Reading: Peak Wine
The slippery slope to greatness is paved with juicy grapes.
On the south-eastern edge of the Andes, in Argentina’s “Cordillera,” small vineyards crawl up the sides of the hills, precariously perched between jutting rocks, heading up the trails to the treacherous passes on the route to Chile—on the other side of the mountains.
Far from the nearest towns in the country’s Mendoza wine region, this isn’t easy terrain to plant, maintain or harvest, especially given the dry, rocky soil. So why go to such great lengths to grow grapes on the side of a mountain range? Well, to bend a cliché, it’s in the hopes that whatever doesn’t kill the grapes will make them stronger—and, hopefully, take Argentinian wine to the next level.
So why go to such great lengths to grow grapes on the side of a mountain range?
Down the hill, in the Uco Valley, there’s no shortage of fruity Malbec being ripened in the region’s constant great weather— over 320 days of sunshine per year. The wine is eagerly snapped up by its many fans abroad, who love the fruit-forward flavour profile of this easy drinking wine, which has become one of the most popular imported wines in Canada—with both retail consumers and Canada’s top sommeliers.
“I think it strikes a fun balance between being fruit-forward and savoury,” says Jon Mann, head sommelier at Leña, a downtown Toronto restaurant that specializes in South American food and wine. “It tastes of assertive dark fruit, balanced by a peppery, almost leathery flavour profile, which hits on a lot of points people want. And I think if they’re spending $12 to $15 on a bottle, they’re getting a lot of value.”
Not everyone loves that big, bold flavour profile, however, which is why some winemakers are heading for the hills, where the growing conditions are distinct enough that the grape (and resulting wine) will taste different, thanks to the miracle of terroir. Mann refers to the high-altitude Malbecs, grown in sub-regions such as “Altamira” and “Tupungato,” as more “European” in style, adding that they’re softer, more delicate and a little more fresh-tasting.
In a way, it’s a victim of its own success, something a new generation of winemakers is working to change.
What’s more, cooler climate grapes thrive in the chilly mountains, meaning that the region is also producing fantastic sparkling wine (hard to find in Canada) and Chardonnay, which is starting to be a more common find here. Bodega Catena, for example, has a range that is widely available to us, from the award-winning White Stones Adrianna vineyard Chardonnay (about $100 a bottle) to the much more budget-friendly every-day drinking High Mountain Vines Chardonnay (roughly $20).
This might surprise the many people who think Argentina is a one-hit wonder with its bold, food-friendly Malbec—so popular that people outside the country might be forgiven for thinking Malbec is the only wine they make. In a way, it’s a victim of its own success, something a new generation of winemakers is working to change.
“I noticed that everybody’s working extra hard to prove they can produce world-class wine,” says Mann, of his recent trip to the region. “What’s unique to Argentina is the geography, and they really pride themselves on producing ambitious wine from staggering altitudes.”
On the edge of the mountain. And on the verge of greatness.