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The wines of Argentina have been on a tear over the last decade. They're on a lot of experts’ short lists for good drinking for little money.

Two things come to mind. One: Other than looking for the word “Argentina” on the label, we really don't know much about these wines. And two, I hear Argentina is poised to take on the big boys of great reds.

Laura Catena of Bodega Catena Zapata and Luca Winery is a fourth-generation Argentine winemaker who wrote Vino Argentino: An Insider's Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: We know so little about the wines of Argentina. We drink them, but we're kind of clueless as to where they come from and what their characteristics are. Could you give us a short tour?

Laura Catena

Laura Catena

Laura Catena: Yes. I hope that everybody will come down and visit us in Argentina. It’s actually not that far; from some places in the U.S. it's only a 10-hour flight.

Most of the vineyards are next to the Andes. The distance is about 1,200 miles from the northernmost vineyards to the southernmost vineyards. From the north, there's Salta, then you come to La Rioja, San Juan and Mendoza, where I'm from and where most of the wines come from. Then you get to Patagonia, Rio Negro and Neuquen. It's just beautiful, great weather, very friendly people, and excellent food with a lot of meat.

LRK: The kinds of grapes and the kinds of wines -- what's the variety?

LC: The variety that's most famous for Argentina is called malbec. It's originally a French grape that was very famous in France in the Middle Ages and the 19th century; then it was brought to Argentina in 1852. Now there is malbec grown from north to south. Possibly the most famous malbec is the malbec from Mendoza.

You also have a white variety that's called torrontés that grows in Salta that's very aromatic; it’s a beautiful wine. I have a recipe for torrontés ice cream in my book that I highly recommend. But we also have beautiful cabernet sauvignon, syrah, even pinot noir and many, many more varieties. Chardonnay is very beautiful from Argentina because it's grown at high altitude and so it has a very mineral touch. 

LRK: What does a malbec taste like?

LC: For me, and perhaps I'm biased, malbec is the perfect wine because it has very intense aromatics, black fruits, a little spiciness, a very rich palate. It's actually one of the darkest wines and the richest wines, so it's very concentrated yet it's very smooth on the palate. That's a characteristic of the actual variety: the smoothness. Even if it has a lot of tannins, it's smooth.

LRK: The torrontés?

LC: The torrontés is very aromatic. It almost makes you think of a riesling.

LRK: That spicy, sort of fruity quality?

LC: Yes, a floral quality. Then on the palate it can be made dry or sweet. I actually prefer it when it's dry and it has this sort of mineralness on the palate. It's a very light wine. It's a wine that you drink almost like you drink Champagne -- very freely in the afternoon, or maybe before dinner.

LRK: Sounds like a wonderful summer wine. You mentioned that the altitude affected the chardonnay wine. What does high altitude do for wine?

LC: High altitude allows the plant to grow very slowly, but in a very ideal environment. You have a lot of sunlight and the plant needs the sunlight for the photosynthesis, for the leaves to bring in the energy to give the juice and the tannins to the grapes. But then it's quite cool there, which allows the plant to rest at night and not to use up its acids and to mature slowly. So you're able to keep the grapes on the vine for a very long time under very good conditions. Also, the sugars don't go up too much. None of us likes those really alcoholic wines. (Wine is fermented sugar, so a wine that has a lot of sugar will have a lot of alcohol.) In summary, what you get from the altitude is very nice aromatics, very crisp wines with nice acidity and a moderate alcohol level -- not too high -- that are very drinkable.

LRK: I understand that malbec is making a bid for being one of the great reds. What's bringing that about? Is the wine being made differently than it was in the past?

LC: I think a lot of the more serious nature of malbec today has to do with the altitude. That gives us wines with better acidity, with more tannins that can age better, and just more interesting wines. I think malbec is definitely a contender on the level of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot and chardonnay. If you look back at the history of malbec, it was drunk at the wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II. So it's a very famous wine historically and I think there's a reason for that. Today it's famous for Argentina and it really is claiming a place in the world of important wine varieties. I'm very happy about that, very proud of that.

LRK: You're saying it was served back in the 1500s in France and in England?

LC: Yes. Malbec was very famous back then. It was called the black wine because it's so dark. It was also famous in Bordeaux, France, in the 19th century, so it's a variety with a lot of history. I always find that wine and history come together. For me it's very exciting that this variety first was famous in the old world and now it's famous in the new world.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper

Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.