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Originally published Friday, March 22, 2013 at 11:01 AM

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The hunt for S. American wines that stand apart

Wine Adviser Paul Gregutt looks for signs of that something extra in the bottle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Pick of the week

Fabre Montmayou 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Patagonia Barrel Selection; $15.

SUBTLE AND complex, this offers a hint of savory herb, fine balance overall, good length and the sort of clean, New World flavor that begs for a juicy steak. The 2011 Reserva (also $15) is just as impressive. (Both distributed by Vehrs)

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Special to The Seattle Times

FINDING VALUE wines among the vast number of imports from South America is like shooting ducks in a barrel. But that just makes it more challenging to identify wines that stand apart from their equally inexpensive peers.

I look for signs of that something extra in the bottle. When I see a wine labeled Old Vine Semillon, for example, I am immediately intrigued. Semillon from anywhere is a tough sell; it has little or no cachet among consumers. The Old Vine designation is often rather carelessly applied, because it is not regulated. So when a bottle of Martino 2011 Old Vine Semillon came my way, I approached it with a mixture of skepticism and curiosity.

Fincas Don Martino is in Argentina's Mendoza region, an area best known for malbec, of course, but also for torrontés, a fragrant white grape, and rather earthy cabernets and merlots. Semillon, at least in my experience, is not on the radar.

Winemaker Patricio Santos sourced this fruit from two heirloom semillon vineyards — a clay-based site in Perdriel planted in 1938 and a sandy vineyard in La Consulta planted in 1935. These are truly old vines, and better yet, ungrafted (rare anywhere, except right here in Washington). One quarter of the wine was aged in French and American oak; the rest in stainless steel. It totally rocked my world.

Gorgeous aromatics led into a plush palate with classic varietal fruit flavors (especially figs). The mouth feel is textural, just hinting at oak, with superb depth and character. I could not help thinking that if a semillon were made in Burgundy, it would display this sort of length, detail and persistence. And it will set you back all of $15. Grape Expectations is the distributor, Southern Wine Group the importer.

Further tastings of both cabernets and malbecs, also imported by Southern, turned up more delicious bargains. Yes, you can find wines for $6 or $8 rather than $15 or $16, but these are well worth the extra fare in terms of polish, power and palate presence.

Try the Fabre Montmayou 2011 Malbec Reserva ($15, distributed by Vehrs). It shows good definition, a mineral base, and notes of licorice, black cherry and dark toast.

Look again to Martino for its 2010 Old Vine Malbec ($16, Grape Expectations). It's organically farmed, fermented with native (wild) yeast, aged in what the importer calls "an unorganized hodgepodge of vessels — new oak, neutral oak, concrete, stainless." The vineyard was planted in 1942, at 3,850 feet, and delivers a delicate, leafy, herbal wine that rewards decanting.

Best of all is the Fabre Montmayou 2010 Gran Reserva Malbec ($21, Vehrs), sourced from a century-old vineyard. Think old-vine zinfandel, but with a Bordeaux slant. Aromatic, dark, earthy and dense, with a complex, lingering mix of black fruits, spicy, bitter herbs and very dark cacao.

Paul Gregutt's blog is Email:

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About Wine Adviser

My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.


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