During my tastings of more than 800 new releases from Argentina this winter for annual coverage in the International Wine Cellar, I was struck by the improving quality of cabernet sauvignon from Mendoza. Clearly, Argentina’s cabernets to this point have been overshadowed by malbec in Mendoza—and especially in the U.S. market. But this variety can be especially successful in many Uco Valley sites: “like Pomerol or Saint-Emilion wines on steroids,” is the way one importer of Argentine wines described the variety there.
Just as important for consumers, cabernet’s underdog status in Argentina has helped to put a lid on retail prices for these wines, at least in the U.S. market. After all, it’s usually malbec that consumers in Argentina’s export markets are primed for.
Mendoza’s best cabernets are closer in character to traditional Bordeaux than are most Napa Valley versions, even if they’re rarely as flashy or rich—or costly—as as their California counterparts. And in recent benign growing seasons, the normally late-ripening cabernet has done well in Mendoza’s vineyards in the foothills of the Andes. All of the following wines can found in the retail market for less than $20.
The Bodega Benegas 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Luna Benegas Mendoza ($18; Vias Imports) displays very ripe, slightly medicinal aromas of blackberry, plum and violet. It’s impressively concentrated and serious for its price, showing an intriguing saline nuance to flavors of black fruits, minerals, violet and licorice.
Another cabernet in a decidedly black-fruit style is Famiglia Bianchi’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza ($18; Quintessential Wines), a deeply colored wine with aromas and flavors of cassis, licorice, menthol, pepper and bitter chocolate. At once dense and spicy, this fine-grained cabernet offers an impression of sweetness nicely leavened by harmonious acidity.
The basic cabernet bottling from Argentina’s most important high-end winery, Bodega Catena Zapata, far outperforms its moderate price tag. The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza ($20; Winebow) displays varietally expressive scents of plum, currant, tobacco and cola. It’s a lush, sweet midweight with noteworthy freshness to its raspberry, plum and spice flavors. Ripe acidity and some edgy tannins suggest that the wine will be even better with a year or two in the cellar.
The Durigutti 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza ($17; Southern Wine Group) has an aromatically complex bouquet of blackberry, cassis, woodsmoke, mocha and flowers. It’s supple, pliant and vinous, with good energy and varietal character to its flavors of cassis, mint and fresh herbs. This elegantly styled wine reminds me a little of a Médoc wine from Bordeaux. (Don’t hesitate to snap up the 2009 if you see it; it’s at least as successful.)
The Fabre Montmayou 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel Selection Patagonia ($14; Sussex Wine Merchants) is another steal for its gentle price. This one too is in a rather claret-like style, offering coolish currant, red plum, licorice and graphite aromas lifted by a floral topnote. The palate impression is supple, dry and seamless, with good energy to the currant and spice flavors. If some of the other wines in this feature are distinctly black fruit in character, this one is more red.
Finally, the Hacienda del Plata 2010 Zagal Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza ($15; Cana Selections) is also in a rather Old World style, with aromas and flavors of plum, mocha, fresh herbs, tobacco, menthol and spices. Its tannins are a bit dusty but this moderately wine finishes with good grip and should be very flexible at the dinner table.