Uncorked: High altitude produces world-class wines in Argentina

At the start of a great adventure, Hervé Birnie-Scott had to do some unexpected shopping.

His plane landed in Argentina in August, and he wasn’t dressed for the weather.

“I landed in August, which was the middle of the winter,” Birnie-Scott said. “They opened the plane door, and it was [23 degrees Fahrenheit] outside. I was wearing a T-shirt and shorts. I ran to the clothes shop to get some clothes to survive.”

It’s one of the few missteps the Terrazas de los Andes estate director has made in his long career. After he traveled the world in the 1980s, Birnie-Scott spent time in Napa Valley, New Zealand and the Loire Valley in France. But, it was Argentina that proved to be a new adventure that has endured for 30 years.

Argentine producers wanted to edge into international markets. But until the 2000s, table wine accounted for most of the production. Argentine vineyards were planted by Spanish and Italian immigrants who settled in the country. Birnie-Scott had a vision though. He hopped into an old green car, got a World War II era altimeter, and drove the countryside, trying to “figure out what is going on in Argentina.”

“There’s no rain from the Atlantic in Mendoza,” Birnie-Scott said. “All the rain is caught by the Andes Mountains and glaciers, it’s completely dry in the desert of Mendoza.”

Yet, snow melt provides enough water through channels made by the Inca. Water is brought to the entrance of every vineyard.

“The winery is at 3,000 feet,” Birnie-Scott said. “We discovered vineyards at 1,800 feet to 2,200 feet are our lower elevation, and are great to produce table wine. They feature big yields from heavy soils, and need lots of irrigation. It’s too warm to produce good, fresh, crispy wine with elegant natural acidity.”

At 1,800 feet, temperatures are like Sub-Saharan Africa and Morocco. Head 40 miles west, and the elevation is 6,000 feet with Champagne-like temperatures; it’s like the north of France.

“We decided on a slow-ripening, cool climate to find cold-climate terroir and viticulture,” Birnie-Scott said. “The conviction we had was that as in Europe, not all grapes are grown at the same latitude. We find higher freshness through altitude not latitude like Europe.

“We had to have the right grapes before launching our wines,” he said. “I knew it would be at high elevation, and from there we could produce a world-class quality wine.”

Which is exactly what they’ve done – make high-quality wines capable of being enjoyed with other wines from around the world.

The Terrazas de los Andes Malbec Reserva 2018 ($19.99), with its really soft texture, had licorice and dried violets on the nose with raspberry flavors. It’s sourced from seven different sites.

“The slight sweetness at the end is very true to malbec,” Birnie-Scott said. “It always finishes with a gentle smile. With high-elevation wine, we aren’t looking for fruity wines, but we want a level of ripeness and are in search of fresh and lively flavors.”

“Al dente fruit,” the razor-thin margin of ripeness where cabernet sauvignon can show loads of personality, is what Birnie-Scott is after with the Terrazas de los Andes Grand Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($64.99).

“I don’t want to lose vital fresh fruit characteristics,” Birnie-Scott said. “We want to be on the edge of the ripeness, where you can feel the soul, the personality of the malbec and cabernet.”

There were vanilla, cassis, spice, plum, blackberry, cracked pepper and exotic Chinese five-spice flavors.

On the Terrazas de los Andes Grand Malbec 2017 ($64.99), there was darker fruit on the nose that matched the darker color of the wine in the glass. There were a bit more tannins than the other wines, and the flavors consisted of sweeter, riper cherry, raspberry and blackberry. The acidity came across like the first impression offered by a crisp blackberry, and provided a tension between the more ripe raspberry flavors.

“Crispy, very reactive fruit together with sweetness of other types of fruit, that’s very important to the wine,” Birnie-Scott said. “That’s critical to keep that freshness in there. To feature the natural acidity of mountain vineyards.”

When their first vineyards were planted at 3,700 feet in 1994, skeptics had plenty to say. Frost destroyed 80% of production in 1997. Yet, Birnie-Scott carried on and, today, mature vineyards have led to compelling, distinct wines.

“I’m proud of the adventure and the resilience to stay here all these decades, and work on the wines and vineyards to show what we can offer the world,” Birnie-Scott said. “We manage our own grapes; that’s how we are able to keep our wines at this price. We grow our wines, we don’t make them.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.