The wine shop at the end of the world

In January Graham Howe travelled to the end of the world - del fin del mundo - in Argentina to join an expedition to the Antarctic. Along the way he explored marvellous Malbec from Mendoza and Pinot Noir from Patagonia.
What wines would you find at the end of the world? Strolling around Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world, at the very toe of Argentina, everything seems to convey a unique sense of place. This remote region is called tierra del fuego (land of fire), home to the world’s end lighthouse, end of the world train and the Beagle Channel where we will head out via the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Mesmerised by all the exotic wine labels in the wine shop at the end of the world (www.quelhue.com.ar), I spotted unfamiliar Argentinean wines made from old varieties such as Bonarda (red) and Torrontes (white) - as well as Malbec, the national grape, Tannat and the usual French ones. After stocking up on a few robust reds for the chilly weather this far south, over a burrito I enjoyed a bottle of Santa Julia Reserve Bonarda from Mendoza, the heartland of Argentinean wine in the far north. A soft, fruity variety, it has cocoa, vanilla and tobacco flavours - and a commitment to sustainable viticulture, recycled water, worker welfare and conservation on the label.

When in Patagonia, you have to try Pinot. The most southerly wine region in Argentina (and one of the youngest) - this region at parallel 39o South is renowned for its Pinot Noir and Merlot grown at low altitude in vineyards where Saurian fossils are often found. This region is home to the world’s only wine and fossil reptile route! The del Fin del Mundo (“end of the world”) Merlot (from Neuquen) and Humberto Canale Pinot Noir 2009 (Rio Negro) - the two main wine routes in Patagonia - are listed among the top thirty quality-to-value wines (www.vivendoavida.net) in Argentina. Climbing the 1200m glacier behind my hotel on the slopes of Ushaia worked up a good appetite for a fine Salentein Reserve Pinot Noir 2009 from vines grown at 1050 to 1700m above sea level in Mendoza (www.bodegasalentein.com).

I read in the guide book that Argentina makes one of every seven bottles of wine in the world. The five wine regions of Mendoza in the far north - named one of the great wine capitals of the world in 2005 - are home to Malbec, 1200 wineries and 150 000 hectares under vine. In Planet Wine (2004), Stuart Piggott writes of Malbec, “Instead of letting its hair grow and going native after emigrating from southwest France to Argentina, this robust and often rustic grape lost all its rough edges and acquired civilized manners on the slops around Mendoza at the foot of the Andes”. Once known as “the black grape of Cahors” in the 19th century, Malbec remains one of the five cornerstones of a red Bordeaux-style blend - in France, Argentina and the Cape.

When in Argentina, the parillas (grillhouses) and asados (gaucho barbecue houses) usually recommend Malbec as a great culinary match for the classic parillada - a mixed grill of chorizo, costillas (ribs), tenderloin and offal from kidneys and tripe to sweetbreads and blood sausage (morcilla).The meaty, savoury flavours of Malbec, a dense, deeply coloured grape with typical spicy mulberry, bramble fruit and plum character, and big, ripe tannins, complement the big meaty flavours of the Pampas. Two of the best single varietal Malbecs I tried were Tapiz Malbec 2009 from Mendoza - a high altitude wine with typical varietal character (raspberry and plum cake) - and Salentein Portillo Malbec 2009. I also enjoyed Malbec in a typical local red blend with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot - Finca La Anita Tinto from Mendoza.

Of course you don’t have to go all the way to the end of the world to try Malbec. Pioneered in Paarl and Stellenbosch in the 1920s where it thrived in rich soils and warm conditions, the first single varietal bottling was released by Backsberg in the early 1990s. While many cellars feature Malbec (for density and colour) in Bordeaux-style blends in the Cape today, a handful are single varietal - with signature bottlings by Annex Kloof, Anura, Diemersfontein, High Constantia, Le Pommier, Maison de Teijger, Mooibly, Mount Vernon, Paul Wallace (their maiden release), Plaisir de Merle, Raka and Signal Hill (all rated four stars by Platters SA Wines 2012). I’ve also sampled first-rate Malbec recently made by Blaauwklippen and Neethlingshof.

Is Malbec becoming a unique selling proposition and drawcard in a Cape cellar portfolio? How about a comparative tasting of Malbecs of the World - with a few benchmarks from Argentina, France (Domaine de Cedre are renowned for their modern Cahors), Australia and Chile - along the lines of Blaauwklippen’s annual Zinfandels of the World? On my travels in Argentina, I didn’t have opportunity to taste the benchmark Malbec from Bodega Catena Zapata, Finca Flichman, Norton or Clos de los Siete (by Michel Roland). That’s a good enough reason to go back!

Closer to home, at Glen Carlou near Paarl I’ve tasted signature Malbec as well as the delicate, light Torrontes (think jasmine and orange blossom) from Colomé, a sister wine estancia (estate) and hotel in the Hess Collection in the High Andes in the Salta region of Argentina. Colomé, the oldest working winery (1831) in Argentina is home to the highest vineyards (1750 to 3100m) in the world - - and produces world-renowned Torrontes (the signature white grape of Argentina is a cross between Muscat and Mission varieties) - as well as an iconic reserve Malbec. (The wines of Colomé are on the wine-list at Glen Carlou).

Follow Graham’s adventures in his four-part radio series on Argentina and the Antarctic on SAFM Time to Travel at 21h00 on Wed evenings during March. Also see www.australspectator.com for blind ratings of the top 100 wines in Argentina.

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