What and Where on the Winelist: Argentine Torrontés

by Jim Clarke
July 2009

Recommended Torrontes Producers:

Crios de Susana Balbo, Salta
El Porvenir de los Andes, Cafayete Valley
Bodegas Norton, Mendoza
Zolo, Mendoza
Plata, La Rioja
La Yunta, La Rioja
Jelu, San Juan

What? Torrontés. Actually three related varieties going under the same name, Torrontés has staked a claim as Argentina’s signature white, but has yet to gain the name recognition Malbec has achieved. Its origins are iffy; most signs point to Spain, but no one’s really pinned it down. Gallicia has a grape called Torrontés, generally used as part of white blends, but it’s not clear if it’s the same as what they’re growing in Argentina. In addition, Madeira has an old, almost extinct variety called Terrantez, which often gets confused with the Argentine variety. At the very least, experts generally agree that Torrontés is somehow related to Malvasia, which means it has aromatic cousins scattered throughout the Mediterranean. Torrontés Riojano is the most widely-planted and aromatic of the three types, followed by the lesser known Sanjuanino variety. The even less aromatic Torrontés Mendocino is more distantly related than the other two, and is generally cultivated in more southern regions. When grown with care, Torrontés combines some of Sauvignon Blanc’s assertive aromas with gentler, Muscat-like floral tones. It tends toward a crisp, high acid character that can fade when vineyard yields are too high.

Where? Argentina. Most of the approximately 34,000 acres of Torrontés planted are in the north of the country; the “Riojano” and “Sanjuanino” varieties are in fact named after two wine regions north of Mendoza, and both La Rioja and San Juan have significant plantings. San Juan, however, is turning more and more toward red wine production. Salta, even farther north, may be the best place for Torrontés, and it’s fortunate for the grape’s reputation that several wines from the area are being imported to the U.S. The high altitudes—exceeding 5,000 above sea level—and low rainfall make for concentration and intensity. Within Salta, the Cafayete Valley in particular is developing a strong reputation for its Torrontés.

Why? Did I mention its crisp character, reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc, but softer and a bit rounded? Many wine drinkers appreciate Sauvignon Blanc’s acidity and the way that it works so well at the table, but find it a bit much on occasion, especially in its grassier incarnations. Well-made Torrontés offers the same qualities, without being so damn assertive about it. It also gives fans of Muscat or Gewurztraminer an alternative when they want that floral touch but need a bit more acidity. Torrontés works well with salads, especially those with fruity touches or vinaigrette dressings. Seafood and light fish also make good pairings. Soft textured examples can lend themselves to spicy Asian dishes, ranging from spicy tuna rolls to Thai green curries. Since Torrontés doesn’t call for oak-aging and isn’t well-known enough yet to be in demand with a great many consumers, prices are also very reasonable. These wines aren’t meant for aging, so it’s generally best to seek out the most recent vintage available.

Who? If in doubt, buy a Salta Torrontés; it’s the most reliable region for the grape. The Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontés has made a lot of waves, and its generally regarded as one of the first to really give the grape a serious identity. While the “Crios” brand is “second-label” in the Balbo portfolio, there’s nothing second fiddle about the wine itself; it’s a matter of pricing, not quality. From the Cafayete Valley, look for the “Laborum” Torrontés from El Porvenir de los Andes, a particularly full-bodied example from a family-owned winery. The wine comes from 40-year-old vines trained in the old-fashioned pergola system. From the heart of Argentine wine country, Mendoza, big-name producer Bodegas Norton makes a fruit-driven wine, a bit softer than some but still fresh and clean. The same could be said for Zolo, which leans toward a tropical fruit style that might even appeal to some Chardonnay drinkers. Not enough of the La Rioja and San Juan wines are making it to the U.S. yet, but there are a few. The Plata Torrontés shows off the former’s character well, emphasizing the floral, more Muscat-y side of the grape. The La Yunta, also from La Rioja, is also fairly easy to find if you’d prefer a crisper wine. From San Juan, Jelu makes a well-focused wine, very good with lighter seafood dishes, from grapes grown in the Zonda Valley.