Anybody’s list of writers who are – or were – nice people is a short one. Much in the media at the moment, William Boyd has long been on mine. I asked him if I could send him a copy of my book a while ago. He said: “By all means.” A little while later he sent me an email: “I think your book is brilliant,” he said. I said: “Can I quote you?” He said: “Yes.” So I am.
Malbec has done more to establish Argentina’s standing in the world of wine than all other factors combined. The grape, native to Cahors in south-western France, where it still flourishes, appears to have found its ideal home in Argentina. Its meaty, almost bloody character makes it the perfect foil for the country’s other stand-out product in the food and drink department – beefsteak – and the search for the perfect meat-and-Malbec match is something of a national obsession.
As elsewhere in the New World, leading producers tend to make rather over-extracted, unbalanced luxury cuvées – perhaps with the intention of impressing wine critics and judges, to the extent that the ‘basic’ wines have almost invariably been preferable. Argentine Malbec can produce complex, age-worthy wines on a par with, say, top Cru Bourgeois claret, and, as such, can be among the best value wines in the world. Originally from north-western Italy’s Piedmont region, Argentina’s other natural red resource is Bonarda, a grape that until now has been underexploited (Colonia la Liebres , Dante Robino or El Retiro ). The distinctive white-grape Torrontés (pronounced with the emphasis on the final syllable) is related to Muscat and there’s certainly a family resemblance in the flowery, grapey aromas and frequently orangey palate. Neither Torrontés nor Muscat is a variety for making grand Vins de Garde but for producing substantial wines that are perfumed – sometimes intensely so – both are adaptable to food matching.
A plethora of international grape varieties thrive in Argentina: Cabernet Sauvignon; Merlot; Tempranillo and – reflecting the large number of Italian families who settled in the country – Sangiovese and Barbera. Syrah, in particular, is worth checking out among the reds. Of the whites, Pinot Grigio, Semillon and Chenin Blanc show the most potential along with some cool, classy Chardonnays, especially from Tupungato.A
Geographically the Mendoza region is where it all happens. It accounts for seventy per cent of wine production and the Andes provides the cooling influence that keeps the wines fresh, a lesson that has been learned elsewhere. A varied region in terms of terrain, with vineyards at altitudes ranging from 700–1,700 metres, and of climate, Mendoza is itself divided into a number of sub-regions. The Uco Valley in the south, and especially the Tupungato area within it, and Luján de Cuyo – and its sub-divisions of Pedriel, Agrelo and Vistalba – are where some of the best wines are made. Way up to the north the region of Salta has, at over 3,000m what are believed to be the world’s highest vineyards.
San Juan to the south is the second-biggest producer and the vine action goes on southwards, in a small way, right down into Patagonia. Brief mention should be made of the country’s average annual consumption, which peaked at a heroic ninety litres per head during the darkest days of the 1960s and 1970s but is now less than half that amount.
Argentina remains a keen but nervous newcomer on the world stage: whilst growing, exports still account for only around twenty per cent of production. Producers bring to their wine a seriousness of intent normally reserved only for the tango. Having seen the potential, however, investors have arrived from all corners – to an extent that most of the high-profile new ventures are at least partly in foreign hands: Moët et Chandon (who have been making large quantities of very good ‘champaña’ for local consumption since the 1960s at Bodegas Chandon ); Portugal’s biggest producer, and maker of Mateus Rosé, Sogrape with Finca Flichman ; arguably the world’s most influential wine consultant Michel Rolland with his Clos de los Siete ; and Pierre Lurton of Bordeaux-legend Château Cheval Blanc is producing Cheval de los Andes with LVMHsubsidiary Terrazas de los Andes . And these are just the biggest names. Meanwhile, at the other end of the corporate scale, Fairtrade-accredited producers notably the La Riojana cooperative – appear to be thriving respectably in a fiercely competitive market.
Of the old guard of producers, include Norton (now owned by the Swarovski bangle family); Etchart (by Pernod Ricard); Flichman (by Sogrape); Weinert and Schroeder , only the latter two remain in private hands but all still produce good wines – funny about all those German names though. The price/quality ratio is enviable across the board – from entry level (Bianchi , La Esperanza , Graffigna, Las Moras , Michel Torino , Nieto Senetiner , Schroeder , Chile’s Concha y Toro-owned Otra Vida , Zuccardi ) through Sunday-best bottles (Alta Vista , Altos las Hormigas , prime mover Nicolas Catena , Colomé , Don Domenico , Gougenheim , Luigi Bosca, O Fournier , Pulenta , Renacer , Santa Ana , Trapiche ,Viñalba and Susana Balbo – another prime mover) to the very top, where the wines have chilled out admirably from the rather overwrought efforts of a few years ago (Achaval Ferrer , Alicia , Benegas , Bressia , Don Cristobal 1492 , Viña Cobos ).
Get a handle…ARGENTINA PROVES THAT BIG NEW WORLD REDS (ESPECIALLY MALBEC) CAN HAVE FRESHNESS AND COMPLEXITY. THE COOL NIGHTS AT ALTITUDE PREVENT THE WINES DEVELOPING THE BAKED SMELLS THAT USED TO PLAGUE SOUTH AMERICAN WINES AND THE DRY GROWING CONDITIONS MEAN THE VINES DEVELOP DEEP ROOTS THAT DRAW UP ALL SORTS OF FLAVOURFUL GOODIES.
Get a grip … best-value producers: Bianchi, Catena, Colonia Las Liebres, Las Hormigas, Luigi Bosca, Nieto Sentiner, O Fournier, Pulenta, Renacer, Michel Torino
Apple Martini/Appletini – the cider of the gods is made with two parts gin (or vodka) stirred with one part apple schnapps and poured in to a chilled cocktail glass.
aquavit/akvavit/akevitt – it’s vodka really, from Denmark (Aalborg), Sweden (Absolut, OP Anderson), Norway (Linie) and Finland (Finlandia, as if . . .), but let’s play along as it was probably the original version. All distilled from potatoes, flavoured with caraway and usually one or more of fennel, dill, aniseed, cumin and bitter orange.
Ardbeg – peatiest and smokiest of all of Islay’s peaty, smoky whiskies, its long story, which started in 1815, reached its most dramatic chapters only in the late twentieth century: having lost money for many years the distillery was mothballed in 1981 and after spasmodic attempts to breathe some water-of-life back into it over the next decade and a half it was finally bought by Glenmorangie in 1997, when full production resumed. If the award of the Whisky Bible’s ‘World Whisky of the Year 2008’ makes misty-eyed, Whisky Galore-style fantasies cloud the judgement it should be remembered that Glenmorangie was itself acquired by LVMH in 2004 and the cockles of the hearts most warmed by this story are corporate ones.
Argentinian wine – Argentina is the biggest producer among South America’s winemaking countries (and fifth in the world), with a long and proud history of viticulture and distinctive, signature red (Malbec) and white (Torrontés) grape varieties, both of which can be excellent value. As elsewhere in South America, vines were introduced by thirsty European invaders in the sixteenth century and the Spanish also established the first irrigation systems, which remain vital – in one form or another – to successful winemaking. Low rainfall and long, sunny summers combine with a third factor: cool nights at the altitude of the winemaking regions – the highest in the world at between 700 and 1400m – to complete a unique climatological recipe. The result is that Argentina’s reds (especially Malbec) have a freshness and complexity that other ‘New World’ producers have emulated. The dry growing conditions mean the vines develop deep roots to draw up all sorts of flavourful minerals; the cool nights at altitude also prevent the development of those baked smells and flavours that used to be common in wines from the other side of the Andes. (To be continued . . .)
Americano – pour equal parts sweet vermouth and Campari over ice in a rocks glass and finish with a splash of club soda and an orange (or lemon) twist. (Devised by Gaspare Campari and the first drink consumed by 007 in the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.) Adding an equal part of gin makes it a Negroni.
Angel’s Tit – layer one part each white crème de cacao, cherry liqueur and single cream in a chilled liqueur glass, garnished with a maraschino cherry in the middle (at which point the name will become self-explanatory and mock the American bowdlerization to Angel’s Tip).
anis – (aka anise, anisette, pastis, raki, arak, ouzo); loose group of alcoholic beverages popular around a great swathe of the Mediterranean and which have in common the fact that they are aniseed-flavoured. Some are effectively flavoured vodkas; other sweetened versions are liqueurs. France’s leading brand, Pernod (see absinthe p. 4) is dry and less alcoholic than pastis, which is flavoured with both star anise and liquorice. Spanish anis (Mono, Chinchón) is sweet or dry(dulce or seco). French anisette liqueur (Brizard) is sweetened and similar to Sambuca in Italy. Usually served diluted with water (anywhere from 1:1 to 5:1). A rough Greek ouzo was responsible for one of my worst ever childhood hangovers, although sleeping on a sandy beach facing to windward didn’t help. The inevitable mouthful of sand and a steep climb back up to the bar where mein host informed me: ‘It’s still fermenting in your stomach’, finished me off.
appellation contrôlée (AC) – in full, appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) the French term for a demarcated region of production, originally for wine (the first was for Châteauneuf-du-Pape in 1923) but now covering all manner of comestibles from cheeses to chickens. Portugal’s Douro claims to have had the first such system, devised in 1756; however, Hungary classified their vineyards in 1700 and Tuscany’s Carmignano had a go in 1716 and they both also claim the originating honours. It’s the French term that has stuck and I use it rather than ‘controlled appellation’ which sounds daft (especially in the US – there is very little control of anything in the Appalachians, as anyone who has watched the film Deliverance will know).Most national systems are based on the French model and the regulatory authority will not only demarcate the geographical area but also stipulate which grape varieties may be used, maximum yields, parameters for alcohol content and so on; in general, the smaller and more prestigious the region, the more hoops must be jumped through.Fundamentally such systems are best thought of as having a purpose similar to the UK Trades Description Act and are designed to protect consumers from unscrupulous producers. Conversely, narrowness restricts the output of scrupulous producers – to the extent that some of the best wines in Europe have to call themselves vin de pays or vino da tavola.
alcopop – sweet, fizzy drinks in which the taste of alcohol is masked have always been around and, whether proffered by unscrupulous manufacturers in pursuit of profit or by unscrupulous individuals in pursuit of gratification of the flesh, they are often aimed at impressionable girls. The sort of drink Jimmy Savile might offer you, in fact. In the 1970s Cherry B, Pony and Babycham worked well, as well as Snowball, and it is instructive to bracket them all as direct precursors of today’s alcopop. The popular ones manufactured by the largest vodka and rum brands are sudsy with flavours of bubblegum, bubble bath and boiled sweets and so disgusting even park-bench winos steer clear.
Algeria – of massive importance to the French wine trade in the middle of the last century with a million acres of vines providing bold reds to beef up all sorts of blended wines. The market plummeted after independence and in the early 1970s they were sending a billion bottles per year to the USSR. Production has fallen by ninety-five per cent and under a stricter Islamic regime more than half of grape production is destined for the fruit bowl.
Aligoté – unobtrusive white-grape variety that would be much better known and regarded if it were not thought of as the Cinderella grape of Burgundy, perpetually in the shadow of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It has its own appellation (and its own base in the village of Bouzeron) and makes appetising wines with good acidity; best sipped on their own on golden summer evenings. It’s the wine the French mix with a little Crème de Cassis to make Kir.