Argentina is a puzzling country.
It built a cult around the preserved body of a dead blonde. It waged a monumentally inept war against a major European power over islands that are barely habitable by sheep. And the star of its wine industry is a variety called malbec, which has never been more than a bit player in Bordeaux.
Don't ask me. It must be some kind of Southern Hemisphere thing.
The nation's wines can be just as baffling. Some are simply amazing -- unbelievable bargains at a time when consumers need a break. And some of them make you want to cry for Argentina.
Overall, the trend is positive. American consumers are being introduced to some exceptional lines of world-class wines. Argentine malbecs are taking their place among the great red wines of the world -- worthy alternatives to Australia's best shirazes or California's premier zinfandels.
But along with the good has come some appalling wines -- crude cabernet sauvignons, misbegotten merlots, shoddy chardonnays that make you cringe to think that someone thought they were worth bottling, let alone exporting.
Argentina appears to be about where Chile was five to 10 years ago, still lingering in the transition stage between Third World winemaking and a modern industry. But make no mistake: It will be a force to be reckoned with.
All of the following wines come from Mendoza, Argentina's largest and most famous growing region:
Malbec seldom makes up more than 5 percent of a Bordeaux blend and is used mostly to add color. In Argentina, it easily stands on its own.
Consider the 1999 Catena Malbec from the Lunlunta Vineyards. This superb wine offers almost unbelievable concentration and complexity, with flavors of blackberry, cherry and herbs worthy of a classic Chateauneuf-du-Pape. At $22 it isn't inexpensive, but it is an incredible value. Collectors pay three-figure sums for wine no better than this.
Even more astonishing is the 1999 Alamos Malbec, also produced by Nicolas Catena. Both massive and graceful, it virtually explodes on the palate with lush flavors of black raspberry and Chambord liqueur. It gives a sweet, portlike initial impression that segues into a complex, textured, dry red of epic proportions. And its price: a mere $10. Incredible!
Another fine example of malbec is the 1999 Santa Julia Reserva ($8), a straightforward red with plenty of meaty, burly charm. Ditto for the 1998 Norton Malbec, an appropriate wine for a barbecue. The 1997 Temporada Malbec ($8) is light-bodied for a malbec, but fruity, mature and pleasant for immediate consumption.
Not all the news is good: Balbi managed to make a dull, vapid 1998 malbec that should never have left Argentina. The 1996 Altos de Temporada seemed over the hill.
The results were less encouraging for cabernet sauvignons and merlots than for malbec. For instance, Santa Julia's 1999 cabernet ($6.49) and the 1998 Alamos cabernet ($10) were decent but lagged far behind their malbec counterparts. The 1997 Temorada cabernet ($8) wasn't even decent. The 2000 San Telmo merlot and cabernet would have been the worst wines in the group had Balbi not produced a positively noxious syrah.
Fortunately, the 1999 Catena Cabernet Sauvignon from the Agrelo Vineyards ($18) showed that Argentina can produce a complex, structured, intense wine from the world's premier red grape. It's not in the celestial realm of Catena's malbec, but its black-cherry flavors, age-worthy structure and creamy texture more than justify its price.
The 1995 Fabre Montmayou Vino Fino Tinto ($23) doesn't carry a varietal designation but doesn't need one. This classic red wine -- concentrated, structured, complex and layered -- delivers exceptional flavors of black currant, blackberry, red meat and chocolate. Intense and long in the finish, it resembles a hypothetical middle ground between a fine Napa Valley cabernet and a great Australian shiraz.
Another good blend, though not in the same class, was the 2000 Santa Julia malbec-cabernet ($6.49). It's not complex, but it's a very pleasant, youthful, fruity red to serve with burgers or pizza.
Generally, Argentine whites are less thrilling than their well-made red counterparts, though they seldom hit the depths of the worst reds. Let us merely ignore the mediocre chardonnays in the $7-to-$10 range. Suffice it to say there is little value there. Argentine chardonnay is where Chile was about 15 years ago.
Even Catena's 1999 Chardonnay from the Agrelo Vineyard ($16) lacked the grace of its other wines. It certainly has character, power and gobs of fruit. Consumers who like monster chardonnays from California or Australia will love it. Devotees of a more Burgundian style will find it grotesque.
The one Argentine chardonnay I can recommend wholeheartedly is the 2000 Falling Star, which is surprisingly clean and well-balanced for a wine that sells for about $5. Falling Star also produces a praiseworthy 2000 sauvignon blanc-semillon at the same price.
The finest Mendoza white in the tastings came from the little-known torrontes grape. The 2000 Santa Julia Torrontes ($6.49) is a crisp, bone-dry white with peach, apple, melon, spice and even cherry flavors. It's a natural seafood wine with real bite and persistence. At this price, it's an exceptional bargain. Enjoy it young.