Chile and Argentina 2004: part II

This report is in three parts. This is part II an introduction to Argentina. Part I introduces Chile, and part III presents tasting notes on 60 great South American wines from this visit. See more recent South American reports in our Regional Reports section

Introducing Argentina

xIt is a 25-minute hop by airplane from Santiago in Chile, to Mendoza, the large city and winemaking capital of Argentina. The journey however, could not be more spectacular, climbing steeply to cross over the Andes, with stunning views towards Mount Aconcagua, at almost 7,000 metres, one of the world’s highest peaks. I had been tipped off to grab a seat on the left-hand side of the plane for the best views, which was invaluable advice (view from the window, left).On stepping off the plane early evening in Mendoza, the first striking difference is the heat. Though still in the southern hemisphere’s Spring, the mercury was registering 92 degrees Fahrenheit (33C).

xIn fact, Mendoza is a high-altitude desert area, sheltered from the Pacific by the Andes, and landlocked over a thousand kilometres from Argentina’s Atlantic coast. The Mendoza province accounts for over 70% of Argentina’s wine production, and the city itself is the epi-centre of the Argentinean wine industry.

Vine-growing in Argentina is supported in a much broader area than the compressed central valleys of Chile, from Salta in the far north, down to the Rio Negro in the south, which lies on a similar latitude to Marlborough in New Zealand. Mendoza is a leafy, and absolutely lovely town that is very southern European in feel, with huge public squares, plane-tree lined boulevards and a thriving café society. Fountains everywhere belie the fact that this is a desert, thanks to the clever original planners who layed the irrigation canals from the Andes.

xIt appears that Argentina is successfully re-building and establishing some stability after its economic melt-down of 2001. In December of that year Argentina defaulted on a $132 billion loan repayment that led to the resignation of the government, and the uncovering of a massive financial black-hole that had been kept hidden from the people.

There was rioting in the streets of Argentina as the Peso lost a huge amount of value against all major currencies. Until then, the Peso had enjoyed parity with the US Dollar, yet at the time of my visit it took three Pesos to buy one Dollar, meaning that investment in wineries has been a difficult exercise of late.

Bodega Esmeralda
xThe first full day of my trip began straight after breakfast next morning, with a 100 kilometre drive east, to the Esmeralda estate. Bodegas Esmeralda is the winery behind the hugely popular Argento and Malambo ranges, which are amongst the best-selling wines in all of South America.
I was shown around the vineyards and modern winery buildings by winemaker Miguel Navarro (shown right) before settling down for a formal tasting of the impressive 2003 vintage (tasting notes will follow in part III).

These wines are out compete head-on with Chile, South Africa, Australia and the South of France in the “fighting varietal” sector. They will have to prove themselves on the overcrowded shelves of major supermarkets and multiple stores, the land of promotional offers, discounts and “three for a tenner” deals that may not inspire the wine aficionado, but is crucial for any wine producing country. Argentina needs to consolidate its export markets, particularly in the light of its own troubled economy, which means volume shipments and laying good foundations on which the entire wine industry can build. Argentina is the eight largest country in the world, and the fifth largest wine producer, yet it is still a minute player in the UK market, with just over a 1% share of sales.

xIt is vital to the wine industry – even those aiming for the very top-rung, premium sector – to have bulk producers like Bodegas Esmeralda that are modern and efficient, with really well-made, well-packaged “everyday” wines. The Argento range was basically created for the UK market in partnership with Bibendum, and there really is fine quality in this budget-priced portfolio: the Chardonnay wins trophy after trophy, and has become a benchmark for the industry, but the Pinot Grigio, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Bonarda are equally impressive wines. When Miguel asked for my opinion, I told him the Merlot was the only unconvincing wine in the line-up, for me lacking a little flesh and depth. The Argentinean industry is still experimenting and learning to see how it can react to market demand. With wines as good as these within their price range, Bodega Esmeralda is leading the way.

One interesting point that was raised during this visit was Argentina’s uniquely challenging marketing problem in the UK: what does Argentina mean to the average Briton? The answers are often rather negative, including the war in the Malvinas/Falkland islands and Maradona’s infamous “hand of God” (when the legendary Argentinean footballer eliminated England from the world cup by illegally punching the ball into the net). These are hardly the images one would choose to associate with ones country when trying to sell wine.

Bodega Catena Zapata
xIf one superstar estate has emerged in Argentina so far, it is Catena Zapata. With an extraordinary portfolio of world-class products, the whole wine world has sat up and taken notice, from Robert Parker, to switched on UK wine lovers. Shown right is the stunning new winery in the Uxmal vineyard, at an elevation of over 3,000 feet.

The Catena family recently celebrated the centenary of their estate, which was established in 1902 by Nicola Catena, an Italian immigrant. Current owner is Nicolás Catena, a wiry and intelligent man, who shuns publicity. He leaves most of the talking to his daughter Laura, Head of Exports and roving Ambassador (Nicolás and Laura, shown below).

xNicolás took over in the 1960’s, having gained a PhD in Economics. Through the 70’s and 80s he grew the business, until Catena became a very significant force, producing 20 million bottles of wine per month for the domestic and South American markets. Before dinner in the wonderful 1884 restaurant in Mendoza, Nicolás told me that he could remember to the day, his road to Damascus moment, when he saw a vision of Catena becoming a world force for fine wines.

In 1982 Nicolás had accepted an appointment as a visiting Professor at Berkeley University near San Francisco. On a weekend trip to the Napa Valley he took a regular tourist visit around Robert Mondavi’s estate. He saw the investment Mondavi was making in research, vineyard improvement, and all aspects of the operation. “I was just so impressed by this. I thought to myself, we could make this work in Mendoza”, he told me. That inspirational moment become a life-long quest; to take the excellent, established vineyards of Catena and elevate them to the world stage; something that was more or less unthinkable for Argentinean wine at that time.

Over the decades that have followed Nicolás devoted all his energy to understanding better his vineyards and their potential to produce something more than decent wines for local consumption. “The concept of ‘less is more’ was revolutionary for the Argentine industry’, said Nicolás. “Farmers wanted big crops, but suddenly we began preaching about low yields”. By the late 1980’s new plantings and upgraded machinery began to see the wines transformed. In 1991 the first vintage of the “new” Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon took off in the US market, despite selling for considerably more than other South American wines. The reputation of Catena was cemented over the following years, with plaudits from world-wide critics.

xThe Zapata winery was completed in 2001, with the footprint of a Mayan Temple, following Nicolás’ interest in that culture. We had a barrel tasting of individual vineyards components of the Alta series 2003s: Malbec, Cabernet and a new Petit Verdot range, with some stunning fruit quality on show. This was followed by a sit down tasting of the whole range. The picture right shows the barrel cellar which wraps around the glass-walled tasting room.

xWe were then joined by Alejandro Sejanovich, Vineyard Director, who took us on a fascinating tour of the vineyards, where his commitment and Catena’s obsession with the Mendoza terroir soon became apparent. Catena’s vineyards are all at altitude, at least 3,000 feet. Alejandro explained that altitude, as much as micro-climate, was the key to quality vine growing in the heat of Mendoza’s desert conditions.

xAlejandro (right) is world-renowned as an expert in high-altitude vineyards, and in growing Malbec in particular. As we walked around the Uxmal vineyard he showed me experimental plantings at different densities and with different irrigation systems, and explained how Catena had carried out a massive programme of clonal selection for their Malbec, where 120 clones where whittled down to just five which uniquely suited the soils and climatic conditions of Catena’s vineyard sites. This level of near-obsessive detail permeates the Catena operation, from the gravity-fed winery, to the vibrating receiving conveyer belts that sort extraneous matter from grapes, to specially commissioned, wide-mouthed fermentation tanks to assist in the remuage process, of punching-down the cap of skins.

xThe top team at Catena is completed by José Galente, who has been Chief winemaker since 1975. José is now generally acknowledged as one of the world’s great winemakers, having gained experience in California, Burgundy, Tuscany and Piedmont over the years. He has overseen development of the winery, which bristles with the latest technology and the finest French barrels. He has also created the super-Argentine wine, Nicolás Catena Zapata, which stunned the wine world with its first release in 1997. Nicolás Catena Zapata is the culmination of Nicolás’ vision, first seen in those Mondavi vineyards two decades ago: a genuine world-beating wine, a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, that has set new standards for Argentina’s place in the wine world.

Spending a few days with the Catenas can be an exhausting business. Laura is not only Vice President and Head of Exports, but she is a senior physician in the emergency department of the U.C. Hospital of San Francisco, where she with her husband and two small sons. It totally defeats me how she finds the energy to hold down both high-stress careers, dividing her time between California, Argentina and a globe-trotting role as Catena’s ambassador.

On my final night in Mendoza I had dinner with Laura and Nicolás at restaurant 1884, which Restaurant magazine recently voted this the 7th best restaurant in the world. We toasted Argentina’s future with some fabulous food and the latest vintage of the extraordinary Nicolás Catena Zapata, the 1999. What a way to round-off an unforgettable visit to a sensational wine family.

I ended my first trip to South America with a couple of days in Buenos Aires, an amazing city that seems exactly like the grandest bits of Paris round one corner, the most Bohemian lanes of Barcelona round another, and like Wall Street on steroids round the next. At a truly memorable meal at La Cabaña, one of my great restaurant experiences, we drank Catena’s top of the range wines for the domestic market, Angelica Catena Chardonnay and Malbec, and talked through some happy memories. Buenos Aires offers as heady mix of high-culture and total abandon, and put the seal on a trip that was full of fun and interest. Whatever their troubles and economic uncertainties, the spirit of the Argentine people and the quality of these wines means they not only deserve, but have earned the support of wine-lovers everywhere.

part I – introducing Chile
part II – introducing Argentina
part III – 60 great South American wines