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Natahsa Hughes spends a week tasting her way round Argentina

Published:  06 April, 2009

Argentina, 14-22 March 2009

I was lucky enough to be invited to spend a week in Argentina recently. The focus of the trip was on Rio Negro and Nequen in Patagonia and Argentina's heartland, Mendoza.

Argentina, 14-22 March 2009

I was lucky enough to be invited to spend a week in Argentina recently. The focus of the trip was on Rio Negro and Nequen in Patagonia and Argentina's heartland, Mendoza. While I found that a lot of Argentine winemakers seem to be trying too hard with their wines, creating over-extracted, over-oaked and overly alcoholic cuvées, an increasing number have caught on to the fact that some of us crave elegant, effortless wines in which both oak and alcohol are reined in. The wines listed below are, in no particular order, are those I enjoyed most during my trip. Next Sommelier's Newsletter will feature part two!

El Porvenir de Los Andes, located in the Cafayate Valley, northern Argentina, works with a Spanish consultant, Isabel Mijares, to produce a range of wines. Its floral, elegant Laborum Torrontes, Cafayate 2008 (£8.82 ex VAT, Hispa Wines), appears restrained at first taste, but seems to build in intensity in the mouth. Nicely balanced, with a good long finish. A great match for spicy Asian foods. The bodega also produces a lovely Tannat (Laborum Tannat 2005, £17.12 ex VAT, Hispa Wines), which shows unusually ripe tannins and chunky, smoke-tinged ripe red fruit.

Last time I visited Argentina, some four or five years ago, Roberto de la Mota was the head winemaker at Terrazas. These days, while he's still involved with the winery, his main focus is on his new project, Mendel Wines. I tasted the Malbec, Mendoza 2006 (£11.75 ex VAT, Prestige Agencies), but the 2007 is on its way to the UK at the moment. Unless it differs wildly from the wine I tasted, it should be a fresh, balanced mouthful of smoky, spicy plum flavours in which the oak lends support rather than taking a starring role.

One of the most balanced, elegant Malbecs we tasted during the course of the trip was Luigi Bosco's Icono, Mendoza 2005 (£54.45 ex VAT, H&H Bancroft) - it was also one of the most expensive. What you get for your money is a complex, layered mouthful of black cherries, violets and minerals, along with grippy, fine-grained tannins, a silky texture and lively acidity. Whether this sophistication comes from the low-yielding 90-year-old vines or from the biodynamic techniques practiced in the vineyard is anyone's guess, but it's a damn fine wine whichever way you slice it.

The Patagonian leg of the trip was a bit of a curate's egg, with only two wineries showing wines of character and substance. One was Bodega Noemia, which is located in a secluded part of Rio Negro province. Here winemaker (and co-partner in the venture) Hans Vinding-Diers produces elegant Malbecs of deceptive simplicity. The entry-level A Lisa 2008 (£15 ex VAT, Wine Treasury) is a blend of 90% Malbec and 10% Merlot that spends eight months in third-use barriques. It is a graceful wine that shows floral and mineral notes on the palate. The J Alberto, Rio Negro 2007 (£22.85 ex VAT, Wine Treasury) is richer and more complex, with great concentration and minerality. It has a richly textured finish, the palate's equivalent of walking along a plush carpet in your bare feet. Both wines leave you with an impression of effortless ease, the hallmark of a great wine.

About an hour's drive away from Noemia, Vinding-Diers consults for Bodega Chacra, which is owned by Piero Incisa della Rocchetta, a member of the family behind Bolgheri's famed Sassicaia. The attraction here is the Pinot Noir, ancient plantings of which first drew Incisa della Rochetta's attention a few years ago. The Cincuenta y Cinco, Rio Negro 2007 (£32 ex VAT, Lea and Sandeman) comes from vines planted in 1955 and shows Pinot's characteristically silky texture, vivid acidity and meltingly ripe tannins, along with some spiced cherry and berry fruit.

Susana Balbo is, arguably, the most famous woman making wine in Argentina right now. Her bodega, Dominio del Plata, which she owns in tandem with her viticulturalist ex-husband Pedro Marchevsky, is a state-of-the-art piece of technology that sits among the vineyards of Mendoza's Agrelo district. Susana Balbo, Brioso, Mendoza 2005 (£10.57 ex VAT, Las Bodegas) is a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Franc, 10% Petit Verdot and 5% Merlot. This complex mix is fairly typical of some of the region's newer wines, where the full panoply of Bordeaux grapes are used to add depth and breadth to a wine. There's a New World fruit ripeness to this wine, but overall it leaves the taster with an impression of restrained power.