BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—“At the bank where I work, we have an informal wine-tasting group that meets every few weeks. Why don’t you join us?” This invitation came, very nearly out of the blue, from a guy I met in a local wine shop.
Like so many educated porteños, as the natives of Buenos Aires call themselves (it’s a port city, hence the name), he spoke beautiful English. When I asked him about it, he explained that he had been educated, starting at a young age, in a local English language–oriented school.
In Buenos Aires, seemingly every educated person under the age of 40—and many much older than that—knows English. This is a blessing for which I am daily grateful. I can discuss wine reasonably well in French and Italian, but a Spanish-language wine tasting is way out of my linguistic league.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” laughed my newfound friend. “Everyone at the tasting speaks English. Our problem,” he added, “is that we really don’t speak ‘wine.’ We just like to drink it. But we don’t know much about what we’re tasting.” Hearing that, I relaxed. I do—ahem—speak “wine.”
A week later, we met in a handsomely decorated “cellar room” of a local boutique hotel. Our group of seven men and three women sat on tall stools around a long, narrow table. My host explained that he brought the wines from his slowly expanding personal cellar and that his colleagues at the bank—all of whom were in their early 30s—brought, well, themselves. Upon hearing this described, everyone laughed about this highly agreeable arrangement.
The wineglasses on the table were, I might note, well-designed and suitably large. This is not a persnickety matter, if only because Argentine red wines are themselves large-scale and show best in good-size glasses. At nearly every decent restaurant I’ve visited, the wineglasses are large and properly shaped. You get much better wineglasses here in Buenos Aires, in even a modest restaurant, than you do in, say, Paris.
What happened next was all too familiar: Everyone around the table tasted the wine and pronounced whether they liked it or not. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. But wine discussion can extend much further, if you’re so inclined. And if the wines deserve it.
These wines did. The first three served were single-vineyard bottlings from Bodega Alta Vista, a large winery in Mendoza created by the French family that once owned Piper-Heidsieck Champagne house. Originally it was among the seven French-Argentine wineries collectively called Clos de Los Siete. But Alta Vista broke away and set off on its own.
Single-vineyard wines such as Alta Vista’s are slowly driving Mendoza-area wines—the vast majority of which are blended from far-flung vineyards in the area to create large, commercial quantities—toward a greater site-consciousness. Distinctions of place are privately known among the local producers, but it’s only in the past decade at most that any sort of label proclamation of site has been offered to consumers.
Anyway, we had three Alta Vista single-vineyard Malbecs to taste, all from the 2003 vintage: Temis Vineyard, Serenade Vineyard and Alizarine Vineyard. The first is from the Valle de Uco; the latter two are from Luján de Cuyo. These two zones are each broad-scale (think Napa Valley and Sonoma County). So, not surprisingly, smaller districts are very slowly emerging. More localized district names, such as Agrelo, Maipú or Barrancas, among many others, will likely not be seen with any frequency for at least another decade, I’d guess.
Were there differences among the three wines? You bet. Where the wine from Temis Vineyard, in the Valle de Uco, was rich, round and generally a pleasing mouthful, the two Luján de Cuyo Malbecs (Serenade Vineyard and Alizarine Vineyard) were you-can’t-miss-it different. Both displayed an unmistakable mineral note, along with sharper-etched flavor delineation that may have itself derived from a higher apparent acidity. All three wines displayed a noticeable oakiness that was more than I personally care for, but which was neither bullying nor intrusive.
When I asked the group if they perceived differences among the three wines, the conversation suddenly lagged. Language is part of the problem, but it’s not a matter of what you speak, but of what you think.
“I don’t have the words for it,” said one taster. “Not in Spanish, either,” he added. This was echoed around the table. “I only know what I like,” said another. That opinion resounded among the others, with everyone nodding vigorously in agreement.
With that, I’m afraid that I once again failed the diplomacy part of the Foreign Service Officer examination. It’s not enough, I said, to be satisfied with I like it/I don’t like it. That’s too simplistic for tasting, as opposed to drinking. Then I went in for the kill: These wines are too good for that. All of us are subject to national pride, and assuredly the Argentineans are no exception.
Precisely because wine in Argentina—much more so than in neighboring Chile, by the way—has for so long been such an item of daily consumption, at correspondingly cheap prices, a certain insouciance set in. This same phenomenon once plagued Italy and its wine culture. Not coincidentally, the majority of Argentineans are of Italian origin.
In 1970, Argentina’s wine consumption was a whacking 92 liters (24 gallons) per capita, making it the world’s fourth-highest wine-consuming country after Italy (114 liters per capita), France (109 liters) and Portugal (102 liters). Since then, wine consumption has declined considerably, just as in other traditional wine-drinking nations. The latest figures, from 2008, show Argentine wine consumption at about 27 liters per capita. Chile, in comparison, consumes 17 liters per capita. (The United States consumed 9 liters per capita in 2008.) [Source: Impact Databank]
Most wine drinkers everywhere—and certainly in the United States—tend to approach wine from the “I like it/I don’t like it” platform. But for a wine-producing nation to propel itself beyond mere commodity wine, a native culture of what can only be called “wine appreciation” must emerge.
This may sound high-falutin’, but it is nevertheless both true and essential. France taught the world about fine wine precisely because it developed and cultivated just such a mentality. Granted, it wasn't necessarily part of everyone's life but, over time, a mentality of "wine appreciation" became part of everyone’s French patrimony. (Ironically, France appears to be losing some of this in recent years as its wine culture has come under aggressive attack from health-oriented government agencies and advocacy groups.)
Now we’re witnessing Australia revamp its wine culture to a more sophisticated “wine appreciation” as it transitions from its traditional commodity blended-wine orientation to a more site-specific mentality that can coexist—and be celebrated—alongside the larger-scale production that has dominated the Aussie notion of wine “goodness.”
Seeing just such a fine-wine reality unfold here in Argentina—an embryonic mentality nurtured by the sincere interest of Argentineans such as those at that tasting—is an exceptionally gratifying pleasure. Today, for effectively the first time in Argentina’s long wine history, you can crack open a bottle of Argentine wine (the better ones, anyway) and get far more than mere pleasure. Wine at its best is a message in a bottle—and we can all speak the language.