When David Smith ended his career as a globetrotting foreign correspondent, covering world wars and historic events for ITN News and Channel 4, he thought he would take a more relaxed step by becoming a winemaker. In Argentina. Things have been just as busy, if not as newsworthy, ever since. Here he shares his thoughts on how Argentina has evolved over the last 30 years to be a serious wine producing country.
David Smith’s personal journey with his own SonVida winery and wine shows how far Argentina, and particular regions like Altamira in the Uco Valley, have come as world renown winemaking regions and winemakers.
This week the cutting edge of Argentina’s food and wine revolution will be on display in London, at the Wines of Argentina Barullo trade event in Hoxton. Seen from a distance, from a magnificent vineyard high in the Andes, I hope it becomes cause for celebration about how far we have come over the past quarter-century.
It’s hard to remember now how Argentina looked at the end of the 1980s. Leave aside the politics, the country had a tired reputation being the perpetual ‘sleeping giant’ of world wine, producing vast quantities of cheap plonk for a thirsty domestic market, but little else.
Then Argentina entered the world of wine as an unknown. But instead of flooding the world with its jug wine, this country was brave enough to stake its reputation on quality, on the science of winemaking, on risk-taking, and yes, we had a novelty grape, Malbec.
And yes, Malbec took off, a delicious, friendly varietal, happily drunk by the glass, becoming a Millenial red wine of choice. But there was something else at work here, a priceless variable that separates us in Argentina from others when it comes to be a cutting-edge force in wine, during the age of globalization.
It meant leaving behind many of the old, vineyard lands in the hot lowlands. It meant dispensing with the age-old thinking that the domestic market would keep the industry alive. It meant taking a huge risk, daring to discover that scrubby deserts high up the mountains were exactly where vines produce great wines.
In the past quarter century our pioneers, and I think immediately of Nicolás Catena and his daughter Laura, ventured forth to discover unique terroirs across all altitudes, in mountains, deserts, valleys, and some even went to the seaside in the pampas. They risked planting where no one had planted before.
And they put their faith in rebellious winemakers such as Catena’s Alejandro Vigil, recognising that while they had been pioneers on terroir, they needed genius in their wineries to take that extraordinary grape and make world-class wine.
To the next level
Now the battle is on to move Argentina to the next level, and define our terroir. We have a vineyard in a majestic part of Mendoza’s Uco Valley known as Altamira, and make an award-winning wine there called SonVida. The challenge is to identify such zones, precisely, via climate, and soil studies, and to protect the special nature of terroir, so our buyers in London, or New York, or in our case recently, Canada, know that they are drinking wines that speak to our terroir as well as our winemaking.
At the same time, Argentina would not be Argentina without a streak of wild originality. “Our country is never boring,” I like to say when I’m presenting SonVida, “and certainly our wine and food are never boring.”
What’s happened in Argentina over the past quarter-century has been matched by a revolution in food too. Ancient recipes, regional traditions, local organic, innovative chefs, you name it, Argentina now boasts it.
One delightful phrase in Argentina is that if a restaurant has a single chef defining what is served, their cuisine is called ‘cocina del autor,’ authored by him or her, and so celebrating the signature creativity of each dish.
The change in Argentine cuisine is dramatic. The demijohn acidic wine, diluted by a spurt of soda water, alongside salads of iceberg lettuce and grated carrot, garnishing a hefty chunk of cow, grilled, at times burned, in asado or barbecue, that’s a distant memory now of the 1970s. Even though every self-respecting father here still teaches his son to cook an asado.
I’m fond of the ritual that goes with an asado, the tradition for those eating to call for applause for the chef: “un aplauso para el asador”. It’s time to call for “un aplauso” for the creative and dedicated winemakers of Argentina, proudly celebrating their unique wines, terroirs, flavours, not to mention the fine cuisine that now accompanies them. Because above all, Argentines never forget that life is for living, and great wine is for sharing good times.
- David Smith, longtime foreign correspondent for ITN/Channel4, and his wife Sonia built a vineyard from scratch in Mendoza, and now produce the SonVida line of wines, including the Malbec 2012 which came fourth in Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 wines with 94 points, available exclusively at Gaucho Restaurants in UK.