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Country Focus: Argentina

19 Mar

The Hand of God, Eva Perón, The Falklands, mouthwatering steaks, Carlos Tevez’s scars – there are many reasons for which Argentina is famous, and its wine is the latest export to get people talking about the land of the gaucho and tango dancer. Argentina is the fifth largest wine producer in the world, and its emerging international success can be put down in part to the trendy Malbec grape, as well as reasons as diverse as currency collapse and melting snowcaps. If you’ve ever wondered what the magic is behind that glass of Malbec, or indeed your mouth-watering Argentine steak, read on.

The history of the Argentine wine industry can be dated back to the mid-1500s with the arrival of Spanish conquistadores, who planted the first vines in the country. With the end of Spanish rule in the 1800s, immigrants from Europe began to arrive with their vine cuttings, most notably from France, Spain and Italy, to flee the phylloxera plague which was devastating vineyards all over these countries. Wine here was traditionally consumed in the country and rarely made it abroad. This started to change in the 1990s as the economy stabilized, FDI increased and exports surged. Then the economic collapse in 2002 led to the devaluation of the Argentine Peso, slashing production costs and making Argentine wine cheaper worldwide. Add to this the arrival of a new generation of winemakers, investors and consultants, which has brought increased expertise and know-how in wine production techniques, bringing the Argentine wine industry into the international spotlight.

Argentina’s unique geography has made it well suited to producing top-class wines. The main wine regions are located in the west of the country, along the foothills of the Andes. These snow-capped mountains not only provide welcome shelter from harsh conditions, but also provide vital irrigation to the arid plains where vines are planted – melted snow flows down in a series of canals where it is stored in reservoirs for watering. The high altitude of most of the country’s wine regions means that vineyards here rarely have to contend with the varying problems of insects, moulds and diseases that most wine-producing countries must face, and the lack of pesticides required means many organic wines can be easily produced. The Mendoza valley is the main area you need to know about, accounting for 70% of Argentine wine produced. It is here where the famous Malbec grape is most at home, and is a popular wine tourism destination.

You’ll find the usual international varietals here like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Italian immigrants have brought native varietals such as Barbera and Sangiovese, and these have fared well. The Torrontés grape is producing some fine white wines and gaining international notoriety as a standalone varietal.

But undoubtedly the shining star of the wine scene here is Malbec. It would be fair to say that this is merely a workhorse grape in France –its name originates from the term Mal bec (literally “bad beak”) in French. Originating in Cahors in the south of France, it is still produced there (cringe time for marketing enthusiasts) and is also thrown into some red Bordeaux wines to soften them up. However when it was first transported across the Atlantic by a Frenchman named Miguel Aimé Pouget in the 1850s, Malbec instantly fell in love with Argentina, and Argentina certainly embraced Malbec. At 1200 metres above sea-level in Mendoza, it took on sufficient character to stand alone as a single varietal. Deep in colour and intense in flavour, Malbec is the essence of everything the country stands for; elegance, complexity, appeal, power.

How is Malbec such a dream match for steak? Malbec is considered a ‘tannic’ wine. Tannins are the drying sensation you sometimes feel on your teeth and gums when drinking red wine. They can come from stems, seeds skins of the grape, or the oak used during the ageing process. If you haven’t got a tannic wine at hand, try sucking a used tea bag and you’ll experience the same feeling. The firm tannins found in Argentine Malbec work well with fatty cuts of meat, like steak. Green with envy at incessant ‘BEST! STEAK! EVER!’ statuses bombarding my Facebook home page, I have always wondered what it is that gives Argentine steaks such renown.

The secret, apparently, lies in the joy of the Argentine cow. For the life of the Argentine vaca is not a bad one! In the plains of Las Pampas, central Argentina, these happy herbivores enjoy the rich grasses, plentiful water, favorable weather and flat open spaces, roaming and chomping to their hearts’ content. They are even known to be partial to the odd beer. No need for hormones or artificial fertilizers. The result is lean, juicy beef.

The most expensive yet finest cut is the Bife de Lomo, which means the tenderloin cut to me and you. A more popular cut is the Bife de Chorizo, not to be confused with the delicious Spanish sausage. This is the coveted Sirloin cut. Also look out for Ojo de Bife (ribeye). Forget your peppercorn sauce, steaks are served with a side of sauce called chimichurri, which is made of garlic, hot peppers, oregano, parsley and vinegar and looks a bit like pesto. The rest is up to you – bien hecho if you want it well done, al punto if you prefer it medium and poco hecho if you like it rare. Beware of creadillas which appears on most menus –these are lamb’s testicles.

However the aforementioned blissful bovines are in danger – massive global demand has resulted in some cattle being reared in US-style feedlots in order to increase production and meet this demand. This surely goes against the very reason why the beef is so loved in the first place. On the other hand the future of the Argentine wine industry looks bright. It seems to be held in higher regard than its fierce rival and neighbour Chile, with its strong European heritage and unique wines produced (Malbec, Torrontés). Despite the emergence of Uruguay and Brazil, and the continuing success of Chile, I believe Argentina is well placed to dominate the South American wine industry for years to come.

To taste a bit of Argentina closer to home, try the Buenos Aires Grill in Dublin. As far as I know it is the only restaurant of its kind in the city. The visitor is greeted with a lovely ambience of live music and authentic-looking decor. The a la carte menu represents excellent value for money, however the food was somewhat lacking in inspiration. Still, two courses for under 20 euro makes it a great starting point for a large group of people on a night out. And you’ll have plenty of fun facts to bring to the table having read My Grape Escape!