Torrontés - A Uniquely South American Grape

There is a good chance that you have not had a wine made the Torrontés grape. It is an obscure white wine grape that is unique to South America that is known for it’s intense aromatic profile that leans floral, often being described as perfumed. Some wine drinkers will immediately run from a wine like this, thinking that it will taste like soap or a bowl of potpourri. Though there are poorly made wines that smell like your grandmother’s perfume, Torrontés, when made well, can be elegant and expressive, balancing the fruit and floral character. Torrontés is a wine grape with tremendous potential showing a ton of fresh fruit in the nose and on the palate, it has a complex bouquet of aromas, and it is extremely versatile in food pairings.

 A bunch of Torrontés grapes from the Guzmán family vineyard in Altos de Achiras, Samaipata, Bolivia, located at 6,400ft in elevation.

A bunch of Torrontés grapes from the Guzmán family vineyard in Altos de Achiras, Samaipata, Bolivia, located at 6,400ft in elevation.

The Torrontés grape being discussed is South American, not to be confused with the Torrontés grape from Galicia, Spain. These two grapes have been confused in the past, as many grapes in the New World were named by European immigrants after familiar grapes from back in their home countries. Torrontés is a crossing between Muscat of Alexandria, one of the most ancient grape varietals, and the Mission grape (a.k.a. Criolla Chica, Misionera, País). Since Vitis Vinifera grapes, the species of grapevine used to make fine wines, did not exist on the South American continent, all of these varietals were brought by Europeans. The Spanish had a strong affinity for Muscat of Alexandria; it survived well in the new climates found during colonization and it was familiar to those arriving to the New World.

A cross occurs when two plants from the same species are bred to create a new variety. This is the case for Torrontés, which was created by breeding Muscat of Alexandria and Mission, two varities that thrived in the New World. Most vines are planted as clones of previously existing varietals. Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grow all over the world because growers plant cuttings of vines, which creates a plant that is a genetic clone, rather than breeding new varietals. A cross yields a new grape varietal with characteristics of the parent grapes, but gives the winemaker a completely new personality to work with. As an American-born grape variety of the European Vitis Vinifera grapevine, Torrontés belongs to a group of vines called Criollas. I originally explained Criollo (or Creole) plants in my article about Bolivian Wine, which are plants that originated elsewhere, but bred and mutated in the Americas. Torrontés is often called a truly South American grapevine because it was bred in the unique environments of the New World, even though the vine is not native to the continent.

Aromas and Flavors

So what does Torrontés wine taste like? It should be no surprise that with Muscat of Alexandria as a parent, it is extremely expressive and aromatic. Much like Muscat, Torrontés is high in terpenes, compounds that give hops, flowers, and other plants their distinct aromas. In Torrontés these show up as rose petal, geranium, and other potent floral notes, which combine beautifully with aromas of ripe peach, Meyer lemon, and lemon peel. Torrontés is not shy by any means; in the glass it shows off those terpenes, presenting complex, floral and fruity bouquets that can surprise drinkers used to more neutral varieties like Chardonnay.

 Torrontés is expressive, refreshing, and elegant. It can be made in a variety of styles, and is generally enjoyed young. We didn’t even wait to get out of the winery! Photo Credit @alexandrawhitney

Torrontés is expressive, refreshing, and elegant. It can be made in a variety of styles, and is generally enjoyed young. We didn’t even wait to get out of the winery! Photo Credit @alexandrawhitney

Structure and Altitude

Torrontés will vary from region to region, especially when altitude is involved, but mostly they are dry, light, aromatic wines with moderate acidity. Producers may opt to leave a touch of residual sugar to enhance the fruitiness of the wine. Generally Torrontés wines are moderately acidic, making them suitable for a wide variety of food pairings, but the best examples push toward the higher end of the acid spectrum. High levels of acidity keep the wine refreshing, balancing the rich fruitiness and the full floral character, and allow the wines to pair with richer, more intense foods.

Most Torrontés is grown in Argentina between elevations of 2,800 and 5,000 feet where the vines can receive plenty of warmth and sun to fully ripen, while having a chance to rest during the cool evenings. This big shift in temperatures allows the grapes to mature while maintaining some acidity to provide balance. Torrontés wines from Mendoza are great representations of the expressive floral aroma balanced with ripe fruit from the high altitude climate. The most interesting and elegant Torrontés wines, however, are coming from the limits of high elevation winemaking. Cafayate Valley in Salta, located in the far north of Argentina, produces great Torrontés at higher elevations than that of Mendoza. Vines grown at over 9,000 feet in elevation produce fruit with intense, ripe fruit flavors thanks to the warm, high desert sun. These grapes maintain high levels of acidity as the vines rest at night in cool mountain temperatures.

Bolivian Torrontés

Torrontés may be originally an Argentine grape, but vines had a tendency to wander (and political borders in South America are pretty young), so naturally Torrontés vines made their way into Bolivia. Torrontés can be found in Tarija, Bolivia, located just 350 miles North of Salta, which is the main grape growing region in the country. Tarija is a region with a semi-dessert climate located at about 6,500 feet in elevation that is planted predominantly to Muscat of Alexandria. Remember that this Muscat is one of the parents of Torrontés, so naturally this varitiey will be able to handle the challenging high altitude climate. There are few varietal wines made from Torrontés in this region for now, until the grape achieves a higher status in the local and international markets. Much of it is grown in the Santa Ana Valley in Tarija, mostly to get blended in with white wines to add aroma and structure, such as in the Duo White Blend from Aranjuez, a 50/50 blend of Muscat of Alexandria and Torrontés.

 The semi-dessert climate of Tarija is beautiful, but challenging due to the high levels of UV exposure at altitudes of over 6,000 feet.

The semi-dessert climate of Tarija is beautiful, but challenging due to the high levels of UV exposure at altitudes of over 6,000 feet.

Another 250 miles north of Tarija is the small town of Samaipata, located in the Valleys of Santa Cruz. These mountain valleys are home to a 400+ year tradition of winemaking, and for many of those years Torrontés has been a staple in the community. Samaipata has vineyards between 5,750 and 6,500 feet in elevation, but compared to desert climate of Cafayate and the semi-desert climate of Tarija, Samaipata is much more lush and is quite a bit cooler. Here Torrontés still takes advantage of the warm, high altitude sun to achieve fruit ripeness, but the acidity here is even more pronounced, creating white wines with a vibrant, fresh personality and an elegant structure. The 1750 Torrontés from Bodega Uvairenda is bone dry, crisp, and full of personality with lots of the ripe fruit and floral character one would expect from this grape varietal.

 A view of the town of Samaipata from Bodega Uvairenda, a producer of elegant Bolivian Torrontés

A view of the town of Samaipata from Bodega Uvairenda, a producer of elegant Bolivian Torrontés

The Future of Torrontés

This grape will not likely reach the ubiquity of varietals like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc due to its extremely expressive character, but the good news is that in an ever changing landscape of international wine consumption it won’t have to. Grapes like Chardonnay are known for their adaptability and ability to be manipulated to suit the need and desire of the winemaker or the market. Though Chardonnay can represent some of the most elegant wines in the world, it is not a grape that is full of its own character. Torrontés, on the other hand has tons of personality. It is not shy, but it is also not offensive. Not everyone will fall in love with Torrontés, but with the right meal, for example a bold Thai curry or some Tacos al Pastor, this wine will turn heads. As more and more borders open to obscure grapes and as younger generations are more open to unique varietals with heritage, Torrontés will continue to thrive. Keep your eyes open for bottles of these wines, and if you see one on a list, ask your sommelier or server what to pair it with.