Criolla: Argentina's Historical Native Variety
Criolla Vines (Photo: Durigutti Winemakers)

Criolla Grande (Big Creole) together with the Cereza (Cherry) and Criolla Chica (Creole Girl), known collectively as Criollos or Criolla, are some of the oldest strains that, despite being widely planted in Argentina, are not well-known anywhere in the world. Born in South America of European parents, they are found mainly in Mendoza, and thought to be a cross between the ancient grapes Moscatel de Alejandria of Egypt and Mission of Spain, now referred to as the Criolla Chica. As one of the most common sets of grapevines, next to Malbec, the pink berries of the Criolla were rarely used to make quality wines when they first arrived in Argentina from various parts of Europe. Instead, the varietals they produced were usually less potent and destined for wholly local consumption, until winemakers discovered the value in producing high-quality, award-winning vintages.

Usually pink in colour, although some are vinified as red or white wines, Criolla Grande generally grows alongside the Cereza grape, a cross between Moscatel de Alejandria and Listan Negro, with both often blended in winemaking. Criolla Grande grows in large clusters that are quite loose with berries, and leaves that are five-lobed, round with convex teeth. There are upwards of 14,040 hectares of this variety planted in Argentina, according to the National Viticulture Institute, representing 6.4 per cent of the total vine area in the country. Mendoza accounts for the lion's share with 96.6 per cent, planted in the San Martin, Rivadavia, Maipu, and Santa Rosa areas. The remaining hectares, approximately 3.4 per cent, are grown in Sarmiento, Veinticinco de Mayo and Caucete, all located in the province of San Juan.

Listán Negro, Listan Prieto, Moscatel de Alejandría and Pedro Ximénez, strains that came to Argentina as seeds dating back to the 17th century, have since been acknowledged as the parent grapes for a variety of Criolla. This grapevine collective was so extensively planted back then, and so underutilised, that their enduring presence as a resilient vine is evident across many a vineyard in Mendoza. Once a go-to varietal for a local market wanting a low-quality, low-cost wine, Criolla is emerging as a ready-for-export product, largely due to the success of the Torrontés. A cross between the Listan Prieto and Moscatel de Alejandría varieties, the country's signature white grape is known to thrive in the mostly mild, dry Salta region.

In fact, Torrontés has led Criolla exports over the last decade with its quality improving continuously as white and orange wines with flamboyant aromas coupled with light, fruity, easy-drinking textures. Vintners like Susana Balbo, revered as the 'Queen of Torrontés', have been at the forefront of transforming perceptions of Torrontés which is growing steadily as a favourite on the global stage. Criolla Grande and Criolla Chica are both capable of producing light, fragrant reds with elegance and finesse that are easy drinking and ideal for summer sipping. Cereza, the second-most planted variety in Argentina after Malbec, is a pink-skinned variety used for producing light white and rosé wines with fresh fruit and floral aromas. Today, bodegas of all sizes are focusing more on their Criolla varieties resulting in a growing range of varietals of still, sparkling, biologically aged, biodynamic and natural wines.

Here are some of the exciting new Criolla varieties that Thursday Food wants you to know about:

Pérgolas Criollas Tintas 2021 is a 92-point wine produced by Bodega Cara Sur, a small project by Francisco 'Pancho' Bugallo and Sebastián Zuccardi in San Juan Province. Made up of 70 per cent Cereza, 20 per cent Criolla Chica, 5 per cent Cinnamon and 5 per cent Red Muscat Barreal, it is grown in vineyards located in the Barreal area of Valle de Calingasta (Calingasta Valley) 1,600 metres above sea level. After fermenting in concrete eggs with native yeasts, the resulting wine is light and fresh in the mouth with fruity, herbal aromas.

Durigutti Proyecto Las Compuertas Criolla Gobelet is produced by Bodega Durigutti in the Lujan de Cuyo region of Mendoza from vineyards located 1,050 metres above sea level. This 100 per cent Criolla Chica variety is also a 92-point red wine that is elegantly fresh and floral. On the nose, it expresses an aroma perfumed with raspberry, strawberry, herb and delicate oak notes. In the mouth, this wine from the Las Compuertas area, has notes of jasmine and pink grapefruit, marked, juicy acidity, silky tannins with a delicate, citrusy finish.

El Esteco Old Vines Criolla 1958 is a 93-point wine that is made from 63 year old Criolla vines in the Salta province. It is produced by Bodega El Esteco at Finca Las Mercedes in the province's Cafayate Valley region. This 100 per cent Criolla is an Intense rosé with violet tones and slight ruby edges, presenting fine lees in suspension, similar to Pinot Noir. Its aroma is initially fruity, typical of the varietal, and on the palate, the flavour has a fruity start that is refreshing, followed by mineral texture.

Catena Zapata La Marchigiana Criolla Chica is 100 per cent Criolla Chica and made by Bodega Catena Zapata in the Rivadavia area of Mendoza from vineyards at Finca Los Paraisos. A medium-red cherry in the glass, the wine has attractive aromas of red fruits and flowers with a hint of forest herbs lingering in the background. It is a fruit-forward, pretty wine having some mid-palate structure along with some grippy tannins. It also has a round, full palate that is neither fresh nor stale but somewhere in-between, with nutty, oxidised plum and red berry flavors at the finish.

Las Payas Criollaje 2021 is a blend of three Criolla varieties, Cereza, Criolla Grande and Pedro Gimenez, produced from vineyards located in San Rafael by Finca Las Payas. The wine has a bright Rosehip color, is fruity in character and has aromas of fresh fruit, with notes of recently harvested grapes and citrus fruits standing out. On the palate, it is semi-dry, with marked acidity, and repeats the citrus notes of pink grapefruit, lemon, berries and strawberries. The finish is fruity, citric and of medium persistence making it very friendly and easy to drink.

Making modern wines from old Criolla vines offers a new direction and inevitably a learning curve for Argentine vintners. Many have since been choosing to use a combination of old, artisan techniques as well as modern innovations resulting in wines that are ready for global acceptance.

Harvested Criolla Grapes in San Rafael (Photo: Finca Las Payas)
Bodega El Esteco (Photo: Bodega El Esteco)
Durigutti Project Las Compuertas Criolla Gobelet (Photo: Durigutti Winemakers)
Catena Zapata La Marchigiana Criolla (Photo: Bodega Catena Zapata)
Las Payas Criollaje 2019 (Photo: Finca Las Payas)
Concrete eggs at left used for fermentation. (Photo: Cara Sur Winery)
Finca Los Paraisos, El Mirador, Rivadavia (Photo: Bodega Catena Zapata)
An overhead shot of the new Bodega at Barreal, San Juan (Photo: Cara Sur Winery)
Pérgolas Criollas Tintas 2021.
El Esteco Old Wines Criolla 1958 (Photo: Bodega El Esteco)
Cara Sur Pergolas Criollas Tintas 2020 (Photo: Cara Sur Winery)
Las Payas Criollaje 2020 (Photo: Finca Las Payas)

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