Allow me to set the scene beyond my current position, tapping away on my laptop at the back of a bus heading down a dusty road somewhere in the province of Mendoza in Argentina.
It is the middle of winter here; think of it as February in the northern hemisphere. It is very dry, though, as this part of the world is wont to be. This is partially due to the seasonal wind known as the Zonda, currently howling down this side of the Andes and keeping most of the moisture on the Chilean side of the mountains and the climate more arid in Argentina.
It is on this side of the longest mountain range in the world where a good chunk of the globe’s high-altitude winegrowing occurs. In fact, the highest vineyard in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is not too far north of where I am, situated at about 3,100 metres above sea level. Most quality vineyards here are between the 1,000- and 1,500-metre mark.
Aside from wine coming from high up in a mountain range sounding kinda cool, there are other benefits to the location of this region.
Higher elevation makes for less precipitation, allowing less disease pressure for grapevines. Less oxygen up here means the air is thinner, stressing growing grapevines and allowing for greater concentration of flavours. That lack of oxygen also lends itself to heightened heliophany, which is the intensity of sunlight. With every 1,000 metres of elevation, solar radiation increases by 15 percent. Simply put, the sunlight is purer around here. One effect is red-wine grapes producing more polyphenols in their skins, making them thicker and darker as protection for the seeds inside.
Although that intense sun brings good ripeness and higher levels of alcohol to these mountain wines, the heat here doesn’t need to be as high as other parts of the world to achieve those levels. The crisp mountain air can allow for better preservation of acidity.
I’m seeing an upped quality in Argentinean wine since my last visit here a good half-dozen years ago, better balance and harnessing of terroir. Yeah, we can always find a cheap and cheerful example for 15 or 20 bucks, but to me the best values are found when we fork over just a little more dough. Here are some examples.
BenMarco Expresivo 2015
(Uco Valley, Argentina; $46.99, $43.99 until September 1, B.C. Liquor Stores)
This is a blend of 75 percent Malbec and 25 percent Cabernet Franc. Harvested by hand, destemmed, then crushed for fermentation, the wine then spends 14 months in new French oak barrels. That oak lifts the wine’s black and red berry fruit onto a tidy pedestal, dusts it with nutmeg and cloves, and then welcomes a touch of fresh ginger for a little kick. Decanting a half-hour or so before serving will see all those flavours blooming, allowing the wine greater elegance while retaining a very long finish.
El Esteco Fincas Notables Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
(Salta, Argentina; $29.99, $24.97 until September 1, B.C. Liquor Stores)
From the northern reaches of Argentinean wine country comes this lovely Cabernet Sauvignon that is just hitting its stride, now that it has a half-decade of age under its belt. Grown way up at about 1,700 metres, the concentration of red currants, black plums, eucalyptus, and sage has a high-toned intensity just beginning to ease into a nice, comfy place. When it comes to New World Cabernet Sauvignons carrying both power and finesse, it would be ridiculously easy to pay a lot more for a lot less of a wine elsewhere.
Trapiche Terroir Series Finca Ambrosia Malbec 2013
(Mendoza, Argentina; $42.99, B.C. Liquor Stores)
The vines here are planted in primarily sandy alluvial soils, about a third of them gravellier with calcium carbonate bringing a good crack of mineral character. After fermenting in concrete, the wine spends a little over a year in French oak to round things out. Gobs of sticky black and purple fruit like blackberries, currants, and mulberries are met with lashings of fresh rosemary and thyme. Spirited acidity keeps the pristine fruit structured and lively, a brilliant departure from mass-produced, boozy, and cloying takes on Malbec that dominate many wine-store shelves.
Clos de los Siete 2014
(Mendoza, Argentina; $25.99, $23.99 until September 1, B.C. Liquor Stores)
This perennially popular red blend by renowned global wine consultant Michel Rolland punches well above its weight in a fine balance of fruit concentration, well-integrated tannins, acidity, alcohol, and charm. Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot swirl together in a cornucopia of cinnamon, ginger, espresso, cocoa, fresh raspberries, and dried mulberries. All of this hits the palate where freshness meets complexity. Bang for your buck, indeed.