Seasoned bargain hunters may recall the launch about a decade ago of a runaway success story called Fuzion Shiraz Malbec. Priced at $7.45 in Ontario and $8.10 in Quebec, the Argentine red quickly became one of the bestselling wines in Canada. It also haunts me to this day. I touted the brand after it had exploded in its first market, Quebec, and soon found myself unable to enter a crowded room without someone eventually shouting, "Hey, you're that Fuzion guy!" A prominent CBC radio show even called to ask me if I'd explain Fuzionmania on the air, which taught me that CBC radio producers don't spend enough on wine or don't make as much money as they should.
A top seller to this day, moving roughly 100,000 cases annually in Ontario alone, where it now sells for $8.25 ($9.29 in B.C.), Fuzion Shiraz Malbec did much to raise awareness in Canada and the United Kingdom about Argentina's treasure trove of value brands, many of them built on the signature red grape malbec. (It was never launched in the United States, by the way, because of a copyright conflict with the name.)
More recently, though, Fuzion and its bargain-basement kin have become poster children for Argentina's current struggles with profitability. As I've reported before, runaway inflation, trade restrictions and unfavourable exchange rates have crippled the country's ability to make money in the $8 to $10 range in export markets.
So, there's a growing shift away from industrially farmed commodity wines like Fuzion toward the sort of higher-quality offerings that come from prized, cool, higher-elevation vineyards, an echo of what's been transpiring in neighbouring Chile as well as Australia, for that matter. If there's a war cry among Argentine producers today, it's that "$13 is the new $8" or "$15 is the new $10."
The first selection among the recently launched, well-priced South American wines below is a conspicuous case in point. Santa Julia Reserva Malbec ranks as one of the better-made affordable reds I've sampled from Argentina in a while. A few fellow Canadian wine critics I know agree. It's especially noteworthy, though, because the Santa Julia line is made by Familia Zuccardi. That's the large family-owned firm that makes, yes, Fuzion.
"Santa Julia Malbec is a good example of where we are going," Jose Zuccardi, the company's president, told me over the phone when I reached him in Florida. Unlike Fuzion, Santa Julia's reserva malbec is cellared in quality French-oak barrels to soften the bright fruit and add an overtone of spice. It's also sourced, not from a wide swath of farms across the vast Mendoza region, but from select mountain vineyards in the region's western Uco Valley, where clear, high-elevation sunlight assists in ripening while cool night-time temperatures help retain vibrant acidity.
Zuccardi has not abandoned Fuzion but the winery, a large two-million case– a-year operation, is putting more resources behind Santa Julia, a brand that's close to Jose Zuccardi's heart for another reason. It was named after his now 33-year-old daughter. He intended to simply call it "Julia" but Zuccardi was prompted to add "Santa" – Spanish for saint – for the benefit of export markets because an Italian grappa company had already registered "Julia" for alcoholic beverages in Italy. With luck the wine will become the patron saint of a new generation of premium Argentine bargains.
Santa Julia Reserva Malbec 2014, Argentina
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $12.95
More serious than most malbecs that sell for less, this red brings savoury depth to a category dominated by youthful, grapy, simple fruitiness. Medium-full-bodied, it's dry and attractively chalky in texture, with a savoury essence of spice, smoke, vanilla and grilled meat. Try it with roast lamb, eggplant parmesan or grilled sausages; $14.99 in British Columbia.
Atamisque Malbec 2011, Argentina
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.95
Dense and sturdy, with a firm tannic backbone, this high-end red offers up plum, dark-berry and coffee notes. Exceptional for the money, it would pair well with red-meat roasts, though it should improve with up to a decade in the cellar. Caveat: The 15-per-cent alcohol peeks through ever so slightly. Available in Ontario.
Trivento Amado Sur Malbec Bonarda Syrah 2013, Argentina
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
Bonarda, the bright-acid red grape that, like malbec, has come to define Argentina, makes up 20 per cent of this blend, along with 10-per-cent peppery syrah. Full-bodied but not tiresomely heavy, it features ripe berry fruit, supple tannins and lively spice and acidity along with a fresh minty overtone. Good complexity for the money and versatile with food, though perhaps ideally paired with Argentine-style beef empanadas; $14.99 in British Columbia, $13.55 in Saskatchewan, $14.99 in Manitoba, $17.25 in Quebec, $18.99 in New Brunswick, $18.99 in Nova Scotia.
Toneles Tonel 22 Malbec 2012, Argentina
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
Essentially dry but with a hint of crowd-pleasing sweetness, Tonel 22, made by a winery around since the 1920s, combines ripe, syrupy-berry fruit and smooth dark chocolate notes with lifted acidity and peppery spice. Try it with roasted red meats. Available in Ontario.
Estampa Fina Reserva Carmenere Syrah Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Chile
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $18.95
Gutsy stuff. Sturdy and meaty, Estampa's full-bodied and smartly crafted red blend is packed with berry fruit accented with licorice, smoked rubber and mint. Pair it with leg of lamb or grilled steaks. Various prices in Alberta, $17.53 in Manitoba.
Santa Carolina Specialties Dry Farming Carignan 2011, Chile
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
Dry farming means no irrigation. That's one way – a tough way – to yield great wine grapes, which need precious little watering anyway. You force the vines over many years to search on their own for water, roots burrowing deep into the soil. An impressive red, this is made from the European carignan variety common to Spain and France and hails from deep-rooted 80-year-old vines. Full-bodied, it shows ample fruit ripeness hinting at plum and kirsch along with shoe leather and a whiff of menthol. Tight tannins bode well for five to 10 years in the cellar. Match it to rare duck breast. $17.99 in Manitoba.
Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Chile
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
Vibrant and grassy, with tart-tangy grapefruit and lemon on a light frame. Great for lightly prepared or raw shellfish dishes or young cheeses. $19.99 in Nova Scotia.
Undurraga Sibaris Gran Reserva Pinot Noir 2013, Chile
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
Chile continues to make advances with pinot noir, a coolness-craving grape one generally thinks of as more classically suited to countries with foggier regions, like Burgundy. Here's a well-priced example, brimming with crisp berries, baking spices and a whiff of tar, set against soft, integrated tannins. $13.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta.
Terrazas de los Andes Reserva Malbec 2013, Argentina
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $18.95
Full-bodied and youthful, with grape-blueberry fruit and fresh acidity laced with licorice, spice and pepper; $21.49 in British Columbia, $19.23 in Saskatchewan, $20.90 in Quebec, $28.79 in Nova Scotia.