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Argentina: Wines with Altitude (February 21, 2013)

In 2006 a single wine created an instantaneous demand for Argentinian Malbec in Canada. Do you remember the Fuzion frenzy? Fuzion is a blend of Argentina's signature grape Malbec with Shiraz that used to sell in Ontario $7.45 a bottle. The wine was originally launched in March 2006 through the Quebec liquor board, Société des alcools du Québec. Over the first 12 months on the market in la belle province it sold 280,000 cases. In August 2007 Fuzion came to Ontario. In its first five weeks the total allocation of 5,000 cases was sold out. The wine went viral on social media. Customers were taking it home by the case. The interest was driven, not by wine writers, but by consumers themselves who used Facebook and Twitter to spread the news of the great buy they had found.

At one point when the Fuzion phenomenon was at its height the LCBO sold four containers in two days – that's 5,488 cases. This was unprecedented in a market where a new wine brand might be considered a success if it sold between 1,000 and 2,000 cases in its first year.

There are three reasons why Fuzion Shiraz Malbec was such a success:

  1. Price point. The quality of the wine for the price when it was introduced was first rate.
  2. The economy. Canadians, like the rest of the world were suffering – and are still – from the economic downturn. We did not have the disposable income to spend on wine but we wanted to keep on drinking it.
  3. Novelty. North American wine drinkers tend to be fickle. There is no brand loyalty when it comes to saving twenty cents on a bottle.

What Fuzion did was to create a demand for the Malbec grape in Canada. We tend to get bored with the same old wines. We crave something new and Malbec was a grape we hadn't experienced as a varietal (it's usually a junior partner in a Bordeaux blend). But such is the capricious nature of the consumers' palate that today it's Argentina; next week it might be Brazil or Uruguay or the Douro Valley or Stellenbosch. Yet Argentina succeeded in holding and increasing its market because they are not a one-grape wonder. They offer great value at different price points with varieties other than Malbec.

There are 230,000 hectares of vineyards in Argentina, 32,000 of which are planted to Malbec. Next in importance, with 20,000 hectares, is Bonarda, a grape I predict will be The Next Big Thing. Cabernet Sauvignon comes third at 18,500 hectares. While Argentina grows Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, its flagship white variety is Torrontes, a fragrant and aromatic dry white wine that smells of orange blossom and cardamom – rather like a more delicate version of an Alsace Muscat (which is not altogether surprising, since the variety is a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and the local Mission grape).

On a recent visit to Argentina I toured the emerging wine region of Patagonia and the well-established Mendoza Valley and what I found was the best wines don't leave the country. Argentinians, until the 1970s, consumed a staggering 90 litres of wine per head of the population. Half the inhabitants of Argentina, incidentally, live in the capital – a statistic that has given rise to the popular expression, "God is everywhere, but His office is in Buenos Aires." Today that wine consumption figure is down to 26 litres per head but it is still more than twice the amount the average Canadian drinks.

When you think of Argentinian wine, you probably associate it with the Mendoza Valley, that vast, high plateau west of Buenos Aires that receives an average of 8 inches of rain a year. Of the 1341 wineries in the country, 1200 of them are in Mendoza, which produces over 70% of the country's wine. For the most part these are wines with altitude because they are grown at elevations up to 2000 metres to compensate for the heat of the summer. Salta, Argentina's most northerly wine region – and where the best Torrontes comes from – is actually on the Tropic of Capricorn

You can tell when a wine region is in vogue when Europeans begin to invest big bucks in land and breathtaking facilities. In the Uco Valley I visited Clos Los Siete, an association of seven Bordeaux château owners who are partners in a collective enterprise led by the world's leading "flying winemaker," Michel Rolland. The property is literally a clos of 850 hectares spectacularly set in the foothills of the Andes, rather like an upscale gated community for very wealthy vignerons. The five ultra-modern wineries on this property that grow grapes for the brand supply at least 40% of their tonnage for the production of the Clos de Los Siete label. They are making exciting wines here from Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. And you can forget the Fuzion price tag. These are serious wines at serious prices.




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