Corkscrew - Argentina shares the love

When you hear the words "Argentinean wine," do you think of anything at all? Chances are your response is "no," since we haven't seen much of the stuff in these here parts. After some drinking research, I found out that they've been hogging their excellent Malbecs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots all these years, keeping the best wines at home. But Argentinean wine is about to launch here.

I landed in the European-infused city of Buenos Aires with a short agenda: to eat and drink the culture. The cafes, crowded until the late afternoon hours when workers drudge back to their jobs, brimmed with Argentineans consuming hefty glasses of wine with lunch. To motivate those thirsty people, wine prices hover around double the wholesale cost (much lower than our obnoxious three- to four-times cost), and feature mainly domestic labels I had not seen before or since.

Seventy-five percent of Argentinean wine stays within domestic boundaries, but that's changing. The country has been producing wine since the 18th century, but it didn't focus on fine wine exports until the late 1990s. Since then, technology has improved both in the winery and in the vineyards, increasing quality. Because of the weather and soil, as well as consumer preference, Argentina concentrates on red grapes like Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Bonarda (an Italian grape variety thriving in Argentina). When you taste these wines, the first sip packs an overwhelming wallop. It's the weather's fault - it rains very little in Argentina, which causes the vines to struggle to establish a regular water source. This "vine stress," in wine-speak, creates concentrated flavors in the juice and a familiar flavor profile that is distinct to Argentina. Try a few and you'll understand what I mean.

The appellation system, or the name under which a winegrower is authorized to identify a wine, is still young in Argentina. But there is one cool thing in the largest appellation, Mendoza: The winery must grow, produce and bottle the wine within the confines of the region in order to label it a Mendoza. Exceptional sub-appellations within Mendoza are Lujan de Cuyo and Maipu at the foot of the Andes, with yummy Malbecs and Cabernet Sauvignons. And high-altitude Tupungato produces outstanding Malbec and Sémillon.

One of my favorite white wines from Argentina is Torrontes. A romantically floral grape, Torrontes reminds me of fresh, aromatic Viognier. They make excellent stand-ins for Sauvignon Blancs or Chardonnays, with softer acidity and luscious tropical flavors. San Juan and Calchaquies Valleys appellations produce excellent Torrontes, with the best hailing from the Salta region. Since not many labels of this gorgeous white are exported, they are difficult - but not impossible - to find, and they are well worth the search.

If you're looking for even more exotic wines from South America, you might look at Uruguay's Tannat grape. A grape originally from northern Spain, Tannat's flavor profile resembles that of a dark, tannin-rich Cabernet Sauvignon, with prunes, black currant, strong black tea and black pepper as defining fruit. I also heard a rumor that Brazil is kicking its wine quality up a notch. A Brazilian friend of mine calls the wines "shit," but admits he hasn't tried them in recent years. Wonder why?

Looks like we have plenty to look forward to from South America in coming months and years. Fasten your seat belt for some rich, decadent reds, my friends.

Recommended Wines (previously published)

Nieto 2002 Malbec Riserva MendozaEven textured and soft, this wine bathes the tongue with black cherry and blueberry. Long, fruity finish keeps on giving. SW = 1. $11.

Alta Vista 2003 Torrontes Premium MendozaVery fragrant, full of exotic fruit and flowers in both aroma and taste, yet it's dry. Great for drinking with anything spicy or just for drinking. Easy price, too. SW = 3. $10.


TUSCAN EVENING AT VIKING - The Taste Network, Whole Foods and Viking ?Culinary Arts Center are sponsoring a Tuscan evening Thurs., Feb. 3, ?6:30-9 p.m. The tasting includes a Processo reception and a Tuscan-inspired ?meal paired with Italian wines. The event is $50 per person, $10 of which will ?go toward Children Tsunami Relief. Viking Culinary Arts Center, 1745 Peachtree ?Road. 404-313-4848.

MORE TUSCANY AT JOEL - The sommelier team at Joel will host a ?tasting of white and red wines from Tuscany on Wed., Feb. 9, 6-7:15 p.m. ?Hors d'oeuvres from chef Joel Antunes will be included. Cost is $30 per person. ?3290 Northside Parkway. 404-233-3500. www.joelrestaurant.com.

WINE DINNER AT RATHBUN'S - Rathbun's hosts the first wine dinner in its new wine room Thurs., Feb. 9, at 7:30 p.m. A four-course menu featuring Rabbit Ridge and Toad Hollow wines will cost $80 per person. 112 Krog St., 404-524-8280. www.rathbunsrestaurant.com.

NEW FESTIVAL IN TOWN - The Atlanta Fine Wine Festival makes its debut Sat., Feb. 19, from 2-6 p.m. at Mason Murer Fine Art. The event is an opportunity to sample more than 300 wines, including rare, allocated and limited-release wines from some of the world's renowned wineries and vineyards. Sample gourmet nibbles provided by Murphy's, Portofino, Toulouse, Sotto Sotto, Woodfire Grill, One Midtown Kitchen and Two Urban Licks. A silent charity auction will benefit Hospice Atlanta. Tickets are $100 per person. 199 Armour Drive. Visit www.atlantafinewinefestival.com for more info.

BLACK BEAR TAVERN - Bottles of red and white wines every Tuesday for $12. 1931 Peachtree Road. 404-355-9089. www.blackbeartavern.net.

CAFE AT EAST ANDREWS - Each week, the restaurant offers Wine Down Wednesdays, with bottles of wine for half price. Included in the promotion is the "Cellar List," so patrons have the chance to sample high-quality wines like Silver Oak and Opus One. 56 E. Andrews Drive. 404-869-1132. www.eastandrews.com.

D'VINE WINE BAR AND SHOP - Monday from 6-8 p.m. is D'Vine's Uncorked Night, where customers can sample all open bottles for $12. From 6-8 p.m. on Tuesdays, D'Vine has wine tastings of six to eight themed wines. Wine Knowledge Wednesdays include classes by expert Michael Bryant, trivia and a four-course dinner. 5486 Chamblee Dunwoody Road. 770-350-9463. www.atlantawinebar.com.

ENO - Blind tasting special offered every Tuesday. Those who correctly identify an unknown wine receive a complimentary glass. Restricted to Tuesday bar hours, at the bar only. Every Wednesday, Mediterranean wine and tapas. $5 a glass, $3 a plate. 6-8 p.m. Also, Eno presents a wine tasting special every Thursday. Admission of $25-$35 includes three to five wines from different regions around the world served like a flight. 6-8 p.m. 800 Peachtree St. 404-685-3191. www.eno-atlanta.com.

GILBERT'S MEDITERRANEAN CAFE - Every Thursday, Gilbert's offers a tasting of three half-glasses of featured wines with a full glass of your favorite pick, along with a cheese platter, for $15, from 6-11 p.m. 219 10th St. 404-872-8012. www.gilbertscafe.com.

INMAN PARK PATIO - Every Monday night, wines by the bottle are half-off. 1029 Edgewood Ave. 404-659-5757. www.inmanparkpatio.com.

JAVA MONKEY - Wine tasting every other Thursday on the patio. The next tasting - which includes music and chair massage - will be Thurs., Feb. 3. Sample featured wines and complimentary hors d'oeuvres. $15. 7-9 p.m. 425 Church St. 404-378-5002.

TIERRA - Bottles of half-priced wine every Tuesday. This special is limited to bottles under $40. 1425 Piedmont Ave. 404-874-5951. www.tierrarestaurant.com.

E-mail winelist@creativeloafing.com or fax information to 404-420-1402 at least two weeks prior to event.??