MOLINOS, May 23- Made for centuries in the highest vineyards in the world, wines from Argentina’s Torrontes grape have become an unexpected hit in the United States and locals are now targeting the vast Asian market.
In parched, mountainous Salta province, Torrontes — known for its moderate acidity and floral or fruity notes — is grown in the Calchaquies valleys at 3,000 meters (almost 10,000 feet).
But unlike other types of grapes grown here — such as Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay– which all are from Europe, Torrontes is touted as locally bred.
Its origins are thought to lie in the Spanish colonial era, when European missionaries crossed Muscat of Alexandria, which they brought from the Old World, and a local grape called Criollas.
“When you talk about missionaries, of course you are talking about the church and then of course you are talking wine. They planted all over the place to get wine for Mass,” said Thibaut Delmotte.
Delmotte, a French wine expert, has been working for years with Colome Vineyards in Molinos, a town in Salta province in the far northwest of Argentina in the foothills of the Andes.
But what remains a mystery is whether Torrontes was developed intentionally — artfully so — or accidentally, by cross fertilization in vineyards.
To get to Colome vineyards you have to take the road in, and give yourself plenty of time. The world’s highest vineyards are planted at between 2,300 and 3,100 meters in the Calchaquies Valley.
And — in terms of marketing in the crowded, sometimes confusing wine world — if that doesn’t help set the wine apart, the fact it is only grown in Argentina may do the trick.
Torrontes — which has become a surprise export hit in the United States and Britain — has complex fruity notes, such as peach, and sometimes florals such as jasmine, according to Delmotte.
“Days here have plenty of sun, but with temperatures that do not top 28, 30 degrees Celsius so the notes do not get burned off. And nights are very cold, which helps keep the acidity solid and the wine itself fresh,” he explained.
– Eyes on Asia –
Except for perhaps some very small scale, isolated production in Chile and Uruguay, Argentina is the only country growing Torrontes. And it does so overwhelmingly in Salta province.
The variety has three types: riojano, the most famous and seen as the best; mendocino and sanjuanino.
The grapes produce a varietal — a type of wine dominated by the grape it is named after — that is meant to be enjoyed young — within two years. Foodies pair it with fish, sushi and ceviche.
Though well known in the domestic market, Torrontes has seen many years of increasing success, in particular after a decade of government-led promotion starting in 2000.
Last year Argentina exported 8.6 million liters of Torrontes, almost doubling trade since 2005, the local winemakers association says.
The top markets are in North America — 28 percent goes to the United States and 15 percent to Canada.
And considerable new interest has been seen from Asia — from China, to Taiwan and Singapore.
While Malbec exports far outstrip Torrontes with 114 million liters in 2013 and even Chardonnay it 15 million, promoters hope it will win market share as a smaller-scale, higher-price item.
“Everyone is trying to be unique in the wine world,” said Mario Giordano, director of Wines of Argentina. “Torrontes really gives us that chance to set ourselves apart.”