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Recession Refreshment: Argentine Wines

So, did you guys hear? Apparently, we are in a recession, and have been for the better part of a year! (Wouldn't you have felt better not knowing that last part?). One wouldn't guess it looking at the wine industry; this year, luxury wines like first-growth Bordeaux and California "cult wines" have achieved their highest prices ever, with no diminishing demand thanks to burgeoning swarms of new millionaires in eastern Asia.

Of course, that's not the worst of it — thanks to the weakening dollar, almost all wines that enter the US grow more expensive by the month, so even regular jerks like us are getting burned. And it doesn't look like things are going to get any better, at least not until January 20th, when our new president will exit his pupa stage and use his magical Hawaiian voodoo powers to save us all. Until that happens (fingers crossed!), the rank and file wine drinker will have to look to less storied locales for his $15-and-under fix. With that, I am pleased to unveil a new series of articles featuring the world's undervalued wines, which are great in good times, but a godsend in bad. First up, Argentina.

An easy rule of thumb for finding value is to seek out areas whose currency is worth even less than ours (thats why my Old Navy fleece was made in Bangladesh — Yay free trade zones!). Despite being one of the bigger economies in South America, Argentina has had a rocky run in the 20th century, and though now on the ascent, a history of huge foreign debts have left their Peso pretty damn inflated. Add to this a cultural winemaking tradition and recent modernization of the industry, and Argentine wine adds up to one of the most undervalued commodities in the western hemisphere.

Barrancas_3 Like most of the new world, Argentina grows a variety of classic French varietals, but the Argentines have undoubtedly had the greatest success with Malbec. Once a unknown blender in a handful of Bordeaux wines, Malbec is now a major player thanks to an uncanny propensity for making great wines in South American soil. Though there are countless great values to be had, one of the best I have come across in months is the Domiciano de Barrancas Malbec 2005 (about $11). Where some Malbecs are over the top and tannic, this one displays real finesse, with plums and strawberries on the nose, mild tannins with just a hint of vanilla thanks to barrel fermentation, and an unexpected acidic presence that brings it all into balance.

Escondid_2 Merlot, another hitherto wine pariah, also grows exceptionally well in Argentina. In Mendoza, the northwestern region that most great Argentine wines call home, Merlot is one of the most widely planted red grapes, and yields wines of unexpected character. The Gouguenheim Valle Escondido Merlot (about $10) has been a favorite of mine for years, and the 2006 does not disappoint. Where most similarly priced domestic Merlots Lindo come off syrupy and limp, the Gouguenheim is both lush and crisp, balancing out flavors of blackberry and currants with just the right amount of oak. For those looking for something a little lighter, try the Alta Vista Finca Monte Lindo Merlot 2005 (about $10), which was featured in Wednesday's Washington Post. Though similarly concentrated, this Merlot is more spicy and jammy than the Gouguenheim, with a lot less oak influence.

Lalinda A lesser known but equally important varietal, Tempranillo is gaining ground in Argentina. The dominant grape of Spain's reknowned Rioja, Tempranillo has quite the pedigree for long lived, expensive wines. Reputation aside, the grape is more commonly the parent of soft, early drinking reds on both sides of the Atlantic. Several Argentine growers have experimented with this grape with encouraging results, my favorite of which is the Luigi Bosca Finca La Linda Tempranillo 2006 (about $9). Ripe red fruit and caramel flavors mingle on the palate, leading to a soft tannined, coffee accented finish.

Mayol_4Argentine whites, if a bit less common than the reds, also offer some outstanding values. While quality Chardonnays are beginning to make an appearance, lighter white varietals have long been one of the country's lesser known fortes. If your taste tends to the more mild, try a Torrontes, an obscure European varietal which, like Malbec, has found its true home in South American soil. All Torrontes display a distinctly floral nose like the more well known Moscato d'Asti, but with far less sugar and a certain citrus quality. I particularly like the Luigi Bosca Finca La Linda Torrontes 2007 (about $9), sister wine to the aforementioned Tempranillo, for its unusual depth for the price. If you prefer your whites a bit more acidic, Sauvignon Blancs from Argentina offer a unique perspective on the grape, often falling in between the grassy, austere French style and the more fruit driven versions of New Zealand and the US. The Familia Mayol Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (about $13) has just such a profile, displaying straw and green spice character on the nose, with white peach and lime on the palate and a bracing acidic finish.

Well, there's a little something to take your mind off our compounding economic woes — if your still depressed after a couple bottles, take one of these, and call me in the morning. Stay tuned for more Recession Refreshments in the near future... though hopefully, not for too much longer.


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