Argentine wine’s popularity continues to be sustained by Malbec, the easy-to-pronounce varietal with an approachable flavor profile. Most people had no idea that it originated in France, but such information didn’t even matter. Argentine Malbec exploded in the United States more than a decade ago and is now better known than many domestic wines.
Malbec is everywhere, including at Disney. “Argentine wine is important to our nationwide program, and the wines have captured the eye of consumers,” says Brian Koziol, master sommelier and food and beverage concept development director at Orlando, Florida–based Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. The company has more than 642 on-premise venues in the United States, including 152 full-service restaurants. “Ten years ago as a wholesale rep, I sold only two Argentine wines to Disney World in Orlando, and those were niche wines at a couple of restaurants,” Koziol says. “Today, Argentine Malbec is represented in almost every Disney venue that sells wine.” Tiffins—a new high-end restaurant featuring Asian, African and South American cuisines at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando—offers 33 Argentine wines. Popular labels include Pascual Toso Brut sparkling wine ($9 a 5-ounce pour; $39 a 750-ml. bottle), the 2014 Alta Vista Estate Cafayate Torrontés ($11; $49) and the 2015 Santa Julia Organica Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon ($8; $35).
Koziol says many guests want a red wine that goes with everything—even foods traditionally paired with white wine—and Malbec fits the bill. “Argentine Malbec works well with Chinese and other cuisines because of its soft tannins and fruit-forward style,” he explains. The 2013 Don Miguel Gascón Mendoza Malbec ($9 a 5-ounce pour; $39 a 750-ml. bottle) is a top-seller.
At Davidsons Liquors in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, shoppers are drawn to Argentine Malbec. “Consumers like its fruit-forward, plummy profile,” says wine buyer Ryan Gerni. “Yet Argentine wines are also showing value for Chardonnays and Bordeaux-style red blends.” Davidsons carries roughly 175 Argentine wine SKUs from about 85 brands, and 75 percent of them are Malbec. Gerni says the store’s South American section was dominated by Chilean wines until recently, and now Argentine wines claim three-quarters of the shared shelf space. While the 2014 Alamos Mendoza Malbec ($10 a 750-ml. bottle) and the 2013 Catena Zapata Mendoza Malbec ($19) are the top-sellers, other varietals have gained traction. The 2012 Catena Zapata White Bones Adrianna Vineyard Mendoza Chardonnay ($120) and the 2014 Alto Limay Patagonia Pinot Noir ($20) sell well. Argentina’s higher-end wines, such as the 2013 Luca Mendoza Malbec ($35), are gaining in popularity, Gerni says. “Argentina’s new price point will start at $35,” he predicts. “That’s where the category is headed.”
Argentina shipped 5.96 million nine-liter cases of bottled table wine to the United States in 2015, a 4.1-percent increase over 2014, according to Impact Databank. Since peaking at 6.13 million cases in 2011 after years of growth, Bottled Argentine wine imports to the United States have plateaued. E. & J. Gallo’s Alamos brand stayed in the lead position at 900,000 cases, flattening out after several years of growth. The company’s Don Miguel Gascón label also remained flat at 290,000 cases. The No.-2 offering is The Wine Group’s Trapiche, which grew 10.8 percent to 410,000 cases, surpassing its 2010 peak of 390,000 cases and following declines in 2011 and 2012. Quintessential Wines’ Valentín Bianchi brand gained 1.9 percent to 270,000 cases, while its New Age label edged up 1.1 percent, depleting 187,000 cases. Guarachi Wine Partners’ Bodega Norton slipped 10 percent to 234,000 cases. Winesellers Ltd.’s Santa Julia brand showed the biggest jump among the category’s leading brands, advancing 20.4 percent to 177,000 cases.
In the last few years, Argentina has struggled with a debt crisis and high inflation, which has hit the wine industry particularly hard. However, last November’s election of Argentine president Mauricio Macri may signal a turnaround for the industry. Macri has promised to tackle the country’s inflation head on, which has the potential to benefit the wine industry. “The last president underreported inflation, which has been about 36 percent the last five or six years,” says Dennis Kreps, co-owner of Quintessential Wines. The company imports New Age, Valentín Bianchi and other brands. “The new president is disclosing accurate numbers and talks about steps to normalize inflation within five years,” Kreps explains. “Argentine business leaders are very positive, and wineries are now reinvesting in their businesses.”
Alex Guarachi, CEO of Guarachi Wine Partners, agrees. “Everyone in Argentina’s wine industry feels optimistic,” says Guarachi, whose company imports Bodega Norton, Kaiken and other brands. “Not only has President Macri been more transparent in reporting inflation, he’s also encouraging new investment, paying down the debt and working toward economic recovery. These efforts will stabilize the Argentine currency, so prices aren’t so up-and-down in the United States.”
The crisis isn’t over, however. “Inflation is still as high as 40 percent and will likely continue this way, mostly driven by increasing energy prices,” says Diego Lo Prete, senior vice president and general manager of The Winebow Group’s MundoVino division. Winebow imports Bodega Catena Zapata, Bodega Renacer, El Enemigo and other brands. “Wineries’ costs will likely increase due to fruit shortage,” he says, adding that the need to purchase dry goods in dollars will also drive up costs. “Producers will have to fine-tune and optimize their financials to remain profitable and competitive.”
Importers predict a landscape of fewer but stronger players, overall stability and higher price points for a mature Argentine wine category. “Argentine wine is coming of age,” Lo Prete says. “Growth rates are cooling, and we see a concentration of top players and higher price points. Opportunistic producers and those with weak brand equities will find it harder to remain in the game.” He says the company’s Argentine wines are outperforming the category, with super-premium wines at price points over $25 selling particularly well. He expects to finish the year strongly.
“Argentine wine was an overnight success with a strong rise and a proliferation of brands, but now the category is plateauing,” says Bill Terlato, president and CEO of Terlato Wine Group. The company markets the Tamarí and Cuarto Dominio labels in the United States and imported 59,000 cases of Argentine wine in 2015. “Argentina’s quality brands will stay in the market, while the weaker players will be pruned,” Terlato adds, noting increased interest in Argentine wines among on-premise buyers. He expects to finish 2016 with high-single digit increases in the Argentine portfolio.
Winesellers Ltd., which imports Santa Julia, Zuccardi and other brands, is shifting its strategy to evolve with the changing market. “As an industry, we’ve anticipated this flattening for the last couple years, and as the category softens, small-scale importers aren’t going to bring in new Argentine wines,” says Winesellers partner and vice president of sales and marketing Adam Sager. He notes that some chain retailers are shrinking their Argentine wine sets while also selecting the wines based on style and region. The Santa Julia Reserva Malbec and Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon were rolled out in kegs this year, and the brand’s sparkling wines are up 13 percent year-to-date. Sager notes an uptick of about 3 percent for both Santa Julia and Zuccardi on-premise. Zuccardi recently purchased a new winery in the Altamira appellation of Mendoza’s Uco Valley. “All of Argentina’s top winegrowers are focusing on the country’s specific regions,” Sager says. “It’s the future of the category, and Catena Zapata is doing it too.”
Quintessential’s Kreps agrees, adding that wine buyers expect Argentina’s higher-end wines to come from specific regions. “The gatekeepers realize there are other regions in addition to Mendoza and that the regional differences affect the quality of the wine,” he explains. “Retailers were the first to realize it, followed by restaurateurs.” Kreps says consumer awareness of the regions will help push price points upward. “Consumers are trading up across the wine industry, but they’re trading up faster within the Argentine category,” he adds, noting a slight uptick in Quintessential’s Argentine business in the off-premise paired with double-digit increases on-premise. In June, the company began importing wines from Bodegas y Viñedos Pascual Toso (ranging from $12 to $120 a 750-ml. bottle), formerly marketed by Guarachi Wine Partners.
Trade group Wines of Argentina is best known for its Malbec World Day campaign, which takes place every April at on- and off-premise venues and showcases the country’s most well-known varietal. The organization also emphasizes the importance of place. It’s getting the word out on the country’s newest appellations, including Altamira and La Consulta in Mendoza’s Uco Valley, Chapadmalal in Buenos Aires, and Chubut in Patagonia.
The Argentine wine category will become more competitive over time as it levels out. Guarachi says the low-yield but high-quality 2016 harvest—which is about one-third smaller than normal due to an El Niño weather pattern—will amplify that effect. Some areas in Mendoza are reporting losses of 50 percent. “Less fruit generally leads to price increases and the disappearance of smaller brands and private labels,” Guarachi says. “The good news is that the vintage’s quality is very good. And quality is the most important thing for the category because if the quality slips, the national chains simply walk away.”
Guarachi also sees the potential for established importers to broaden their existing ranges. To that effect, the company rolled out King Malbec ($12 a 750-ml. bottle) and four Malbecs from Bodega Matías Riccitelli ($20 to $75) in the Luján de Cuyo region of Mendoza earlier this year. A sparkling wine called 101 Bubbles is expected to launch next year.
Marketers have championed Argentina’s diverse varietals for years, while consumers continued to focus on Malbec. This year, importers and wine buyers report that sales of Argentine wines other than Malbec are on the rise. Torrontés, the floral white varietal from La Salta in Argentina’s north, remains a niche wine. Although importers’ interest in it seems to have cooled, Koziol of Disney says it complements a wide variety of flavors, making it a versatile by-the-glass selection to pair with global appetizers. Both Koziol and Davidsons’ Gerni say Pinot Noir from Patagonia in the country’s south has the potential to become popular, and the demand for Pinot Noir is still strong. Bonarda, a red varietal originally from Italy, shows promise, although the country still produces only a small amount. At Tiffins, Familia Zuccardi Series A Mendoza Bonarda ($45 a 750-ml. bottle) is gaining followers.
Argentine wineries may also do well creating wines in styles already popular in the United States. Wines of Argentina is promoting Argentine sparkling wines, and the market is ripe for approachably priced bubbly. “In the next few years, we’ll see more Argentine red blends similar to the domestic versions,” Guarachi says. “Some will be drier, and others will be sweeter like domestic red blends.” Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings, such as Bodega Norton Reserva Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon ($19 a 750-ml. bottle), Valentín Bianchi Cabernet Sauvignon ($16) and Santa Julia Organica Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon ($11), are all performing well, particularly on-premise, where wine buyers are looking for well-priced, food-friendly reds to pour by the glass. “Knowledgeable sommeliers and retailers know Argentine Cabs over-deliver,” says Winebow’s Lo Prete. The company’s Catena Zapata Cabernet Sauvignon ($22) is Argentina’s best-known expression of the varietal.
Importers say on- and off-premise wine buyers are increasingly aware of Argentina’s high-quality Cabernet Franc wines. At Disney, Koziol pours the 2011 Bodega Aleanna El Enemigo Mendoza ($65 a 750-ml. bottle). And at Davidsons, the Catena Zapata San Carlos Cabernet Franc ($25) is gaining traction. Both Lo Prete and Guarachi say it’s a varietal to watch. “The Kaiken Obertura Cabernet Franc is drinking well, but it remains to be seen if U.S. consumers will spend $50 on a bottle of Argentine Cabernet Franc,” Guarachi notes.
Davidsons’ Gerni features a variety of Argentine wines at the store’s weekend tasting events. “Malbec was pushed too hard, and then Argentine wine got pigeonholed as just Malbec,” Gerni says. “Yet the diversity of Argentina’s wines will eventually drive the category’s sales.” Disney’s Koziol agrees, noting that distinctive Argentine grapes like Torrontés and Bonarda have unique appeal. “Argentine winemakers will continue to position the country as the source for many varietals,” he says. “Argentine wine is a fun and exciting category. The top producers are committed to doing even better and finding ways to elevate the quality of the wines. They make great wines at every price point, and the category will continue to trend upwards.”