Wines of San Juan, Argentina

Wines of where? Puerto Rico? Nope, these wines are from the up-and-coming province of San Juan, Argentina, and they offer a pleasant reminder of the value that lesser-known wine-producing regions around the world can deliver. They also remind us that purity can equal quality in wines. Bonarda, Tannat, Syrah, Malbec and Torrontes are some of the main varietals coming out of this province, and with little exception, it seems that winemakers of San Juan are adamant about avoiding use of oak and other wine-altering methods. The results are quite refreshing.

SJTorrontesI recently tasted wines from 15 of San Juan’s wineries at an event supported by The Federal Council of Investments (CFI), a Federal entity that promotes Argentina’s small and mid-sized businesses within the global market. I tried the white wines first, noting the clean, vibrant, floral notes jumping out of the glasses of Torrontes. One of the most memorable for me was brought by Alta Bonanza de los Andes winery, and was 100% Torrontes Sanjuanino, one of three varieties of Torrontes said to have ties to Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica. I was also intrigued by a unique blend of Pedro Ximenez and Torrontes by Cavas S.R.L. winery, which drank almost like a dessert wine but had a much lighter mouthweight that would make it suitable for a spicy dish or a hot day on a patio. The biggest differences I found were among the Chardonnay, nearly none of which were oaked, and some quite pungent, but all nonetheless expressive of the individual vineyard and terroir from which the grapes came.

SJTannatThe red wines certainly over-delivered. Unlike San Juan’s neighboring and globally popular wines of Mendoza, whose climbing reputation for producing quality wines have gradually encouraged prices to reflect appropriately in the retail market, the suggested retail values of most of the wines shown at this event were on average about $8 to $10. And many easily drank like a $20+ bottle. I was especially curious about the 100% Tannat wines, as this is rarely seen as a varietal wine and the grape more commonly used in blends because of its natural high tannins and acidity. Only two Tannat varietal wines were represented: one from Fincas Sierras Azules (“Expresion”), and one from Bodegas San Juan de la Frontera (“Las Invernadas”). Both were surprisingly well-balanced and not overly acidic or tannic, but the latter pleased my palette a bit more by offering more fruit.

Across the board, I was impressed with the Bonarda wines, another grape seldom used to produce varietal wines outside of Argentina, and a varietal rarely sought outside of Argentina but up until recently was the most planted grape in Argentina, now only surpassed by Malbec.

SJBonardaBonarda wines can be lighter and fruity, with light tannins and moderate acidity, but under the influence of oak can easily transition into a bold, fruit-driven, tannic wine showing deep color. However, as I mentioned, most of these particular wines never saw oak, as the winemakers prefer to rely on the integrity of the grapes themselves, and yet the Bonarda wines sampled at this event showed beautiful color, aggressive but not offensive tannins that would make food pairing rather easy, and elegant acidity. They were rich, bold, and offered characteristics of expensive oaked wines, such as slight vanilla on the nose and palate, which led me to believe that this varietal, as is the case of many varietals, can stand strong alone, even unadulterated, with the right winemaker.

None of the wineries represented currently have wines distributed here in Texas, and most have no distribution in the United States at all, but the few who do are minimally carried on the East coast. Their motivation in participating in the four-city US national tour was to expose their wines to the U.S. consumer, but mostly to hopefully meet that one fateful person who could make the decision to bring San Juan wines abundantly into a U.S. distributor. Hopefully that fateful person was in attendance that day and was impressed, as I was, with the wines represented, the value they offer, and the purity and quality they deliver. And hopefully we will soon see San Juan, Argentina wines in the Houston market and beyond. Keep your eyes peeled and get them before word spreads and prices rise.

Ranking second among the wine-producing provinces of Argentina, San Juan has a cultivated area of 116,700 acres standing between 1,970 and 4,590 feet above sea level.
Ranking second among the wine-producing provinces of Argentina, San Juan has a cultivated area of 116,700 acres standing between 1,970 and 4,590 feet above sea level.

Morgan Neufeld picAbout Morgan Neufeld

After being inspired by her brother-in-law, who is a winemaker for Gilbert Cellars and JBNeufeld wines in Yakima, Washington, along with her 10+ years of sales experience, Morgan  Neufeld decided it would be apt to pursue a career in selling wine, which led her to her current job as an on-premise Fine Wine Sales Representative at Glazer’s Distributors, where she has been since December 2013. She loves the fact that there is something new to learn about wine every single day, and that the opportunities to do so by working for a distributor are abundant. Her next pursuit is the Certified Wine Specialist (CSW), provided by Glazer’s continuing education program. She also hopes to begin leading blind tasting classes at The Texas Wine School in the next couple of months (independent of the WSET courses). Favorite varietals: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Zinfandel (Lodi), Bobal, and Chenin Blanc (Vouvray).

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