Argentina’s 10 Most Expensive Wines

Written for Wine-Seacher, 8 Jan 2014

You won’t see Argentina headlining wine auctions yet, but the world’s fifth-largest producer is beginning to make collectible wines. At this stage, buyers are more likely to have romantic reasons for embracing Argentina, though producers hope that wine investors may soon follow them into the market.

“Most of our clients that spend over $80 a bottle have either visited Argentina and fallen in love with the country or are married to an Argentine,” says Christian Rothhardt, founder of specialist Argentine wine merchant Ruta 40 in London.

Tapping into the tourist trade is an important factor in Argentina itself. The Vines of Mendoza tasting room in the historic city encourages visitors to taste wines from different producers, after which they can ship bottles home and subsequently send orders from the United States.

“The average price of our wines sold [here] is $45,” says head sommelier Mariana Onofri. “Once they have been here and experienced the great wines, they are confident spending more on Argentine wine in the future.”

That said, many of Argentina’s top wines are bought by affluent locals and wine-loving Brazilians on vacation. Visitors hunting out bargains are sometimes disillusioned to discover that the prices charged at the cellar door are higher than at home. Take, for example, one of Robert Parker’s top five producers in Argentina, Alta Vista. The 2007 vintage of its leading wine, Alto, sells at 600 pesos ($92) yet is listed on Wine-Searcher at an average price of $74 excl. tax. It’s not about ripping off tourists, either, as the same higher prices – and more – are charged in local wine stores and restaurants.

So, why are Argentine wines sold more cheaply 5,000 miles away than they are in the place of production? The anomaly arises because of the parlous state of the Argentine peso. At the time of publication, the official rate was 6.5 pesos to the U.S. dollar, while the black market rate was 10.3. It’s the official rate that’s used in exports.

Taking average worldwide prices as a barometer, here are the top 10 on Wine-Searcher’s list of Argentina’s Most Expensive Wines*. To be included, a wine must have been produced over five consecutive vintages and have a minimum of 20 different offers in our search engine.

Paul Hobbs (R) in the vineyard with Vina Cobos's co-founders Luis Barraud and Andrea Marchiori

© Viña Cobos | Paul Hobbs (R) in the vineyard with Vina Cobos’s co-founders Luis Barraud and Andrea Marchiori

No. 1. Heading up the chart at $190 is Viña Cobos’s Nico Cabernet Sauvignon, now known as Volturno. It’s an odd man out in a country where malbec rules but cabernet sauvignon is the pet grape of American winemaker Paul Hobbs, who uses it as the dominant variety in his highest-level wine. Up to 37 percent malbec is blended in for good measure.

“I think Argentina is the third-greatest region for cabernet in the world [after Bordeaux and Napa],” says Hobbs, who first came to Argentina to act as a consultant at Catena Zapata in 1989. He set up his own winery, Cobos, in 1997. “Hardly anybody knows about Argentina because it hasn’t paid much attention to cab itself, but now people are beginning to,” reports Hobbs.

Why is this wine able to net such a high price? “With this vineyard you are drinking a part of history, but history alone does not do the job,” says the winemaker. “It is a world-class standard and you can age this for 50 years.” It probably helps that Hobbs has his own California-based wine importation business and has worked for some of the industry’s biggest names in wine. Oh, and this wine fairly consistently gets 98 Parker points.

However, there’s potential for enormous confusion over its name. First released in 2005, early listings of the wine will show it as “Nico” – named after co-founder Andrea Marchiori’s father Don Nico, who was always “the first one out on the vineyard for the first pick.” Unfortunately for Hobbs, Laura Catena had launched her wine “Nico by Luca” three months earlier. After a couple of confusing years, Hobbs switched to using Don Nico’s middle name, Volturno.

No. 2. Viña Cobos “Cobos” Malbec. Hobbs strikes again, this time with the first wine he made at Viña Cobos in 1999. Like Nico/Volturno, the wine spends 18 months in new oak and the grapes come from Hobbs’s 80-year-old vineyard in the Mendoza sub-region of Lujan de Cuyo.

“It’s a remarkable vineyard block that’s aptly named C2,” he says. “What’s remarkable is its age, that it is on its own root, and we farm it as traditionally as possible – organically. It has very low, but consistent, yields.”

Having worked the C2 vineyard for more than a decade, Hobbs is realistic about its life expectancy. “The block probably has five years left in it. I can see the vineyard is entering its last twilight period and that’s heartbreaking, but on the other hand you see next to it the new prodigy coming; that’s pretty exciting.”

With only a few harvests left of C2 Cobos Malbec, the $174 price tag will likely rise in coming years.

3-luigi-bosca-icono-bottle No. 3. Luigi Bosca’s “Icono.”  While it may seem boastful to title a wine “Icon,” the term is used in Argentina to describe a winery’s crème de la crème. In this case, it’s a $128-blend of malbec and cabernet sauvignon.

Produced since 2005, Icono ($129) comes from 90-year-old vines in Las Compuertas, 1,050 meters above sea level. “The idea was to create a great wine that represents the spirit of the family, its tradition and the Mendoza terroir,” says fourth-generation owner Alberto Arizu.

The Arizus have a long history in Argentine wine, having founded the estate in 1901. It is located in Lujan de Cuyo, which was named as Argentina’s first controlled denomination of origin (CDO) in 1989. Although not a CDO wine, Icono is made in the classic Lujan de Cuyo style, with dark, concentrated fruit and long smooth tannins. It sells out every year, with half being exported and half sold at home.

No. 4. She may be the Queen of Torrontes, but Susana Balbo’s most 4-Argentina-susana-balbo.expensive wine is a malbec, Dominio del Plata Nosotros ($125). Made from a blend of grapes from vineyards in Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley, the wine is matured in new French oak before being bottled.

“In the case of Nosotros, you have an icon wine that represents one of the best-known Argentine wine personalities in the U.S.,” says Nick Ramkowsky of Vine Connections, a specialist importer of fine Argentine wines. “Susana Balbo has a story rooted in the history of Argentine winemaking. The brand of the individual gives credibility to the wine and price point.”

No. 5. The first wine in the top 10 to come from outside Mendoza, Bodega Noemia’s Patagonia Malbec sells for an average $108.

In the late 1990s, South African consultant Hans Vinding-Diers was working at leading Argentine winery Humberto Canale when he happened across a lost library of vintages from the ’30s, ’40s and ’60s. Intrigued, he pulled the corks on a few bottles and discovered the great aging potential of Patagonian wine.

Vinding-Diers and his wife, Countess Noemi Marone Cinzano, then set out to find an old vineyard in Patagonia where they could start a biodynamic project. After a two-year hunt they discovered a 1930s vineyard in Rio Negro. Bodega Noemia Patagonia Malbec is made from carefully restored pre-phylloxera vines and production has now reached around 6,000 bottles per year.

4-Catena Zepata09No. 6. If you are familiar with Argentine wines, you may be wondering why Catena Zapata’s Estiba Reservada has not been mentioned. It has an average price tag of $364 and sometimes sells for well over $1,000. However, as mentioned earlier, wines on the most-expensive list must have a minimum of 20 offers on Wine-Searcher, and Estiba (sold mainly in Latin America and Asia) doesn’t qualify. Instead, Catena Zapata’s first entry is its Nicolas ($108), a blend of cabernet sauvignon and malbec that is only produced in outstanding years (pictured left).

Owner Nicolás Catena took the first vintage of this eponymously named wine to a now-famous tasting in London in 2000. Tasted blind against premier crus from Bordeaux and California’s Opus One and Caymus Special Selection, the unknown Argentine wine came out on top. As a result, interest was sparked in Argentina as a serious wine producer.

“We had been waiting to make a wine that could compete with the best of the world, and this was the first time we’d felt we’d made such a wine,” Laura Catena, who’s now at the helm, told Wine-Searcher. “It is a blend of our high-altitude malbec and cabernet sauvignon from an extraordinary part of an older vineyard that gives a very classic, more Old World-style of cabernet.”

Nicolás Catena is often credited with having pioneered the concept of premium Argentine wines. When Catena won Decanter’s man of the year award in 2009, Baron Eric de Rothschild said: “He has been instrumental in changing the Argentinian wine scene more than anybody else, pushing it towards high quality and intelligent marketing.”

Along with its Nicolas cab-malbec blend, the company produces a number of other premium wines heading for the $100-mark. They include the newly released single-vineyard Adrianna chardonnays – White Bones and White Stones – and the well-established Adrianna Malbec.

Catena is paving the way in achieving high auction prices for Argentine wines, as well as developing an appetite among buyers in China and Brazil, where its wines often sell for more than double the normal retail price.

No. 7. A cult producer for Argentine wine collectors, Achaval Ferrer slips into the chart in seventh place with its Finca Altamira single-vineyard malbec from the Uco Valley ($102).

The winery was launched in 1998 when its Argentine and Italian founders came together to make single-vineyard wines. They rescued an 80-year-old malbec vineyard that was going to be ripped out and replaced with garlic bulbs. “The plants were very mature in their circle of life,” says owner Diego Rosso. “This gives a very specific characteristic to the wine.”

He adds that small yields and serious attention to detail in the vineyard are also key. They have resulted in Finca Altamira being of the few Argentine wines to receive an almost-perfect 99 points from Robert Parker.

“Its sister wines, Finca Bellavista ($96, Lujan de Cuyo) and Finca Mirador ($98, Maipu) are made identically in the winery, yet Altamira fetches a few dollars more on average. “I think people pay more for Altamira because it was the first, and it was a great surprise for many about the quality of malbec,” says Rosso. “But now there are people who prefer Bellavista or Mirador. It depends what you look for in the wine.”

Walter Bressia's makes his two top wines, Conjuro and Ultima Hoja, at the Lujan de Cuyo winery

No. 8. Walter Bressia’s Bordeaux blend Conjuro ($100). “Bressia is a very well known winemaker in Mendoza and that adds great value to this wine,” says Juliette Piotrovski, manager of The Vines of Mendoza tasting room and wine store. “The story of what Bressia has done for Mendoza and his history in the industry sell the wine, and what people like is its great aging potential, the complexity and the beautiful, elegant finish.”

Bressia’s boutique family winery was one of the first to make a premium blend beyond cab-malbec, receiving critical acclaim for its Profundo wine. Conjuro, meaning magic spell, was the next step up.

“When I started with Profundo it was a very high price for a wine in Argentina and it was the maximum I could do,” says Bressia. “Then I could see a great potential in some vineyards that you could work in a different way and make wines with a much higher range – and this is where the idea of Conjuro came from. As the wine was developing in the barrels I noticed it had something different; it was a wine that enchanted me.”

The grapes for Conjuro come from calcareous, stony soils in the cool climes of high-altitude Tupungato, the northernmost sub-region of the Uco Valley in Mendoza. Bressia cherry-picks the best grapes to produce 8,000 bottles annually.

However, Conjuro is no longer the most expensive wine in Bressia’s cellar. In 2006, he launched Ultima Hoja ($177), a red blend he guards as “top secret.”

“It was a delirium with Ultima Hoja,” says Bressia. “I always like challenges and to create things, and I wanted to go for something more.” Only the 2006 and 2008 vintages have been released so far, with just 800 bottles from each harvest.

No. 9. The penultimate place on our list belongs to a boutique producer in Patagonia, which makes the only pinot noir in the top 10: Bodega Chacra Treinta y Dos. This organic wine from Piero Incisa della Rocchetta’s estate in Rio Negro has an average price of $98 on Wine-Searcher.

Piero is a member of the legendary Italian winemaking family Incisa della Rochetta. His grandfather created the original Super Tuscan, Sassicaia. He was inspired to open a winery in Argentina by the work of Hans Vinding-Diers (see No. 5.), the husband of his cousin, Countess Noemi Marone Cinzano.

“I came without knowing what to expect,” Piero says. “The climate of this place was spectacular: cold nights, warm sunny days, constant wind, pure air. The luminosity is one of the strongest in the world and there’s pure water. All this, paired with pre-phylloxera vines, and it was an interesting place.”

Piero found an abandoned plantation of pinot noir first planted in 1932 (hence the name of his wine: Treinta y Dos). He nursed it back to health using an organic and biodynamic approach. In return, he claims he gets the “essence of Patagonia terroir” in his wines.

“We have incredible minerality and the long cold nights help us to develop this elegance, the old vines give us complexity, the luminosity gives us a touch of fruit,” he says. “People often misplace it for Old World, but it has a touch of fruit which the Old World can’t have. In my opinion it makes wines approachable from a young age.”

Why the high price point? Piero puts it down to supply and demand, and, of course, the cost of production. The grapes are hand picked and de-stemmed, and there is no mechanization in the process.

6-Argentina-Patagonia© Flickr/magical-world: The climate and beauty of Patagonia proved irresistible to Piero Incisa della Rocchetta

Want to know spot 10? Read the rest on Wine-Searcher here.


3 thoughts on “Argentina’s 10 Most Expensive Wines

    1. Argentina is definitely a cool place, and there will many more great wines to explore soon. This year I think some of the most exciting wines have been released here in a long time. I’ll make a new list soon 🙂

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