Until the early 1990s, Argentina's wine industry was focused inward, as the local market's thirst was sufficient to absorb the huge quantities of everyday drinking wine produced there. But with per-capita consumption in the domestic market in sharp decline since the mid-1970s, Argentina's wine producers realized that they had to look to export markets to remain in business, and winemaking in Argentina began its transformation.
In just a few short years, Argentina has shifted its emphasis to the production of quality wine and turned its attention to export markets. Vine yields have been reduced dramatically. Large old wood casks have been widely replaced by oak barriques. And a major wave of new planting has taken place in mostly cooler, high-altitude sites that are better suited to producing serious wines, such as the Uco Valley, in the foothills of the Andes, about 80 miles south of the city of Mendoza. Despite the widespread reduction of vine yields, Argentina remains a huge wine producer, ranking number five in the world. Red Argentine wines, especially those from Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and blends incorporating these two varieties, represent the lion's share of the best bottles.
Many of today's finest Argentine wines have barely five years of history. Consulting winemakers from California and Europe have brought their technical expertise to Argentina, as well as their knowledge of what is necessary to compete in the world wine market. At the same time, there has been an explosion of foreign investment by wealthy wine producers, luxury corporations and individual investors attracted by inexpensive vineyard land and by Argentina's warm, dry climate. Since the Argentine peso was sharply devalued in late 2001, land prices have been even more attractive to outside investors.
Big, bold, tannic red wines
Grilled meats and stews; dry, aged cheeses
Nebbiolo based wines made outside the Langhe hills are often lost in the commotion over Barolo and Barbaresco. The provinces of Vercelli and Novarra in the northern reaches of the Piedmont area are home to wines like Carema, Ghemme, and Gattinara. The latter two wines are mostly Nebbiolo, which as traditionally been blended with small percentages of other grapes native to this cool, mountainous region. (Nebbiolo is generally called Spanna in Ghemme and Gattinara). Gattinara in particular has a long history of producing high-quality Nebbiolo wines. The wines here tend to be lighter and more graceful than their cousins to the south, though seldom displaying the complexity or concentration of flavor achieved in the Langhe. But fans of traditional Piedmont wines that are free of modern artifice and new oak notes will find plenty of interest in these often gripping and very food-friendly wines. Note that vintages here to not exactly track those of the Langhe. In a hot summer like 2003, when Nebbiolo in Barolo and Barbaresco often lost some of its verve and spine as acidity levels plunged, many vineyards in the hillier northern reaches of Northwest Italy achieved near-perfect ripeness, providing fuller wines than usual without loss of balance or backbone.
Relatively unknown to North Americans are the wines of Valtellina, in the far north of Lombardy, at the foot of the Alps near the Swiss border. These steeply sloped, terraced vineyards were originally home to a host of indigenous varieties but today the wines made here are almost universally based on Nebbiolo (called Chiavennasca here). As might be expected from a relatively cool area, the wines are brighter and more vivacious than their Piedmont counterparts, with less weight and alcoholic richness. Sfursat is a wine made in Valtellina from dried Nebbiolo grapes, a la Amarone.
Of course, some of the best Nebbiolo's come from the Alba area. These Nebbiolo wines may be partly or entirely declassified Barolo and Barbaresco (i.e., juice from young vines or lots that are not up to the producer's standards for its flagship bottlings), or they may come from vineyards outside the closely delimited Barolo and Barbaresco zones. In either case, those Nebbiolo wines are bottled and released much earlier and are suitable for drinking young. Consistently good and often surprisingly affordable Nebbiolo's come from producers like Elio Altare, Aldo Conterno, Paolo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa, Elio Grasso, Prunotto and Produttori del Barbaresco, just to name a few.