Argentine wines: How to pampas yourself

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Argentine wines: How to pampas yourself

Latin America is hardly the first place that jumps into the minds of wine lovers, let alone the budding oenophiles of Korea. Chile has enjoyed success, and in recent years Peruvian wines have drawn some attention. But who thinks of Argentina?

Well, Francois-Xavier Piganeau, for one. The French winemaker-cum-distributor recently visited Seoul to promote the wines of Argentina. Wine may be growing in popularity in Korea, but it's still an uphill climb trying to evangelize about the South American wine scene.

"I've been to hotel restaurants and trendy cafes," Mr. Piganeau says. "They have good French and Australian wines, and so-so Chilean wines. But the cafes are just adding Argentine wines."

Korea's reticence aside, Argentina already is the world's fifth-largest supplier of wine.

Spanish immigrants began cultivating grapes in the northern area of Mendoza in the mid-16th century. Over the centuries, this semi-arid plain -- with 300 days of sunshine and less than 200 millimeters of rain each year -- has been transformed into a vast expanse of vineyards.

Ordinarily, a climate like this would be too arid for grapes to flourish, so the growers began pumping in irrigation water from the Andes Mountains. By the 19th century, Argentina was the world's sixth-largest producer of wine. But it also was a huge consumer, and little was exported beyond its borders.

Today, the best-known wines are from the Flinchman, Bodega Trapiche, Norton and Etchart vineyards, which began cultivating grapes at the turn of the last century. These vineyards, and others in the Mendoza region, have relied on the brilliant sunshine and dry air to negate the need for fungicides.

Which brings us to the Singapore-based Mr. Piganeau, who is attempting to expand the market for Argentine wines. A consummate traveler, he makes it a point of sampling wines throughout Asia, although he claims he hasn't sipped any Korean vintages. "I tried wines made from French grapes in China, but they weren't so nice," he says. "Japan makes pretty decent wines."

But Mr. Piganeau is not about to complain. He's from a family of wine lovers, and is happy to be doing the work he loves. "I grew up drinking wine since I was 3, and learned about good wines early on," he says, "Now it's almost impossible to pass a day without drinking -- it's great and it's part of the job."

In general, he's enthusiastic about New World grapes and wines. "Once a grape leaves its home soil, it becomes something completely different; from the different climate, water and soil, " he says. "Inventive techniques and processing bring out the best in a grape. Hybrids become unique to the new region. Winemakers work on what we call 'integration' of tastes in the bottle."

Argentine wines have their own characteristics. Wine from grapes grown in the valleys of the Andes Mountains taste immature because they are shade-grown, he says. Wine from grapes grown on mountain terraces have a mature, fruity taste, and better color, because there is plenty of sun.

The Terraza de los Andes region produces wines that exude the distinctive characteristics of Argentine wines: rich, woody and fruity. The mildly woody elements from the oak casks aren't overwhelming, instead imparting a light vanilla or caramel flavor.

Terraza produces three types of wines: Gran (single vineyard wines), Reserva (oak-barrel aged) and Alto (fruity). Alto wines are grown in Mendoza's highlands, at 1,000 meters or above. Their taste is fruity and fragrant from the oak barrels. Alto Malbec and Reserva Malbec are smooth and rich in tannin. Malbec grapes are often used in blended wines.

Only 6,000 bottles of Gran Cabernet Sauvignon were made in 1997. The wine boasts sophisticated depth, and only a few bottles are available in Korea. Although Cabernet Sauvignons are generally thought to be best with red meat dishes, Mr. Piganeau says they go well with light dishes of fish, white meat and vegetables.

"I would like to make my own wine someday. I'm debating whether to go for Old World or New World wine," Mr. Piganeau says. "But I like Australian grapes. I would use Shiraz or Pinot Noir and grow them in Australia or Argentina."

by Inēs Cho

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