Taming Torrontes, Argentina’s volatile grape

Marcos Etchart's boutique winery, Yacochuya, in high-altitude Cafayate

© Amanda Barnes | Marcos Etchart’s boutique winery, Yacochuya, in high-altitude Cafayate

Just like an adolescent, the torrontes grape is unpredictable, idiosyncratic, and has yet to settle on a permanent style.
By  | Written for Wine-Searcher

When wine lovers think of Argentina, it’s usually the malbec grape that springs to mind. But that could be set to change, as producers step up their promotion of the country’s lesser-known white wine, torrontes.

The highly aromatic grape variety is a chameleon, and its hard-to-pin down character explains why locals call it “the liar.” Its heady aromas exude lychee, rose petals, stone fruits, jasmine and spice – tricking drinkers into thinking the wines will be sweet. The palate, however, is unexpectedly dry, with a tendency towards bitterness.

“Torrontes has a great chance to develop beautiful flavors. It’s a very generous variety,” says winemaker Susana Balbo. But she concedes that for producers, “it’s a wine that’s very difficult to get the proper balance.”

Torrontes lay low for many years, used in blended white wines, but as a young winemaker in the 1980’s Balbo pioneered it as a single variety wine. While working in the far northern region of Salta, she attempted to turn vast swathes of torrontes grapes into quality wine through improved vineyard practices and reduced skin contact in the winery, creating a fresher, fruity style.

The influx of foreign investment into Argentina over the last decade led to further advancements. French winemakers at Alta Vista addressed the variety’s low level of natural acidity by making three tris through the vineyard.

“The intention of separating the dates of harvest was to be able to produce wines with different characteristics,” says Alta Vista’s winemaker Matthieu Grassin. The first pick brings acidity to the final blend; the second the typical torrontes aromas; and the last, he says, brings more exotic fruits and fullness – resulting in what he thinks is a more balanced wine.

Torrontes has experienced impressive growth in the last decade, albeit from a relatively small base. Since 2002, exports (mainly to the U.S.) have increased 540 percent to reach 607,332 cases in 2011, according to Caucasia Wine Thinking. However, that is a very small proportion of the country’s total wine exports, which exceeded 17.5 million cases last year.

To begin with, torrontes wines usually came from the extraordinarily high altitude provinces of La Rioja and Salta, where vineyards in Cafayate can climb as high to more than 3,00 meters above sea level.

Taming Torrontes, Argentina's Volatile Grape

© Amanda Barnes

“The terroir of Cafayate is very beneficial for torrontes,” says Marcos Etchart, whose family was the first to export wine made from the grapes in 1984. Etchart now runs boutique winery Yacochuya.

“At this latitude, we have very intense sun in a semi-desert zone with more than 300 days of sun; however, the temperatures are not extremely hot because of the altitude,” Etchart explains.

But while torrontes is produced predominantly in the extraordinarily high-altitude provinces of Salta and La Rioja, winemakers are now exploring other sites. Among them is Duncan Killiner, winemaker for Manos Negras in the San Juan region, which is better known for producing large quantities of wine than high quality. However, the high-altitude sub-region of the Tulum Valley could provide an opportunity to explore different facets of the grape’s personality.

“We could have gone to Salta or La Rioja,” Killiner says. “But the saltiness from San Juan is totally different to anywhere else in Argentina – it is much more interesting. It becomes more like albarino in style and pairs better for food.”

Read the rest of the article on Wine-Searcher

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