Bodega Norton on bottling an Argentina experience

Argentina has a barbecue culture, which for wine lovers, means easy-drinking reds. The country is justly famous for malbec, a plummy, violet-hued varietal that cuts a mean tango with a traditional Argentine asado or a juicy backyard sirloin burger. It’s a wine that you want to be friends with, even if (or because) it’s always showing up in sandals.

But here’s a nifty idea: What if your everyday, grill-ready Argentine red could be really, really good? What if you don’t need a dry-aged Wagyu steak to crack open a memorable bottle?

Bodega Norton is a Mendoza winery celebrating 120 years of bottling Argentinian wines for the world. Founded in 1895, it’s now a powerhouse of the national industry, a kind of Andean Mondavi, owned since 1989 by the billionaire Swarovski clan. Norton’s specialty is, yes, malbec, and that’s for a reason: Turns out they’re pretty good at it. The first sip of their Barrel Select Malbec jangles tastebuds a bottom-shelf contender doesn’t even approach. The 2012 Reserva Malbec, with its sly tannins and lingering finish, is the kind of bottle friends will ask about.

So, what is the key to a perfect glass of malbec? I posed this question to Michael Halstrick, CEO of Norton (and son of the Swarovski patriarch Gernot Langes-Swarovski), during his recent visit to Toronto.

“It depends on the moment you’re drinking it,” he says. “Because you can make it in so many different styles. For example, you also have malbec with no oak aging, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either. I like to drink that very cool. So it’s very difficult to say which malbec is my favourite.” He compares it to wearing different clothes for different occasions; sometimes, he says, you dress up, sometimes you go casual. (For the record, he is sporting an impeccable designer suit that probably cost more than my car, and may just be trying to ease my mind about wearing scuffed Chuck Taylors to our meeting at Toronto’s Ritz-Carlton hotel.)

Winemaker David Bonomi has a more specific answer. “The real malbec that I like is one I can drink very easily,” he says. “Malbec is very friendly, with very soft tannins. It has a sweet character — the wine is dry, but the character in the mouth is sweet — and it’s a very fresh wine.” To Bonomi, who began his career at Norton and recently returned after a stint at nearby Doña Paula winery, these are the characteristics that best express the terroir of Mendoza, an arid desert region where the alluvial soils are fed by the melting snows of the Andes, channelled by irrigation systems developed more than 700 years ago by the Huarpe people.

I realize I’m doing that thing with the malbec, though — talking as though it’s the only gaucho in the Argentine saddle. Halstrick and Bonomi are equally excited by another offering, one that isn’t typically associated with Mendoza, but which is gaining traction there: sauvignon blanc. Norton’s 2014 version is a well-rounded sip with citrus notes and a hint of coconut, which would pair well with chicken or fish from the grill.

This brings us back to the barbecue. Being from Toronto, where the contenders for a top-notch Argentine restaurant are few and far between, I ask Halstrick, Bonomi and Julia Cahiza, Norton’s North American account manager, if it’s difficult to find good Argentine restaurants when travelling abroad.

“I would say yes,” says Cahiza, who lives in Manhattan. “Argentine food is kind of simple in terms of the cooking methods, but it uses really high-quality ingredients. It’s not that abroad you can’t find Argentine restaurants, but it doesn’t reflect what we have in Argentina. Many restaurants are trying to cook Argentine meals with an international stamp on it to make it more approachable.” Halstrick points out a couple of restaurants that are getting it right, like the U.K.’s Gaucho or CAU chain (which stands for Carne Argentina Unica). Consensus is that it all comes down to the beef.

“The quality of the beef is important, but how you cut the beef is also extremely important,” says Halstrick, who has lived in Mendoza for 24 years. “In Argentina, in the pampas, the animals don’t have to walk too far to eat, and there’s good grass, so the beef is quite tender.”

The abundance of good beef in the country means a fire-fuelled fiesta is never too far — and neither is a good excuse to raise a glass to the success of Argentine wine.

Bodega Norton’s Barrel Select wines are available across Canada ($12.95)

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