This article first appeared in Decanter magazine.
Argentina has long promoted Malbec as its ace in the pack grape variety, and there is no doubting their success in doing so. As a celebrity couple, Malbec gets far more column inches since teaming up with Argentina than it did with its old beau, Cahors in Southwest France.
But Argentina also has its own home-grown talent, in the shape of Torrontés. The only grape considered indigenous to Argentina, Torrontés is by far their most planted white variety, with 8,106 hectares being crushed for the 2006 vintage, as opposed to 5,155 ha of closest rival, Chardonnay.
Pulling the cork on a Torrontés can be like opening a bottle of Eau de Cologne: there is a Muscat-like exuberance, with heady floral and herbal notes. But as aromatically intriguing as it is, Torrontés has often failed to deliver on the palate, with a rather dull and sometimes flabby character.
On a recent visit to Argentina I was struck by the improved quality of the Torrontés that I tasted. Today’s wines seem to have a much crisper texture, and the flavours to please fans of elegant, medium-weight whites. So, as Pinot Grigio has done in recent year, could Torrontés sweep all before it?
Some see that aromatic flamboyance as a potential barrier: “I suspect Torrontés may be a little idiosyncratic to really hit the mainstream,” says Matt Pym, Buyer at Majestic. Nick Butler, Wine Director at importers Bottle Green, agrees: “Its flavour profile puts it outside the ‘main’ consumer taste bracket.”
But others beg to differ. Des Cross of retailer Las Bodegas says “Sales of Torrontés have skyrocketed. I believe it is one of the Argentine whites that will make a big mark over the next few years.” Some of Argentina’s winemakers see potential too: “Without any doubt,” says Susana Balbo of Dominio del Plata. “We just need to awake consumers, and to find more importers ready to take the challenge.”
There are two main areas for the production of Torrontes: one is around Salta in the Northwest, and the other is in the hotter Mendoza region, 600 miles to the south. Salta produces wines that are less flamboyant, but tend to be more crisp, whilst those from Mendoza are intense and ‘bigger’ wines. Nick Butler likens the former to a “Riesling style,” and it is that style – emphasising crispness – that producers in both regions are pursuing.
The most positive impact on Torrontés has been through the reduction of yields, from 20,000 kilograms per hectare to around 10,000 kg/ha.
Like others, winemaker Rodolfo Griguol of the La Riojana co-operative has been making changes to both viticulture and oenology, including systematically targeting plots to pick at different levels of ripeness. But Griguol’s work with yeasts is also helping make Torrontés an exciting commercial prospect.
In Marlborough, New Zealand, it is not just the terroir that marks Sauvignon Blanc so decisively: the yeasts used in vinification are crucial to enhancing the aromatics and texture of the wines. Griguol has identified a house yeast strain – LRV94/5 – that enhances the elegant characteristic of Torrontés. It is now in commercial production.
Most of the Torrontés on UK shelves is priced between £4.99 and £6.99, but I asked the winemakers if an ‘icon Torrontés’ could ever be made. “It is possible to make an ultra premium wine,” says Fabian Miranda of Michel Torino, “especially with grapes that comes from old vines, which are very well balanced and aromatic. When we put a little bit of the wine in barrels we can add finesse and elegance to this wine, as we did with our Don David cuvée.”
Laurie Webster, Sales & Marketing Director of UK importer Vinoceros Ltd., adds: “Not only possible but very much on the cards; without giving too much away, we are very close to securing a listing for Quara Reserva Torrontés with one of the big UK multiple grocers. It is likely to retail at £9.99 – and at this point I would be happy to describe a ten quid Torrontés as ultra-premium. This listing clearly requires a bit of a leap of faith from the buying team involved (let alone consumers), but I am looking forward to taking my hat off to them when the time comes.”
So does Torrontés have Pinot Grigio-like consumer potential? Well, there are two pointers in its favour: one is its appeal to the female drinker. Des Cross says the Torrontés consumer is “overwhelmingly female, with a slight tendency to younger women.” The other is its trendy food appeal, with Susan Balbo (pictured right) citing “seafood, Chinese and Asian fusion food,” as its best matches, and Fabian Miranda adding “Torrontés give’s its best with food like shrimps, spicy food and ethnic food (Asian, Mexican). It also matches perfectly the unique Empanadas from Salta.”
James Forbes, UK Director of Wines of Argentina, is a self-confessed convert to the variety. As he so aptly sums it up: “Five years ago I’d have said it was very unlikely that Torrontés could be a big commercial hit, but the transformation from ugly duckling to swan is amazing.”
See all stockists of Torrontés on wine-searcher.com