At first glance, Argentina’s wine story seems simpler to understand than Chile’s. A single province, Mendoza, just a 25-minute hop across the Andes from Santiago de Chile, is the epicentre of the wine industry, accounting for around two-thirds of the entire production. Far to the north lies Salta, synoymous with the Torrontes grape, whilst to the south is Patagonia, for the past decade or so another wine hot spot. And a single grape variety has come to dominate Argentina in the minds of the wine drinking public: Malbec.
And yet to visit the country in 2016 proves that just as much innovation and exploration is happening here as in Chile, or indeed, anywhere in the world of wine. As in Chile, much of that is to do with improving what is already there: refining knowledge and mapping the terroir much more closely than ever before. But there are new grape varieties being heralded, new wine regions being explored, and a restless search for quality wherever one turns. The few coastal vineyards that have been planted are experimental, but the search for maritime influence is on, whilst lessons have been learned about balance, oak and extraction to create a new breed of more elegant Argentine wines. Producers I visited like Catena, Achaval Ferrer, Pulenta Estate and Doña Paula offer plenty of evidence of that.
The two great wine-growing valleys of Mendoza are the Valle de Uco and Luján de Cuyo. More vineyards lie to the east, north and south, but between them Uco and Luján de Cuyo, with their high altitude vineyards running into the foothills of the Andes, produce the vast majority of Mendoza’s great wines. My appointment with Doña Paula was at the very southern tip of the Valle de Uco, where their Los Indios estate is one of four producing a series of terroir-driven wines aimed at expressing specific characteristics of Mendoza soils, aspect and climate.
I met up with the Doña Paula winemaking team, headed up by Chief Winemaker Marcos Fernández (left), who spent five years making wine in California as well as with top Argentine bodegas including Viña Cobos. The Los Indios estate sits in the Uco sub-zone of Altamira, and is one of the names that is beginning to emerge from numerous zones of Uco and Luján de Cuyo as a potential ‘Premier Cru’ of the future. Names like Ugarteche, Las Compuertas and Gualtallary may not strike a chord with international wine drinkers as yet, but Doña Paula are not alone in seeking to show a finer grain to Mendoza’s vineyards.
Just as in Chile, Argentinian producers are digging for victory. Thousands more calicatas have been dug as they begin to much more carefully map their soils. The illustrations below from Doña Paula’s four main vineyard sites show the varied soils,
But the holy grail for each of them is calcium carbonate, or limestone. The soils here vary from alluvial soils of rounded stones and sand, to angular colluvial rocks in clay. But it was fascinating to visit the vineyards with the team to see how in several vineyards the rocks were completely coated on one side by a thick paste of calcium carbonate.
A simple science lab demonstration, dropping some chlorine onto each surface, showed the dramatic reaction of the calcium carbonate. The team are convinced its presence is crucial to bringing extra freshness and complexity to their wines and, indeed, two sample wines, vinified identically but from vineyards with and without the presence of calcium carbonate, showed real differences, the former having more crispness and freshness and a distinctive mineral, meaty character.
The Doña Paula team is carrying out over 200 micro-vinifications from these research projects across its terroirs, making wines in neutral plastic bins so that the purest expression can be captured. On my final visit with them we travelled much further north to Luján de Cuyo and their El Alto vineyard, 435 hectares with some of the vines 80 years old. The rewards of their studies were evident here too, with new plantings as costly, labour intensive bush vines, but their study of the soils and plant material here presecribing that as the recipe for the highest quality.
I have been fortunate enough to visit Catena’s striking Mayan-inspred winery several times, always a thrill especially with that extraordinary view direct to the Andes.
I was also delighted to catch up again with Nicolas Catena, founder and a man with his finger still firmly on the pulse not just of Catena and Argentine wine, but on the world of politics, the arts and philisophy – as I was to find out over dinner where a non-stop stream of questions from his sharp, incisive mind peppered the conversation.
One of the true pioneers of quality bottled wine from Argentina, inspired by his friend Robert Mondavi whom he first met when lecturing at Berkley University in California, Catena Zapata continues to push boundaries in Mendoza. Their vineyards include the highest in the province where many predicted frost and cold would mean they could never survive, and part of my tasting with Nicolas and Chief Winemaker Alejandro Vigil would concentrate on some remarkable new single-plot wines from their Adrianna Vineyard at 1450 metres (5,000 feet) in Gualtallary. Once again, it is the presence of calcium carbonate – limestone – that is at least partly responsible for some superb wines.
The Adrianna project was inspired by Château Lafite and their attention to soil compositions and parcelling vineyards into very small lots. It set out to identify specific soils within the 100 hectares and create small batches of wine that represent its minute variations. For eight years they made wines from these lots without commercialising them, but over time ranked them for quality. “We are at the beginning of discovering the real effects of the soils and our climate,” says Nicolas. “At our altitude there is great sunlight intensity. That certainly affects the characteristics of the grapes, but we need to reveal the secrets of the soils.”
Another name that has taken Argentine winemaking by storm is Achaval-Ferrer. Arriving at their beautiful small estate at Bella Vista in Luján de Cuyo, I am met by winemaker Gustavo Rearte, who has made the wines here for four years, joining the business after stints in New Zealand and Napa.
The story began in the mid-1990s, when a group of Argentine and Italian friends and business partners, Santiago Achaval, Roberto Cipresso, Manuel Ferrer and Tiziano Siviero, come together to map out the project that would become Achaval-Ferrer. In 2011 a majority share of the company was sold to the SPI Group (also shareholders in Ornellaia and Marchesi Frescobaldi amongst others), but Santiago Achaval and Roberto Cipresso remain on-board in a consultancy basis.
The first vintage released was 1999, made from a single vineyard in Tupungato in the Valle de Uco. It received a rare 5* rating from Decanter magazine and Gustavo says that was the inspiration for them to expand and continue. Their philosophy of site-specific wines has continued to this day, more vineyards having been acquired across different Mendoza terroirs. Gustavo describes the farming as “Eco-friendly,” with no pesticides used and no netting employed to protect the vines from hail – an ever present danger at these altitudes “I’d rather take the risk of hail than create an unnatural environment within a net,” he says.
Three single vineyard wines top the range here, and since starting as a Malbec-only producer they have planted other Bordeaux varieties too. Gustavo is particularly excited by the quality of Cabernet Franc coming from their Tupungato vineyard, and says it may well be added as a varietal wine to their range.
I’ve long been a fan of Pulenta Estate’s Cabernet Franc and top Bordeaux blend, the Gran Corte, both benchmark wines of their style, so it was great to finally visit the estate, not far from Achaval-Ferrer in Luján de Cuyo. The Pulenta family arrived in Argentina from Italy in 1902, and by 1912 had planted their first vineyard. By 1930 a winery at Peñaflor was in full production. I met up with Eduardo Pulenta, Commercial Director and son of the current owner, and chief winemaker Javier Lo Forte (right).
Here, in the Agrelo sub-zone of Luján de Cuyo they farm 150 hectares at 970 metres altitude, with a larger 400-hectare property in the Valle de Uco. Pulenta uses estate fruit only, and sells the majority of its grape production to clients including Chandon and Catena. “Having such big vineyards and needing to use only such a small proportion of our grapes gives us a lot of flexibility and the ability to be very selective,” says Eduardo. Javier employs two levels of vibrating sorting table to ensure only the best berries are crushed, but emphasises that “whatever level of wine we are making the grapes are really sorted in the vineyard. The blocks have identified themselves to us over time. In general, we know our blocks pretty well by now.”
The winery is all gravity flow, and a lot of whole berries go into the tanks with some dry ice to cool, creating “A sort of carbonic maceration,” according to Javier. As is common with the best estates, there are a lot of small tanks – concrete, steel and wooden casks – allowing different vinification strategies for small lots of grapes. Javier is in charge of three other full-time winemakers, one solely in charge of their experimental projects.
This year a brand new top level wine will be added to the ‘Gran’ range, a Cabernet Sauvignon of the 2012 vintage.
Since 1952 Moët et Chandon has had an association with Argentina, first with Bodegas Chandon, and in 1999 with the creation of Terrazes and sister project, Cheval des Andes, a joint venture with Château Cheval Blanc of Saint-Emilion.
Terrazas de los Andes is the biggest vineyard owner in Vistalba, one of Luján de Cuyo’s prime Malbec hotspots, though with additional vineyards in Tupungato and Perdriel, and in Cafayate in the northerly Salta region.
I was greeted by Hervé Birnie-Scott. Hervé is in charge of all of Moët et Chandon’s Argentine interests, but in fact is Estates & Wines Operations Director for all nine of their operations around the world. Despite the still charming French accent, he has been in Mendoza for 25 years. “We have an advantage,” he says, “Because when Moët et Chandon first looked at Argentina it was for sparkling wine, and so they looked for the coolest sites, often in places where nobody else was planting.”
He explains that 80% of the Mendoza’s vine production is to the east of the Route 40, the lower area furthest from the cool slopes of the Andes. The trend towards modern wine, high altitude, and matching variety to soil has only been around for the past 20 years. Most of the new Malbec planted in the last 20 years has been to the west of the R40 in high altitude areas. Their best Luján de Cuyo vineyards are at Las Compuertas and Perdriel, and in the Valle de Uco – twice the size of Napa – around Altamira and Gualtallary. “We’d love to go higher into some of the Uco pre-Andes,” he says, “but getting enough water is always a problem. Today it is impossible to get the rights to take water from the river because the water table is going down and the cost of land with water rights or its own well can be 10 times more expensive than surrounding areas. Remember,” he says, “Mendoza is a desert and only 3% is irrigated, but that also includes all fruit and vegetable growing.”
It was on a visit to Argentina in the 1990s that Pierre Lurton, President of Château Cheval Blanc, found himself at the Terrazas de los Andes’ 80-year-old Las Compuertas vineyard in Vistalba. Having tasted their Malbec, he was intrigued by the idea of a connection with Saint-Emilion, where Malbec had all but disappeared following the scourge of Phylloxera. Once one of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol’s most important grapes, the inspiration was to make a Malbec-based wine in Argentina, that carried the expertise and history of Cheval Blanc.
As the sun set over their gorgeous vineyards framed by the Andes, Technical Manager and winemaker Lorenzo Pasquini (right) met me for a small vertical tasting of the wines. Cheval des Andes has been produced in every vintage except 2000, from these vineyards at the highest point of Luján de Cuyo. “The idea was to make an expression of Argentine grapes and terroir, but with the sensibility of Cheval Blanc,” says Lorenzo. And that means? “A more elegant and fresh, higher acid style,” he tells me.
Though still dominated by Malbec, it is today a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, but alway with a small percentage of Petit Verdot too (“Petit Verdot is like a drip of black ink in a big bucket of water,” says Lorenzo, the small addition making a significant impact). In post only for a year after winemaking stints at Mondavi in California and Château Palmer in Bordeaux, I ask Lorenzo if he will make many changes? “I will put the focus back on the vineyards,” he says. “It’s not change in direction, but I hope my hand as winemaker will not be seen, just like Pierre at Cheval Blanc. It’s all about attention to detail. That,” he says, “is my real obsession.”
After my tasting at Catena, and before settling in for a hugely enjoyable dinner, winemaker Gustavo Bergagna from the nearby estate of Dominio del Plata was invited to also present his wines. Gustavo led a brief tasting tour of the wines, revealing that this estate too has had a subtle change of direction, for example moving four years ago to using only French oak barrels and dispensing with American oak completely. That was shown to good effect in their unusual and excellent barrel fermented Torrontes.
Founded by three Italian owners, including flying winemaker Alberto Antonini, the Altos Las Hormingas story begant when Alberto’s father gave him the money to explore and establish a business overseas. His travels took him to Argentina and the vineyard that would become Hormigas – named because the vines were ravaged by an Ants nest, the Ants could destroy a whole row of vines, by eating all the leaves. The Ants are now controlled biologically, by providing alternative food source and a fungus that can kill a proportion of the colony. From the beginning this has been an estate focused entirely on Malbec, seeking expressions of different soils. Limestone soils are the holy grail, and like others their use of oak is being reconsidered: only untoasted large, neutral barrels are now favoured and they are gradually getting rid of all 225-litre barriques. Pictured: Alberto Antonini and viticulturist Pedro Para.
Alberto Antonini and Pedro Para are the common factors here. Chakana was established in 2002, the Pelizzatti family from the Valtelina region of Italy deciding to invest in Argentina and buying 120 hectares in Agrelo, and a further 21 hectares of 100-yer-old vineyard both in Luján de Cuyo. More recently, two small estates In the Uco Valley were purchased after a huge frost almost wiped out a vintage. It is an export-focused company, and although they started with “oaky, big wines,” the hiring of Antonini and Para was to really study soils in an attempt to turn to a more elegant style. “We finally understood wine as something that should tell the story of its place,” winemaker Gabriel Bloise (right) told me. All vineyards are managed organically, and their biggest vineyard in Agrelo is certified organic and in transition to certified biodynamic. “All vineyards will be certified organic in time,” says Gabriel: “That changes the way you manage your winery too: we used to bleed-off juice to concentrate our wines, we used to use lots of different yeasts and enzymes to change the flavour. After we started with organics the fruit was so good that we just didn’t need it.” Once again, that extends to oak were more large casks and concrete tanks have replaced small barrels.