Monday, September 26, 2011

Torrontes, The other White Grape

I first discovered Argentinean wines quite a few years back when I made my first trip to Mendoza, a wine region in Argentina where some of the greatest reds wines in the world are produced, specifically made from the Argentinean varietal Malbec. Every meal I had with various winemakers, they always served a white wine with the first course and most often it was an Argentinean Chardonnay. I’m not a big fan of Chardonnay outside of Burgundy because it is usually just another anomalous chardonnay, refreshing but not satisfying or expressive and complex. My memory of the whites wines there were not as memorable as the reds so I never gave much thought to Argentina as a great white wine producing country.
I went back to Buenos Aires a few years ago and had dinner with some friends. We went to have a classic Argentinean dinner, an Asado where meat plays center stage. A variety of meats are cooked over an open fire and then served in progression along with various side dishes. The meats in Argentina are extraordinary, usually what we call in this country grass fed.
We left the wine ordering to one of the guests who was a native of Buenos Aires.  I am always curious to discover something I haven’t had before and be surprised.
I expected to us to start off with the dreaded Chardonnay but to my surprise he started us off with a bottle of Torrontes, a white wine I’ve never heard of.

Upon my first sip I was in love.  The Torrontes was a bottle of Colome’, the aromatics of the wine were so refreshing, Jasmine, white peach and citrus notes were all beautifully expressed. The wine reminded me slightly of a Viognier, less complex but the structure of fruit and acidity were in perfect play. 
You begin the Asado generally with some Empanadas, often baked in a wood-burning oven. The torrontes was refreshing and vibrant with the Empanadas, and then we had the grilled sausage, which was an interesting compliment to torrontes. The fattiness of the meat and the crisp aromatic wine went well. And to my surprise I wasn’t missing a red wine at all with the sausage.
Torrontes is made from a hybrid of Moscato De Alexandria and the Criolla grape. It is originally thought to be brought from Galicia Spain to Argentina by Missionaries. Phyloxeria destroyed the vines in Europe so they disappeared and so to this day, Argentina is the only country that has the vines and produces the wine. 

Over the last 15 years there have been big changes with Torrontes. Torrontes doesn’t have the prestigious pedigree of let’s say Chardonnay, and the grapes were much more rustic years ago and no one took the wine very seriously. Over the years that has dramatically changed when winemakers started realizing the potential of the wine.

No one is more passionate and producing one of the finest Torrontes than Jose Luis Mounier who arguably makes one of the finest examples of Torrontes in Argentina. Mounier has been producing Torrontes for 25 years in the Calchaqui Valley of  Salta  a region in Argentina, which he considers one of the best terriors for the grape. The Salta region is located at the foothill of the Andes at an elevation of 5,500 feet above sea level.
He believes because of the altitude, extreme temperatures, low rainfall, sandy soil and the quality of the water it is the ideal location to bring out the elegant South of him is Cafayate which produces good and interesting wines according to Mounier but nothing compares to the expressions you get from the terrior in Salta.
When I first tasted Mounier’s wine, I was blown away. You first have to understand that Torrontes is a simple wine, unlike a Viognier or big like a Roussane it’s subtle and when well made extremely aromatic. Think of biting into a Muscat grape is the best way I can explain it.
Mounier’s wine is incredible, and was one of most expressive Torrontes that I’ve tasted so far. What impressed me was the texture of the wine on my palate; it was dense, full and had great volume. It was complex and very surprising. The fruit was also so expressive and refined at the same time. The wine blew me away. Clearly this is a guy who is obsessed with detail, that’s why it’s no accident that his wine is so good.
His obsession starts in the vineyard. Because of the extreme sun, the way the vines are planted are so important. In the wine world it’s called the canopy, the style of covering the fruit with the leaves for proper shading of the fruit so the fruit won’t burn but so that it gets the right exposure of the sun. Another, detail is the volume of fruit he produces from each vine. For example, think like this. If one vine can produce 15 clusters of grapes, but at the right moment when the clusters are still green you cut off 7 of them, the energy of the vine goes into the remaining 7 clusters that remain. That’s the principle so for many dropping that fruit is like leaving money on the vineyard floor but for the winemaker who wants to make great wine, a necessity.

Mounier isn’t the only winemaker producing fine examples of Torrontes. The wines made by Susana Ballbo at Crios and Colome are also among some of the top Torrontes also being produced and among my favorites. Balbo’s wines are very accessible here in the states and she also brings 25 years of winemaking experience to the table.
In LA where sushi plays such a starring role, I’ve been tasting torrontes alongside and I have to say it’s a fantastic marriage.  Grilled Santa Barbara spot prawns are also right up there as one of those magical combinations.
All of us are looking for good value in wine these days especially me. I want to drink wine that has integrity but I can afford to drink daily and as far as whites goes, this is one I am ordering by the case.


Blogger Unknown said...

The Torrontes is a good wine, but I have also liked the Norton. This is from Mendoza, I think. I worked for the Buenos Aires Real Estate business and I have stayed a long time in Argentina. In Mendoza an San Juan they have really good wines.

February 14, 2013 at 2:11 PM  

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