Relax: the worst pun in the whole piece was disposed of in the headline; it’s down to business. That is: Remembering Alamos is one thing; remembering the grape varietal is another.
Over the past century, Argentina has gone from being an economic powerhouse (in the 1920’s it was the eighth richest nation on earth, with the 4th highest per capita GDP) to being so beat up by recessions, revolutions and coups d’état that in 2010 it was listed as an ‘emerging economy’ by the FTSE Global Equity Index.
Ouch. And even so… ¿Torrontes?
The Argentine wine world has tracked the ups and downs of its own economy, having spent decades pumping out so much silly plonk that the bulk of it was considered unexportable. But that was fine; the poor perturbed Patagonians were gulping down 24 gallons of wine a year each. And frankly, after the first dozen or so, you cease to care what you’re drinking.
In such ungodly quantities, vino de mesa may in fact be at the core of Argentina’s decision to declare war on England (it was probably a bad move for us in 1776—guaranteed it was a bad move for them in 1982), or their absurd claim on Antarctica (you want it, you got it—now, shovel the driveway), or why they keep sniffling over Eva Peron.
Some of this emotion-eliciting, judgment-affecting, saber-rattling juice may in fact have been torrontes.
Top o’The Andes To Ye
When most people think of Argentine wine, myself included, the first thing that comes to mind is malbec and the second, Mendoza. The latter (Argentina’s premiere wine-growing area, accounting for two-thirds of the country’s output) has managed to take the former (a Bordeaux also-ran) and turn it into ‘their’ grape; otherwise, the focus tends to be on cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and chardonnay.
But torrontes? This strange little varietal, origin unknown—likely right here in northern Argentina, or in Spain so long ago that it hardly counts—is pushing the envelope, reaching its level of potential several hundred miles north of Mendoza in the foothills of the Andes. Torrontes loves—or at least tolerates—cold weather, and here you’ll find the highest vineyards in the world, six thousand feet above sea level, which is like planting grapes on the Space Station.
This northerly, high-altitude region is called Cafayate, whose name means either ‘box of water’ or ‘grave of sorrows’—either way, part of the whole Argentine tendency toward ‘things that make you go ¿que verracos pasa?’
Torrontes, on the other hand, tends to make you go ‘yum’—brightly floral, with notes of jasmine and orange blossom, it has a profile that is reminiscent of viognier or the Greek grape assyrtiko, but displaying its own depth of character and a fuller body than the delicate aromatics suggest.
Pisco, the Chilean firewater, which is better than the urology-inspired name might suggest, is primarily torrontes, accounting for its striking, flowery smell—quite unlike the liquors we’re used to.
Alamos Chief Winemaker Felipe Stahlschmidt is an avid mountaineer, which doesn’t hurt if you insist on planting your torrontes in the troposphere.
“The mountains create the terroir in our vineyards.” he says. “They keep the storms out of our valleys; their snows give us pure water; they make the winds that cool the vineyards. They are part of the nature of the place.”
Of his 2009 torrontes, Stahlschmidt notes the citrus and peach tones and balanced acidity; clearly, he, is pushing the varietal as the flagship white wine grape of Argentina—it’s gift to the world.
Still, with a history dating back before the Spanish Colonial era and having been introduced to Cafayate by the good, hard-drinking Jesuit fathers two centuries ago, torrontes is an ‘emerging’ grape like the Bolsa de Comercio de Buenos Aires is an up-and-coming stock exchange.
With quality taking increasing precedence over quantity, we can assume that the Argentine wine industry is supposed to be immortal.
Can we stop crying now?
Alamos Torrontes, Cafayate, 2009, about $15: Ultra-expressive, perfumed with honeysuckle and apricot, layered with waxy stone fruit, jasmine and steely mineral tastes. Relatively low in alcohol and sharp with food-friendly acid. The wine is oak-free, seeing nothing but stainless steel, which preserves the freshness if not the wine itself, so drink young, be insouciant, go wild—but don’t declare war on anybody over anything, especially a pile of rocks in the South Atlantic.