The Newly Likeable Wines of Argentina

Argentina wine image

With a few notable exceptions, I don’t like “New World” wines. Those who enjoy these bottlings admire their effortless ripeness, spiciness, robust alcohol and accessibility.  “Old World” (European) aficionados like me regard them as being closer to beet borscht and Coca Cola than to grape juice. For us, they’re too high in alcohol and extract, too low on fresh acidity and too heavy on new oak.

My anti-New-World bias extended to the wines of Argentina until a recent master class in Toronto stood my prejudice on its head. Sara d’Amato (sommelier and wine critic) and Marcelo Pelleriti (director general and winemaker at Monteviejo in Mendoza), presented fourteen different wines from Argentina which demonstrated an elegance and translucency I hadn’t encountered in older offerings from that country.

Mr. Pelleriti explained that this impressive transformation has been achieved through a decade of changes in viticulture and winemaking inspired by his counterparts in France. The most relevant beneficial factors include earlier harvesting, more careful vine irrigation, meticulous berry selection and shorter cooler fermentations.   The results were evident in a variety of wine styles ranging from sparkling through still whites and reds. Here are my favourite examples:

Bodega Ruca Malen Brut NV (estimated $25, score 89+) is a 75/25 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This substantial sparkler is gold-coloured with a hint of onion skin and a vigorous mousse. It features sweet pear fruit with earthy and toasty notes. It’s crisp and dry in the mouth with fullish body and a well-fruited finish.

Sol.Fa.Sol Torrontes 2010, La Rioja (estimated $9.95, score 89+) is 100% Torrontés, the trademark white grape of Argentina. This pale-straw wine features elegant mango and lychee fruit aromas with floral and herbal notes. It’s bone-dry on the palate with fresh to crisp acidity and a creamy (not heavy) mouthfeel. The fruit is front and centre through a long, fresh slightly bitter finish.

Finca Agostino Familia Semillon/Sauvignon 2013 (estimated $34.95, score 89+) emulates white Bordeaux. Pale gold, it flaunts tropical fruit aromas framed by big vanilla and sawn plank oak aromas. It’s soft and rich on the palate with lemon notes joining toasty nutty oak flavours through a long finish. This wine will evolve and improve for years.

Sin Fin Guarda Bonarda 2013 (estimated $21.95, score 90-) is an Argentinian take on a northern Italian red varietal. The nose is elegant, sophisticated and complex with mixed black berry fruit and toasty vanillary sweet-spicy oak. It has grippy ripe fine tannins and a creamy fresh mouthfeel. It’s sweet, spicy, fruity and very pleasing through a long gently astringent finish. I’d love to taste this again in a decade!

Monteviejo Lindaflor 2010 Malbec/Syrah Blend (estimated $50.00, score 90) is a blend of Malbec, Argentina’s flagship red variety, with spicy Syrah. It’s opaque ruby with a purple ruby rim and has a lovely deep nose built around black currant-black cherry fruit with well-integrated toasty vanillary oak, violet and sweet-spice notes. It has fine tannins, fresh acidity, sweetly ripe fruit and harmonious oak flavours that linger undiminished for a long time. This is another age-worthy red.

Nicolas Catena Zapata 2010 (estimated $109.95, score 91) is an “icon wine.” A blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Malbec sourced from four different vineyards to ensure perfectly ripe fruit, it’s an opaque ruby-purple specimen with a very elegant nose. It sports focused Bordelais black currant and blackberry fruit with a kiss of luscious well-handled oak aromas encompassing vanilla, toasted nuts and sweet spice.  It’s a ripe round fresh mouthful with tasty oak and fruit flavours dancing divinely through along well-fruited finish.

[For more information about Argentinian wines log on to or contact representative Monica Ralphs at]


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The “Bits and Bobs” at Sea Witch

I got back to Sea Witch in Toronto to pick over the rest of their menu.  The onion rings feature the same heavy crunchy batter as the fish and have delicious onion flavour.  The cole slaw has mostly oil and vinegar dressing with some mayo.  I prefer my slaw with no mayo at all but for those of you who like this style, it’s good stuff.  I’m familiar with the Boylan soft drinks from the late lamented Penrose.  They’re sweetened with cane sugar (not high-goo fructose or corn syrup) and the flavours are wonderful.  I swigged one orange and one black cherry this time.  The birch is also good.

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Eat Like a Human Being!

The current tsunami of superstitions and magical thinking about food drives me to distraction.  People who don’t know enough to drool intelligently have millions of followers slavishly avoiding some foods and nibbling compulsively on others in the terribly mistaken belief that they’re “eating healthy.”  This has created in an epidemic of “orthorexia nervosa,” an eating disorder disguised as a form of ideological and bodily purity.  It has resulted in widespread and unnecessary anxiety and joylessness, not to mention a reduction in levels of authentic health.

Who is responsible for this perversion of the table?  Currently, it’s a passel of lean and hungry celebrities who never studied a page of biochemistry or nutrition science.  In the 1950s, it was a brilliant self-promoter named Ancel Keys.  This villain used some very faulty research to link saturated fats with heart disease.  His findings have been disproven time and time again, but lots of folks don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Keys’ story was that by eliminating red meat, eggs and dairy products from one’s diet and chowing down on carbs, one could live forever.  The necessary sacrifice enhanced the apparent virtue of a low-fat diet.  The truth is that we need fat to make brain cells, skin, and the steroid hormones that actually keep us alive.  Keys’ diet is a killer.

There are no “bad” foods with the exception of the highly processed plastic-wrapped pseudo-food widely available in convenience stores, gas stations and chain supermarkets.  There are, however, “bad” ways of eating.  These include over-large portions and over-consumption of particular foods or food groups and the phobic avoidance of other foods or food categories.

The ideal diet for Homo sapiens is the one our ancestors consumed in their environment of evolutionary adaptedness.  I don’t mean the “caveman diet” that yet more scoundrels have written about for their own fun and profit.  I’m talking about eating a little bit of everything and not too much of anything.  It’s not sexy and I’ll never make a dollar writing a book about it, but it’s what we need to be genuinely healthy.  It won’t make us live forever because nothing ever will.

Thanks for allowing me this rant.  I needed it.  I think I’ll go make myself a modest serving of bacon and eggs.

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Fish and Chips in Toronto

Beginning in 1949, discerning fish and chips consumers in Toronto got their fix at Penrose Fish and Chips on Mount Pleasant Avenue.  The place had a simple charm, and the Johnson family presented excellent food in a friendly environment.  Then, last year, Penrose closed.  This was catastrophic for me.  There are precious few such places in town, and those still in operation tend to be inconveniently located.

Kevin Kowalchuk, first officer at Penrose, recognized the problem and come to the rescue.  With his wife Jacqueline, he has opened “Sea Witch” at 636 St. Clair Avenue West between Wychwood and Christie.  He fries his fish and chips in beef tallow, the fat used at Penrose and a much better choice than vegetable oil or lard.  He offers chips and the familiar halibut ($15), haddock ($11) and cod ($11), but has added arctic char ($13) and pickerel ($13, my favourite and a favourite of his from his childhood in southern Manitoba.)  His batter is relatively thick but doesn’t get in the way of the fish.  It tastes wonderful and breaks like glass under your fork.  The chips are French-fried potatoes, crispy on the outside and baked-spud soft on the inside.  His house chowder, called “The Witch’s Brew,” is thick, creamy and satisfying.  Everything here is clearly and deliciously hand-made.

I recommend Sea Witch without reservation.  I can’t wait to go back to try the “bits and bobs” which include poutine, halibut Cakes, onion rings and slaw.

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Beautiful Barolo under $60

On spec, I bought a Barolo at the LCBO for $57 that delivers tremendous potable pleasure for the money.  Cannubi Riserva 2008 Barolo, from the region’s finest vineyard, is produced by a pair of brothers from the well-known Borgogno family, Serio and Battista.  (It’s imported by  The wine is a medium deep dark garnet-ruby with lovely elegant berry fruit, faded rose petal and dusty aromas.  The tannins are grippy but fine and ripe, and all the elements dance on your palate in fine balance for a long time.

Okay, it’s not a cheap bottle, but it beats other “special occasion” wines.  It’s ready to drink now and should improve for another ten years (at least.)

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Stem chewers

My friend and wine-writing colleague Chuck Byers thought earwigs might be gnawing their way through vine-leaf stems in my little vineyard.  Whatever pest was actually responsible for the carnage, it hasn’t come back.  Just to be certain, I’ve sprinkled the plot with diatomaceous earth (silicon dioxide), which crawling critters don’t like to walk through.

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Vine pests strike again

Attention viticulturists: Something is eating through the leaf stems on my vine. Anyone know what’s doing it and how I can combat it?

Irvin Wolkoff's photo.
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