Is Torrontés the new Pinot Grigio?

07 September, 2007

Argentina's only indigenous grape variety is more accessible than ever, reports Tom Cannavan

Argentina has long promoted Malbec as its ace in the pack grape variety, and there is no doubting its 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 south west 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 its most planted white variety, with 8,106ha being crushed for the 2006 vintage, compared to 5,155ha of its 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 could Torrontés sweep all before it, just as Pinot Grigio has done in recent years?

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 importer 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 Argentinian 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 awaken consumers, and to find more importers ready to take the challenge."

There are two main areas for the production of Torrontés: around Salta in the north west, and in Mendoza, 600 miles to the south. Salta produces wines that are less flamboyant, but tend to be more crisp, while those from Mendoza are intense and "bigger" wines. Nick Butler likens the former to Riesling, and it is that style that producers in both regions are pursuing.

The most positive impact on Torrontés has been the reduction of yields, from 20,000 kg/ha 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.

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 citing "seafood, Chinese and Asian fusion food" as its best matches.

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 into swan is amazing."

Tom Cannavan is editor of

wine-pages.com

Try these Torrontés wines

Tesoro de los Andes, Torrontés/Chardonnay 2006

Supplier: Boutinot,

£4.49

From Nieto Senetiner in Mendoza. Lightly honeyed nose, with white fruit aromas and flavours, and orangey acidity. Well priced.

Michel Torino, Torrontés Collecion 2006

Supplier: Hallgarten,

£5.49

From Salta. A really honeyed quality with ripe nectarine and pineapple. Mouth-filling, limpid, with herb-tinged citrus fruit.

Viñedos de la Posada, Fairtrade Torrontés 2006

Supplier: Bottle Green,

£4.99 

From the Famatina Valley in the north. Relatively subdued, musky aromatics, but a palate of crisp fruit and vibrant acidity.

Santa Rosa, Chenin/Torrontés 2006

Supplier: Alliance Wine,

£4.99

Some fear Torrontés will always dominate a blend, but this is successful with herb and apple aromas and real juiciness.

Urban Eco, Torrontés 2006

Supplier: Seckford Agencies,

£5.99

From Cafayate in the north. Crisp, herbal nose, with a touch of elderflower. Weighty palate, but decisive acidity.

Conquista, Torrontés 2006

Supplier: Crush Wines,

£5.99

From Mendoza. A more flamboyant, floral and exotic character with ripe melon and star fruit flavours, and some honey.

Viento Sur, Torrontés 2006

Supplier: Freixenet,

£5.99

From Cafayate. Intense aroma of melon skins, spice and flowers, with a hint of sweetness before citrus acidity.

Fincas Patagónicas, Zolo Torrontés 2006

Supplier: Delibo Fine Wines,

£5.99-6.99

From Famatina. A refined pear and nettle nose, with glimpses of lychee. Tangy orange acidity and some grip.

Crios de Susana Balbo, Torrontés 2006

Supplier: Lasbodegas.co.uk,

£6.99

From Cafayate. Haunting nose of honey, spices and peach-down fruit. Brimming with orange and lemon fruit. Terrific.

Familia Zuccardi, Torrontés Tardio 2006

Supplier: Alliance Wine,

£6.99 for 50cl

With 128g/l sugar and only 8.5 per cent abv, delicate, with lemon zest, stone fruit flavours, and a touch of quince jelly.




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