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Published: Tuesday, 9/19/2000

Argentina wines are in the running

You perhaps recall that I was effervescing a few weeks ago about a stunning Russian River sauvignon blanc, vintage '98, from a Sonoma winery with a Teutonic name, Adler Fels. I've never had a California sauvignon to match it.

Two other Adler Fels wines have since come across the table, a '99 gewurztraminer and a '97 syrah, also from the Russian River district. The syrah, called Alterra ($18), is plummy, spicy, all the things a syrah ought to be; is it as special as the sauvignon? No; it is good, but not to die for.

As for the gewurz ($12), I've got to confess that it left me of two minds. For one thing, it's one of the rare California gewurztraminers to which I'd give an A for effort, about as close to a varietally true gewurz as California ever comes. At the same time, it's a gewurz with a difference, not overly spicy, not tasting of Granny Smith apples, but of semi-tropical fruit, bananas and mangoes, which is not at all what one expects; not bad, but . . . well, different.

And then, to jog your memory once again, there are those San Telmo wines from Argentina. They were at first sold only on the Internet, in a strange marketing ploy designed, as best I could understand it, to develop a lively demand, a variation on thirsting for the forbidden fruit, before it came onto local retail shelves.

Three, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and malbec, all vintage '99 (keep in mind that means January-February 1999) were released last spring. They are made of mountain-grown grapes in the high Andes Mountains; the region is called Mendoza, after the river and the principal Argentine city in the area. As the crow flies, vineyards and winery are only a short way east of Santiago, Chile, and the Maipu, another river watering the region, becomes the Maipo when it crosses the border. In other words, the Argentine region abuts a Chilean region of excellent wines already familiar to us.

It is the opinion of one Midwest importer and distributor that the future of South American wines - and a promising one - will be Argentine, not Chilean. That may be, though so far as the American market is concerned, the Chilean wines have a head start.

However, these San Telmo wines, at a suggested retail price of $9.99, will test your discrimination. The merlot is just that: a merlot, apparently the rare example of a 100 per cent varietal; most merlots, even the great pomerols and st-emilions, are blended for a bit of backbone and some flavor component the wine maker wants to add; typically, they are better for it. The cabernet sauvignon, too, is 100 per cent cab; there are little surprises at first sip that you no longer notice 10 minutes later, emphatic touches of vanilla, black raspberries, and tobacco, all drawn from the soil and the vine clones. Get used to this cab and it will likely become the $10 find you tell your friends about.

But the biggest surprise of these new labels is the malbec. That is, you recall, one of the very minor blending grapes that may be and often is added to red bordeaux for color and fruit flavors, and to soften the weight of the cabernet.

A few wineries around the western world have tentatively launched a malbec varietal, blended, perhaps, with a hearty dose of cabernet franc. But by general agreement so far, the grape and the wine made of it in Argentina have found a niche.



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