Pity the poor European wineries, hidebound by local rules and traditions. For many of them, experimentation with different grapes and winemaking techniques ended decades or centuries ago. Not so in Argentina, where anything is fair game. But what happens when Argentine winemakers adopt traditional Mediterranean grapes?
It's amazing that some of them have taken this long to come to market. Most of Argentina's most popular grapes originated thousands of miles away in Europe: malbec, bonarda, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah from France, plus tempranillo and Pedro Ximenez from Spain. But only recently have some of the exporting wineries started to offer the star grapes of Italy.
This week we tasted some of the leading contenders from this most recent wave of experimentation: the 2009 Mil Piedras Sangiovese, the 2009 Altos de San Isidro Reserve Barbera, and the 2006 Vina Alicia Nebbiolo. Each of these grapes is a mainstay of Italian wine; sangiovese is the primary grape in Tuscany, and barbera and nebbiolo dominate in Piedmont.
There's no reason why these grapes shouldn't find good homes in Argentina, with its extraordinarily varied terroir and the deep roots of its people in Italy. And indeed, we were happy with all three of these selections. The sangiovese from Mendoza was light and bright and could easily be confused for one of the better Tuscan table wines. In Salta, the barbera appears to have devoured the terrain, giving off powerful aromas of tar and leather along with red berries. And while the nebbiolo hasn't necessarily achieved the heights of the best Barolo and Barbaresco, its deep flavors are worth sampling (if you have a few dollars to spare).
To round out our tasting, we tried three variations on another famous Mediterranean grape, tempranillo. These were more variable, with the undisputed champion being the 91-point 2004 Don Baltazar Reserva from the dry steppes of San Juan, a marvel of integrated fruit and herbal flavor. It's not easy to find - try here - but it's a steal for the price. Salud!