the upcoming VINTAGES release that puts Argentina in the spotlight with some top quality finds. Nevertheless, good regional diversity is represented from Patagonia to Salta in this rather concise offering. Usually searching for wine from either the extreme north or south of Argentina involves private orders with particular wine agents; there are now a few selections at your fingertips that are both typical and quite special.

There is so much to be said about Argentina especially as it leaves its “one hit wonder” days in the past. With contemporary palates thirsting for the more eclectic, it is time for the country to show its colours. In terms of grape varieties, high praise can be given to unique northern cabernet sauvignon, fresh southern pinot noir, nervy northern torrontés along with Mendozian cabernet franc, tannat and petit verdot that are ready for market. As for malbec, we are sure so see greater regional variations such as well-defined Patagonian styles, a rainbow of Mendoza’s high altitude sub-appellation approaches to the grape, and formidable malbecs fortified by intense UV rays from elevated Salta sites. For now, I have included three short stories that highlight the surprising diversity of Argentina now.


Great interest in non-malbec red varieties in Argentina from cabernet sauvignon to tannat has brought the affable and hearty bonarda grape back in the spotlight. Although bonarda is most definitely and happily associated with Argentina, it is an immigrant. Originally from the mountainous Savoie region in eastern France, bonarda has travelled the world over and has a plethora of aliases. It is most notably known as charbono in California’s Napa Valley where it has substantial roots. In France, the variety was known as both Corbeau de Savoie and Douce Noire.

As many pseudonyms as bonarda has, it has just about as many misnomers. Once thought to be the same variety as dolcetto, this association was debunked by DNA testing. The most glaring confusion is with the Italian grape bonarda piemontese which is not thought to have any relation to the bonarda grown in Argentina. Even barbera was mixed up in the tale as it was confused for bonarda when brought by Italians to California. Many of these false associations did have a correlation with northern Italian grape varieties and bonarda’s flavour profile does lean somewhat in this direction. Even if bonarda has no relation to Italian grape varieties, the country’s significant ethnic Italian population and Italian cultural influences are in some degree responsible for the style of wine that has developed in Argentina, one could argue even more than the Spanish.

Certainly not an obscure variety, bonarda was until very recently the most widely planted grape variety in Argentina. It has many great personality traits to showcase: it is fruity and widely appealing, it can be drunk young (more so in Argentinian styles than its California counterparts), it is inexpensive to grow and can produce great results even in lower elevations and finally, it is easy to pronounce! It does have to contend with its reputation of a workhorse grape often used to produce bulk wine. However, it is certainly making a comeback and one of the great benchmarks of quality bonarda is included in this release, Zuccardi’s Emma Bonarda. It made an impression on both me and Michael Godel (see notes below).

Other top producers of bonarda to keep on your radar include: Cadus Wines, in particular, their Single Vineyard Finca Las Torcazas from Agrelo in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza. From the same region, another boutique producer is SinFin and their Guarda Bonarda is worth the hunt.


If you haven’t been to Argentina’s rugged and stunning northern landscape in the province of Salta, it’s one for your bucket list. Some of the highest, if not the highest vineyards on earth, can be found here although much of the ethereal and otherworldly landscape is unsuitable for farming. Two wines in this release hail from the high reaches of the Calchaqui Valley in Salta where some vineyards are planted at an astounding 3,000 meters in elevation (about 10,000 feet!). Those high altitude sites belong to Colomé (notes can be found below) under the ownership of Hess Family Wine Estates. This old vine estate, farmed biodynamically will take a full day of travel to visit from the base camp in Cafayate. Be sure to book ahead at the one hotel on site to be sure you’re not left out in the frigid desert night!

The rugged and stunning landscape of Cafayete

When travelling from the capital of Salta, a 16th-century town and a stunning tribute to Spanish colonial architecture, to Cafayate, bring plenty of water and make sure to stop in at one of the few roadside cafés for a sip of coca leaf tea. Gauchos can be seen chewing on the leaves of the coca that tend to help you stay alert but may also add to the surreal and what some may call “spiritual” drive through the Quebrada de las Concha range.

Catena’s Stones & Bones

I recently had the opportunity to spend a morning with the supremely educated Medozian wine ambassador and author of Vino Argentina, Dr. Laura Catena. Laura heads the research and development team at Catena winery and is the daughter of founder Nicolas Catena. As much as her father is a living legend in Argentina’s wine landscape, Laura has certainly achieved this status herself, all while raising two kids in San Francisco and working as an ER doctor 9 out of 30 days in California.

As an aside, what I love about Laura is that she isn’t “lovely”. No, I don’t mean this disparagingly. Laura is a seasoned professional. Dynamic, driven, open-minded, un-jaded and with an impressive wealth of experience and intelligence. So many women get tagged as “lovely” in the world of wine. It doesn’t seem like a bad word but it is irritating that some might believe that all women are flattered by the word “lovely” enough to overlook the fact that you haven’t said anything about her at all. If she’s accomplished, lovely doesn’t cut it.

Back to the business at hand, which is a refreshing new direction taken by Catena that is very much exemplified in the success of two wines: White Stones and White Bones. These two soil-study chardonnays are a project of Laura’s that began in 2000 as a search for distinctive wine made from unique soil types in Mendoza. Is there really a correlation? The Stones chardonnay is grown using the same trellising system and from similarly aged vines to the Bones but on white stone from glacier and riverbed with a high concentration of calcium carbonate. The stones provide a slightly warmer microclimate but also contribute to low vigor and nutrient availability. The resulting wine is unsurprisingly complex, sleek, elegant and aromatic with tight acids and a sophisticated mineral note.

Dr. Laura Catena – Winemaker, physician and author

On the other hand, the Bones chardonnay that is grown on more crumbly, alluvial soil with calcareous deposits offers tremendous complexity and overtness at an early age. It is lightly funky and reductive but spicy and peppery with a umami component. Still with acidity but with more flesh on those bones. At both over $90, these fall into the ultra-premium category. If you are a fan of great white Burgundy, these are gems worth seeking out. Due to a shortage of availability, they are currently available only through Noble Estates Wines and Spirits through private order.

These Adrianna parcelas are what Catena calls its “third revolution” in Argentinian wine. The first two involve foreign winemaking trials in Argentina up to the 1960s followed by extreme high altitude plantings encouraging freshness in more challenging terroir. Currently, Laura’s push for distinctive new wines includes not only site specific wines but also a look at microbial populations in soil and in must which is cutting edge to say the least.

-- Read the full story on WineAlign --

Find Catena wines available in your province.

Published with permission by Sara d'Amato.