January 11, 2010
The Times | Laura Dixon
Wine-lovers cherish their secrets, that special vintage or grape that the rest of the world knows nothing about. Once it involved the wines of South Africa and Australia, then those of New Zealand’s Marlborough and Chile’s Maipo Valley. At the turn of the millennium, it was Argentina and its signature Malbec grape. Times have changed. Over the course of the past ten years, Argentina has become the fifth-largest producer of wine in the world and, behind the United States, the second-largest outside Europe. Its “wine country” covers vast stretches of the highland areas in the west of the country and in Mendoza, a state 700 miles from Buenos Aires at the foot of the Andes, dry, hot days combine with cool mountain air to create the perfect growing conditions for Malbec to grow.
“Malbec is the ultimate Argentine wine,” Amelia Nolan explains. “It is drinkable, very approachable and consumers love it.” Best of all, perhaps, it is singularly Argentinian: none of the other New World wine producers feature it.
Ms Nolan has good reason to relish her glass of red. As managing director of the Argento Wine Company, she has led a turnaround in its focus since she took charge in 2006. Five years ago 60 to 70 per cent of its wine was being sold in the UK; now, that figure is 10 per cent after Argento set its sights on new markets, such as China, Scandinavia and, perhaps surprisingly, the United Arab Emirates. Malbec makes up 70 per cent of the 800,000 cases of wine that Argento produces each year.
The company was born in 1999 and is still part-owned by the founders at Bodegas Esmeralda. Bibendum, the wine company, owns the remaining two thirds. With three main sites around Mendoza and further vineyards near the northern city of Salta, Argento has a production capacity of eight million litres a year.
But recessions and wine are not traditionally the best of companions. Last year wine consumption fell for the first time in 13 years, according to Mintel, the market research agency. Moreover, the eagerness with which supermarkets are competing on special offers and discounts has led industry insiders to speak with in fearful tones of the power of the “promotion junkies”, wine buyers who interchange between brands that are on offer with little loyalty to origin or type of wine. It does not leave producers with much room for manoeuvre.
“People are trading down and it has been tougher. But there are opportunities there,” Ms Nolan says. “As long as you are adaptable and flexible, you are able to do well in this climate. The industry has changed a lot: for years, everyone drank French wine because they went to France, that was what they did. They went to Calais and bought wine.” Ms Nolan knows her industry intimately: “I grew up in southeastern Australia, near two of the country’s biggest wine-growing regions. We always had wine on the table, but back then Australian wine really wasn’t that big on the world stage: it was only really just beginning.” After finishing university, she happened upon a position at a small, family-run wine company. Hardy’s went on to become one of Australia’s most recognised labels, a staple of every supermarket New World wine selection. At Hardy’s, where she joined as a marketing assistant, Ms Nolan later became the international brand manager, travelling the world. When the company was taken over by Constellation, she set up a premium wine division, before being approached to join Argento.
Argento prices its wine at £6 to £8 per bottle, with its Reserva bottle selling for £10. Although sales in the UK have been relatively flat this year, and trading conditions difficult, they have signed a number of new contracts: including with Malmaison, Mercure and De Vere, the hotel chains. Elsewhere, these are exciting times for producers seeking to sell their wares in the United States and Canada: consumption of Argentine wine is growing at 50 per cent a year in the US and closer to 60 per cent north of the border.
For Ms Nolan, the next 12 months are about establishing Argento further in these new markets. And, perhaps, about the impact of another newcomer from Argentina — Torrontés, an aromatic, dry white wine that some are calling “the new Pinot Grigio”, little-known now but unlikely to be a secret for much longer.