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Nieto Senetiner: Argentine Snapshot
By Jim Clarke

Nieto Senetiner is a picture of the world of Argentine wine. They have a long history, are located in the country’s most famous wine region, and grow the grapes that the country is known for. Consider:

The Andes: Snowcapped peaks loom over the wide valley of Mendoza, Argentina’s most important wine region. Nieto Senetiner has two wineries there, in the Luján de Cuyo sub-region. Their higher-end wines are made at the Vistalba location and then sent to the larger facility in Carrodilla for bottling. They also make a budget line called Santa Isabel at the Carrodilla winery.

The Andes’ melting snows not only provide water for the otherwise dry Mendoza region, but the slopes create mountain winds that balance the area’s hot daytime temperatures with cooler nights. This daily back-and-forth of hot and cool helps wine grapes develop slowly, with rich flavors and balanced acidity. Nieto Senetiner owns about 300 hectares of vineyards throughout Luján de Cuyo at about 2,900 feet elevation.

Education: Not the first thing people think about when Argentine wine comes up, but an important factor in the birth of any wine industry. A push for Argentine wine came from Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the country’s president from 1868 until 1874. He brought in foreign experts and founded two wine schools in Mendoza and San Juan. Nieto Senetiner has turned this around to develop education programs for consumers and wine professionals. At the winery in Vistalba they offer a three-day intensive course in addition to shorter courses on subjects such as wine blending and food and wine pairing. They also have similar classes at their School for Oenophiles of Bodegas Nieto Senetiner in Buenos Aires. Their programs go far beyond the usual cellar visits and tastings.

Immigration: Europeans of every nationality immigrated to under-populated Argentina in the late 1800s, making it one of the most diverse countries in South America. Their arrival gave legs to President Sarmiento’s hopes, creating the wine culture needed to sustain a modern wine industry. Italian immigrants founded what is now Nieto Senetiner in 1888. Nicanor Nieto and Adriano Senetiner gave the company its current name in 1969 when they bought out the facilities and vineyards. They invested in up-to-date, modern equipment – the beginning of a wave of modernization that brought new life to the country’s wines in the past 30 years. The steel company Perez Companc took over in 1998, and Nicanor and Senetiner have moved on to found the artisanal winery Viniterra.

Some important grape varietals seem to have immigrated to Argentina together with the European influx. Two of these have prospered more fully in Argentina than at home:

Malbec: Marginalized in France, where it now appears only in the wines of Cahors, Malbec is Argentina’s best-known red wine. The climate here allows it to ripen more fully than in France, giving it richness and spice and lowering the harsh tannins that it was known for in the Old World. In Argentina, Malbec is often blended with other Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Nieto Senetiner makes several different Malbec or Malbec-based blends. The 2000 vintage of their premium bottling, Cadus ($30), showed an earthy bass, topped with blackberry and tobacco notes. The finish is dominated by earth, firm tannins, and a touch of prune. The more affordable Nieto Reserva 2002 ($10) shows fruit on the nose, evolving into an earthier palate with clove and vanilla spice on the finish. The budget Santa Isabel 2003 blends fruit and spice – think fruitcake – with a round texture and mouthfeel.

Bonarda: Argentina’s other signature grape; while not as well known, it’s actually more widely planted. Like Malbec, it’s a bigger deal in Argentina than it is back home. There are plantings of Bonarda in Piedmont, Italy, but many vineyards were replanted instead with Freisa and Barbera post-phylloxera. Bonarda tends to make lighter, fruitier wines than most of the other varietals common in Argentina; the Nieto Senetiner Bonarda Reserva 2002 is richer than many, with lots of red fruits buttressed by smoke and tobacco. Its soft tannins lend it to milk chocolate, chicken, and salmon.

Value: For many, South American wine has become synonymous with value. Value is most recognized at the lower price points: an Argentine wine at $10 or less will taste like it cost significantly more. What some wine shoppers miss is that for many Argentine producers this value continues at the higher price points; the $20 or $30 bottle also costs better than many other, similarly-priced wines from other parts of the world. Value isn’t just about being cheap.

Nieto Senetiner sells wines at three price points, essentially. The Santa Isabel wines are aimed at the budget market at $8 and includes two reds – Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec – and a white blend of Chardonnay and Viognier.

The Nieto Reserva line sits at the $10 mark except for the Bonarda at $20. The white Reserva is a 100% Chardonnay, medium-bodied and creamy, with lots of tropical fruit. In addition to the Malbec, the other red is a Cabernet-Shiraz blend – while they choose to call it Shiraz in tribute to the Australians who first thought of blending the two grapes, it actually reminds me of Californian Syrah in many ways. Berry fruits are wrapped by layers of coffee, earth, chocolate, spice, and vanilla. At $10 they’ve done more with the blend than many of their Aussie forebears.

The Cadus wines are the pinnacle of the Nieto Senetiner portfolio, retailing at $30. The companion to the Malbec mentioned above is a Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2000 has a nose of cassis, blackberry, and tobacco, blossoming into vanilla and smoke on the palate. The wine is round and rich, with dry, firm tannins.

Ironically what may be the best value in their portfolio lies outside this three- level layout. The Don Nicanor sits alone at the $13 price point, an even blend of Malbec, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2000 gives off clove and dark fruit aromas, supported on the palate by earth, pencil lead, and roasted coffee.

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   Published: December 2004