ASKED to name the top six wine-producing countries in volume terms, few would have nominated Argentina – or recognised that it out-produced Australia.
The main reason is probably that, historically, most of the output was from unexciting grape varieties and destined purely for home consumption, but nowadays export – especially of premium wine – is very much in focus.
The dominant influence on wine-growing in Argentina is the Andes, which tower over areas in the west of the country, like Mendoza. It was more than 450 years ago that Jesuit missionaries there expanded irrigation techniques that date back to Inca times to use melting snow from the mountain peaks to sustain agriculture in general – and viticulture in particular.
Given its early concentration on domestic markets, the Argentinean wine trade tended to ignore so-called international grape varieties in favour of species from nearer home such as pedro gimenez (a relative of the sherry grape) and, especially, torrontes.
With its distinctive floral and slightly peachy style, this variety has won many friends. A good illustration of the genre is the soft, apricot-influenced 2011 Vinalba Seleccion Torrontes (£7.99, until 23 April, Majestic) from Mendoza. The variety, however, does especially well in the more northern region of Salta, where the higher altitude seems to turbo-charge the acidity – as can be experienced in the grapefruit-based finish of 2010 Zuccardi Serie A Torrontes (£10.49, Henderson Wines, Edinburgh).
Quality international varieties such as chardonnay are coming to the fore but have also surfaced among entry-point whites such as the 2011 Rincon del Sol Chardonnay Chenin Blanc (£4.99, M&S), with its combination of mellow flavours and citrus liveliness.
The country also ploughed its own furrow with reds, developing malbec as its signature grape. Despite delivering the same dark intensity, the South American versions differ from those around Cahors but can be surprisingly versatile. For instance, M&S has a presentable everyday, unoaked version, 2011 Vinalta Malbec (£7.49), with appealing cherry flavours.
A step up the market brings some much bigger wines into play. A good example is 2009 Pascual Toso Reserve Malbec (£12.99, Fountainhall Wines, Aberdeen), with its ripe blackcurrant fruit and long black pepper finish. At the higher end of the market, luxuriate in the rounded complexity of 2006 Dona Paula Seleccion de Bodega Malbec (£31.45, www.slurp.co.uk), which has smooth, black cherry flavours and eucalyptus undertones.
Another variety from the Basque-influenced corner of France, which originally popped up in Uruguay, is tannat. For a sound but inexpensive idea of how it tastes, look for 2011 El Esteco Tannat (£6.99, M&S), withits deep damson and bramble flavours topped off by vanilla and chocolate.
The ubiquitous cabernet sauvignon is also currently producing some lovely wines in Argentina that some are forecasting will eventually outperform malbec. The brilliant 2009 Bramare Vina Cobos Cabernet Sauvignon (£24.74, Hendersons Wines) has Californian-style richness to underpin its layered bramble fruit. A good, straightforward example, which has appealing plum and nutty flavours, can be found in 2010 Santa Julia Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (£8.99, Waitrose).
International varieties also figure in some excellent blends, including 2005 Andeluna Grand Reserve Pasionado (£29.15, www.slurp.co.uk), which gives you a smooth, balanced red with intense blackcurrant fruit, courtesy of merlot, malbec and two cabernets.
For a relative newcomer to the export market, Argentina is certainly making up for lost time with some terrific wines that get better and better.