The Criollas of Argentina

Criollas? It’s the name for a family of indigenous, historic grape varieties now being celebrated by a small number of producers in Argentina, with similar movements in some other South American countries.

Wines of Argentina’s man in the UK, Phil Crozier, hosted an online tasting, and began by joking that the Criollas had come as a relief: he thought he’d spend the rest of his life talking about Malbec. He explained that now many young winemakers are looking back further than the 25 or 30 years of recent Argentine wine history, to find and celebrate these historic ‘heritage’ varieties, the acreage of which has been shrinking rapdily.

Jorge Prieto is a viticulturist and ampleographer who has been studying these varities for the past 10 years, “to rescue them and help them.” He explained that Vitis vinifera was introduced to Argentina in 1557. Until the 1850s, Listan Prieto (aka Criolla Chica, and in Chile, Pais) that arrived from the Canary Islands, and other Criollas including Torrontes, Mollar Cano and Criolla Grande, where the most important varieties. It was not until 1853 that 100 European varieties arrived and were planted.

Most of today’s Criollas are crosses between Listan Prieto and Muscat of Alexandra and, surprisingly, represent around 30% of the entire Argentine planting. Jorge points out that there are still many vines that have not been studied and identified, though once a Criolla is suspected, identification is attempted through molecular markers and their genotypes compared against global databases. If an identity is established, further study attempts to measure the variety’s potential suitability for winemaking. So far, 37 varieties have been identified, 18 of which have never been genotyped before. These are now registered as unique varities. The project seeks to celebrate the best of these as single varietial wines, and not have them disappear in blends or bulk wines.

The nomenclature can be confusing: Argentina has Pedro Ximinez as a Criolla, but it is a totally different variety from the PX of Spain, and Tenerife’s Listan Blanco variety – which is the same as Palomino – is completely different from the Listan Blanco Criolla found in Argentina. The theory is that Spanish settlers found varieties growing in Argentina that reminded them of grapes from home, so they gave them the same names.

It’s an interesting fact, as explained by Phil, that three of these Criollas are in the top 50 varieties in the world in terms of planted area, so they are still very widely planted and used locally, but almost always for domestic consumption until now.

White Wines

(2021) Despite the label, this is the Pedro Gimenez (i.e. Argentine) variety and not Spain's PX. Quite a bit of colour on this and a grippy citrus nose, lemon peel and melon skins, there's something herbal or floral in there too that is quite intriguing. The palate has a bold character, both in terms of that intense lemony flavour, and its texture. There's a certain fat on the mid-palate, and a dry, straw-like, lightly-salty savouriness on the finish. No UK retail listing at time of review.
(2021) This is 90% Pedro Gimenez, with 10% field blend of Gewurztraminer, Semillon and Viognier. The Pedro Gimenez is made in concrete eggs, with wild yeasts, and the field blend component is fermented in French oak barrel, spends two years under flor, and is added as a 'dosage' at bottling. There's a distinct bronze hue to the colour, and a very natural nose, the light yeast and cool earthiness of the wild ferment and flor, a nutty apple fruit character. Tiny hints of more aromatic florals, but way in the background. The palate is deliciously full-textured and refined, with a lovely weight of orchard fruit, salty notes, and a flowing, seamless transition into a lemon and salts finish. Really distinctive and one of the stars of this Criollas tasting for sure. Imported into the UK by Las Bodegas at time of review.
(2021) Only 2,600 bottles of this orange wine from a vineyard planted in 1945 were produced, light orange in colour and explosively different on the nose: masses of smoky, herbal and skinny aromas, seeds and flowers somewhere in there too. A really arresting palate too - bone-dry with searing lemon pith acidity, but bursting with sweet, ripe orangey fruit too, peach and nectarine touches, and once again that salinity in the long finish. Made in concrete eggs. No UK retail listing at time of review.
(2021) The Muscat or Torrontes parentage comes through in the distinctly floral, jasmine-scented and herbal character in another wine with a little bronze to the colour. In fact it is an aromatic field blend including Criolla Grande, Moscatel Rosado, Pedro Gimenez and Torrontes. 50% spends time on skins to give extra texture. There's a sour lemon and distinctly saline character on this, but it is punchy and quite vibrant, brilliant on the palate and there is good length too. No UK retail listing at time of review.

Red Wines

(2021) Firstly, a warning: in my bottle, and every bottle opened by the 12 tasters present, the deep red wine erupted explosively when opened, losing a quarter of the bottle - unfortunately over my oatmeal-coloured carpet. Whilst it may have been an amusing Zoom moment to see me and 11 luminaries including MWs and learned senior colleagues dripping in still fermenting juice, it really is a serious problem that for me makes this wine - based on this experience - impossible to recommend. It is made from Criolla Grande, fermented with natural yeasts under its crown-capped bottle, the Carbon dioxide of in-bottle fermenation captured and the wine sold undisgorged. There's an inky, plummy character, a touch of coal dust on the nose. On the palate there is a firm, bittersweet cherry fruit, some sweetness just to add a softening touch, but it is a relatively high-acid red style, reminding me a little of some sparkling red Vinho Verde made from Vinhão. What a shame there's an obvious defect in how this batch at least, was brought to market. No UK retail listing at time of review.
(2021) From 700 metres above sea level in Mendoza, unusually for a red wine this does not go through the softening process of malolactic fermentation and neither is it oaked, so clearly the winemaker was seeking a fresh and crisp style of young red wine. The florals remind me of Beaujolais, lots of cherry and spice beneath. In the mouth it is a real charmer, with loads of sweet red fruit, but a chocolaty and spicy background too, the acid fresh but not aggressive, and the whole picture fruit-forward and easy-drinking, though a bit of tannin just roughens up the finish nicely.
(2021) Cereza is the variety here, coming from a vineyard planted in 1940 on sandy soils, farmed organically and fermented in concrete 'eggs' with natural yeasts. Unusually for a red wine, it does not go through malolactic fermentation. The grape skins are also removed part-way through fermentation to give a very pale, deep rosé colour as much as red, offering herbal and underripe cherry aromas, subtle and earhty, a light undergrowth character too. In the mouth it has that higher acid style that reminds me of some red Vinho Verde made from Vinhao, though mid-palate sweetness of fruit emerges, cherryish again, with a very light finish of negligible tannin and fresh, juicy acidity. Very unusual, and for me very enjoyable if approached with an open mind. Watch the video for more information and use the wine-searcher link for lots of other independent stockists.
(2021) These 60-year-old vines have been identified amongst a plot of pergola-trained Torrontés, now harvested separately in the early hours of the morning. Is it a red or is it a rosé? From the very deep pink colour it could be either, and indeed fermentation begins with whole berries, then the juice is separated and fermentation continues of juice only, with wild yeasts. Warming, subtle, chestnut, cranberry and sweet earth aromas, then a juicy and vibrant palate, firmly in the red fruit camp of raspberry and redcurrant, but some real grip from firm tannins and acidity, both tensioning the picture and giving this a keen, incisive finish. No UK retail listing at time of review.

2 comments

  1. You did not mention the Mission grape of California which is the same grape as Criolla Chica and Pais. It was introduced to California by Franciscan monk in the 18th century. It is seeing somewhat of a revival by a very small number of winemakers.

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