Tuesday, 4 October 2011

I say Argentina, you say....?

Some way down the list, after maybe tango and Maradona's hand of God I'm guessing, as you're reading a wine blog, Malbec might make an appearance.

Despite hailing from France originally, Argentina has single-mindedly focused on making Malbec its vinous calling card. It successfully combines a modern, fruity and food-friendly style of red wine that chimes with Argentina's rugged image as a land of steak-eating, horse-riding gauchos.

But man (and woman) cannot live on red wine alone. There are times when a glass of something cold and white is what's required and in those situations, Argentina's wine industry would like us to embrace the charms of the Torrontes grape.

Torrontes is a unique grape to Argentina. In style it's light and fresh, with a distinct floral, grapey aroma – though the palate is always dry. If you like Gewurztraminer from either Alsace or, increasingly, Chile, you'll probably like Torrontes – especially if you find the French versions sometimes a little too sweet.

Also, dare I say it, all you Sauvignon Blanc lovers out there – think about giving Torrontes a try. It has the same full-on aromatic kick on the nose, leading onto a palate with good acidity, so stylistically it is in the same territory.

When I first came across Torrontes a few years back, too many of the wines I tried had rather over-floral aromatics, making them redolent of Old Spice aftershave, then a slightly bitter, sometimes sweaty flavour on the palate. Whatever the winemaking issues were then, they seem to have been resolved and most Torrontes nowadays is a pure pleasure to drink.

That combination of flowery aromas and a refreshingly crisp and dry palate makes Torrontes a shoo-in when choosing a glass to have as a palate-cleansing aperitif. But can it cut the mustard when you move onto the main course?

Dear readers, I have undertaken some food and Torrontes matching research on your behalf, guided by Master of Wine and ex-Good Food Magazine Associate Editor, Sarah Jane Evans. The results were perhaps a surprise – at least they were to me.

Argentina is renowned for its love for steaks, the bigger the better. And I wouldn't suggest you try glugging Torrontes with that. However, their other great love is seafood, especially when made as a ceviche, where the fish is “cooked” in a combination of lemon or lime juice, herbs, spices and olive oil. As you can imagine, this is a pretty intense flavour combination and Torrontes stands up to the citrus sharpness impeccably.

However, I'm guessing that prawn ceviche isn't a regular on the Autumn weekday menu in these here parts. But what about that great midweek standard, an English-as-a-middle-order-batting-collapse fish pie?

I was intrigued to find that a couple of the 100% Torrontes wines recommended below coped admirably. I had worried that the quite rich creaminess of the potato and fish would make the wine taste skinny and smell like cheap perfume – but not at all. Somehow the weight of fruit in the wine, combined with a slightly salty-mineral tang, served to enhance both the food and the wine.

Personally I've never been much of a fish pie fan – too much like anaemic nursery food pap. However, with a glass of chilled Torrontes on the side, perhaps I'll learn to love it.

Recommended Torrontes wines

La Riojana Tilimuqui Single Vineyard Fairtrade Torrontes 2011 - £6.99 at Waitrose
It's also organic. Too often, the Fairtrade label (or indeed the word organic) on a wine is no guarantee of quality in the bottle. Generally such wines languish at the cheaper end of the market (why? Don't we all think it worth paying more, not less, for ethically produced food and drink?) and offer neither enough concentration nor varietal character.

This one, however, is knockout value for money. The nose is reminiscent of Muscat – grapey, with a hint of tangerine peel. The palate, though, has more toned-down aromatics, with that lovely tangy minerality which helps to give weight and presence in the mouth, leading onto a long finish. Great with fish pie and pretty good with chorizo, so it's a good choice to have with some pre-dinner nibbles.

La Riojana Fairtrade Torrontes Chardonnay 2011 – currently £4.99 at The Co-operative
From the same producer, La Riojana, so named as they make their wines in the Argentine region of La Rioja – as you can imagine, this name gets the European Appellation Contrôlée authorities a little exercised.

If you don't want to scare the horses and would like a gentle introduction to Torrontes, then spending a fiver on this 60/40 Torrontes Chardonnay blend should be relatively painless. It still has aromas reminiscent of peaches and flowers, but the more assertive aromatics are toned down and softened by the more anonymous Chardonnay. The palate is smooth, fresh and ripe, with a slight spiciness – and it coped really well with the prawn ceviche. It would make a great party white.

Susana Balbo Zohar Torrontes 2010/11 - £11.99 single bottle price at The Vineking (branches in Reigate and Weybridge), down to £10.79 as part of a mixed case of 6; £10.99 a bottle from Hennings Wine Merchants (branches in Petworth, Pulborough and Goring-on-Sea)

Susana Balbo is one of the best winemakers in Argentina and all her wines are worth a try. This wine, though, struck me as the most food-friendly from the selection. It breezed through the prawn ceviche, stood up to the fish pie and got along swimmingly with smoked duck.

It had more weight and presence than the other two wines, with a sense of richness, despite being completely dry. The trademark floral aromatics combine with a lick of salty tang and a kick of spice on the palate. Altogether it's a class act.

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