When it comes to Argentine wine, any wine drinker worth her stemware can name-check Malbec. But ask anyone to identify the country’s top white wine and crickets chirp.
But even though Torrontés hasn’t achieved “it” status (yet!), the grape is emerging as one to reckon with.
Bear in mind, and this is said with no disrespect, wines made with this indigenous grape aren’t particularly profound or long-lived.
What they are is fresh, aromatic and eminently drinkable.
Before we continue, some distinctions must be made.
There are actually three types of Torrontés, which grow only in Argentina. The most common (and best) is Torrontés Riojano. It is the second most widely planted white grape in Argentina behind Pedro Giminez, which is used to make fortified wine.
Less common is Torrontés Sanjuanino (which ranks fifth) and, a distant third in terms of plantings, Torrontés Mendocio (eighth, with a mere 712 acres planted).
All three are in the criollas group of grapes, a designation that refers to American-bred cultivars of European vitis vinifera varietals. To explain: these grapes were specifically created to have better resistance to environmental stresses than their European forebears – key for the often difficult South American climate.
Though distinct, all three Torrontés grapes have similar ancestry. Torrontés Riojano and Sanjuanino are crosses of Mission with Muscat of Alexandria. Torrontés Mendocio is a cross of Mission and an unidentified varietal. (None, by the way, are related to the Spanish Torrontés.)
Though many use the general Torrontés to designate any of the three grapes, the rest of this discussion focuses on Torrontés Riojano.
While the grape is planted throughout the country, many of the finest versions come from Salta. In fact, this northern is gaining an international reputation for producing stellar wine from the grape.
This is a difficult growing area, making it ideal for this endeavor. Vineyards are planted at high elevations – 5,000 to nearly 10,000 feet. This leads to extremely cool temperatures that help bring out the grapes’ acidity. Lots of sunshine (again, helped by the elevation) increases aromatics.
In addition, rainfall is scarce, forcing the roots to dig deep into the sandy soil for water and allowing the vines to focus their efforts to developing grape clusters, not leaves.
This is a very drinkable wine when crafted well. It is delightfully aromatic, with notes of peach and apricot reminiscent of Gewurztraminer or Viognier. The fruit salad continues on the palate, enhanced by touches of honey and sweet herbs.
Though the flavors veer sweet, the wine’s crisp acidity makes it refreshing and food-friendly. Enjoy it alone or with lighter foods such as salad, fish and shellfish, or spicy cuisine such as Chinese, Thai or Mexican.
Wines to Try
Four Torrontés wines I’ve tasted lately stuck out in my mind. Coincidentally, all are produced in Salta.
Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontés
No surprise this one is on the list – Susana Balbo is among the country’s best winemakers. She began her career working with Torrontés, transforming it into a modern-style wine. Vineyards are farmed sustainably and the vines average 32 years old.
Frankly, I would have been happy simply sniffing this wine’s aromas without even taking a sip. It was soft peach, floral, a touch of spice – rich and unctuous and going on and on. Thankfully, the taste was equally rewarding!
Finca las Nubes Torrontés
This wine is from Torrontés master José Luis Mounier. It is made from grapes growing on 40 year old, ungrafted vines at an altitude of 6,000 feet. (The estate’s name translates to “Farm of the Clouds.”)
The aromas were surprisingly dusty and earthy, opening up to brighter notes on the palate. Crafted exclusively in stainless steel, the wine balances intensity and freshness.
The Etchart family was among the first wine pioneers in Salta, understanding the qualities this region had to offer. Their vines are quite young (14 years) but ungrafted, thus consistently producing wines that are luscious and well balanced.
Vineyards are low-yielding and planted at approximately 5,500 feet. The nose offers cottony citrus notes and the wine has a very nice structure on the palate – firm but not bouncy.
This new winery – started by three brothers – lies on a hillside covered with dry rock and sand. This wine is grown from 25 year old ungrafted vines planted at 5,576 feet.
This wine resembles a less-intense New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with zesty citrus notes and a clean, crisp feel. Bright and delicious.