In the second part of this major feature on the wines of Argentina, Tom heads south to Patagonia. There’s a link to part I – Mendoza – at the bottom of the page.
I suspect that Argentina is just one of those countries, perhaps like India or Africa, that gets under the skin of many who visit for the first time. There is a romance, and a wildness about Argentina, from the vibrant buzz of the tango bars of Buenos Aires, to the vast landscape of the Pampas, to the snow-capped wonder of the Andes.
And then there is Patagonia of course. Four hours due south by small plane from Mendoza and the landscape has changed, from the dusty high desert, to a ruggedly beautiful countryside, where wild horses scatter round every corner as you drive through gorges and valleys. A little further south and the ice fields and penguin paradise begins, but here, in the valleys formed by the Neuquen River and Rio Negro, is potentially one of South America’s most exciting regions for production of fine wine. With an average elevation of only around 200 metres above sea level, latitude makes the difference here, not altitude.
Rio Negro is the longer-established region, though still home to only a handful of wineries that range from boutique to medium-sized. Developed more recently, Neuquen has only been planted for a few years, and is attracting investors who are mostly operating on a grander scale. In both areas, genuinely cool-climate conditions mean delicate varieties like Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc can flourish, and Malbec can exhibit beautifully refined aromatics.
All of the producers I visited in Patagonia paid lip service to this notion of ‘cool-climate’ and the delicacy and energy it can bring to wines, yet not all of them are capturing that in the bottle. It may be that Patagonia is still finding its feet, as the vines age and the winemakers gain more experience and confidence in this terroir, but the potential here is extraordinary: already some are making extremely fine, beautifully balanced wines that are amongst the best in Argentina, and Patagonia is most certainly a region to watch.
The Rio Negro river runs for 80 kilometres and forms an eight kilometre wide valley, which is bordered along its other edge by a canal, an off-shoot of the Rio Negro, built by the British. This is an oasis, which has always supported agriculture, mainly fruit growing, whilst all around is scrubby and arid semi-desert.
Hans Vinding and Noemi Cinzano (right) clearly love their little estate in Rio Negro. The modest winery – little more than a shed, with Hans’ office in one half, a few dozen barrels in the other – sits in the middle of their extraordinary Malbec vineyards which date from 1955 and 1932 respectively. It was these vineyards that brought Hans and Noemi to Patagonia. The vineyards were in very poor condition, but as Hans says, “to find such old vineyards in this region was a dream.” The old owner had to be persuaded to sell them, as he wanted to turn them over to an apple orchards: “The old man tried to persuade me that the vines were no good,” says Hans.
Hans guesses the vineyards were originally planted by Italian immigrants, and now after 50 and 80 years respectively, the perfectly balanced old vines produce naturally concentrated fruit. From it, Hans fashions sublime Malbec that vies for the best red wine in South America. Though Danish by birth (and cousin of Peter Sisseck of Pingus), Hans was raised in Bordeaux, where his father owned Château Rahoul. Noemi has Italian blue blood in her veins, stemming from the Cinzano and Agnelli families (owners of Fiat and Ferrari). Hans also makes wine at Cinzano’s Argiano estate in Tuscany, and at Bodegas Chacra (see below). UK agent is The Wine Treasury.
The Alter Ego of Bodega Noemia is Chacra. In fact these neighbouring estates share the 1955 and 1932 vineyards, which are old field blends of Malbec and Pinot Noir. Chacra is owned by Piero Incisa della Rocchetta (right), whose family owns Sassicaia, along with two silent partners whom Piero describes only as “North American wine lovers.” Each estate farms their own vines, with Chacra taking the Pinot, and Noemia the Malbec. Hans Vinding also makes the wines here. Chacra’s vineyards are also farmed biodynamically, and this tiny estate – whose first vintage in 2004 produced only 1,300 bottles – is being carefully expanded.
Five hectares were planted in front of their handsome, minimalist winery in 2005, with clones from their other vineyards. Even today, fewer than 5,000 bottles of the 1932 are produced, and fewer than 6,000 of the 1955. There is some Torrontes and Malbec, which is sold off. Some of South America’s best Pinot Noir is the focus here. Grapes from the 1932 vineyard are hand-picked and de-stemmed by hand, whilst the 1955 has some whole bunch fermentation. The brand new winery has cement tanks, built as circular pits in a very thick concrete and brick plinth that can be heated if needed. Chacra’s wines are not currently in the UK.
Guillo Barzi (right) and his father Guillermo head up the family company of Humberto Canale, which began in the fruit production business and still grows apples and pears commercially in the Rio Negro Valley. Since it was founded 99 years ago the estate has also cultivated vines, and today over one million bottles of wine are produced by winemaker Horacio Bibiloni. Susana Balbo and Pedro Marchevsky of Mendoza’s Dominio del Plata are winemaking and viticultural consultants respectively. Guillo tells me that this area has “No hail, no rain, no pollution,” but the big risk is frost. “Our 1994 Pinot crop was totally destroyed.”
Because of the otherwise benign conditions, one application of copper sulphate per year is all that is needed, and it would be relatively easy to convert all vineyards to organic farming. In fact, only around 3% of Humberto Canale’s vineyards are certified organic. “The reason is simple,” says Horacio, “there is no market for organic wines anywhere outside of the UK, Germany and a few other smaller markets.” Without hitting the heights of Noemia or Chacra, some of the large range here successfully illustrate Rio Negro’s unique potential. HWCG is humberto Canale’s UK agents
In many ways, Julio Viola of Del Fin Del Mundo is the man who created the entire Neuquen wine industry. In 1996 he bought 3,200 hectares of virgin, arid land, with little obvious commercial use. His first project was to build a 20-kilometre irrigation canal, bringing water and the possibility of agriculture to the region for the first time.
Del Fin Del Mundo
By 1999 Julio Viola had installed 6,500 kilometres of irrigation pipes and seven pumping stations in this virgin land, and began to plant vineyards. He also built a series of “shells” of winery operations, which he sold as “turn-key” businesses to most of the other operators who farm this region today. From the original 3,200 hectares, Del Fin Del Mundo retained 2,000 hectares and is by far the largest operation in Patagonia, with a million-case production. Michel Rolland has consulted since 2005, and rather like Valle Perdido, there are two wineries in one, with sorting tables, small bins and gravity feeding for the premium wines, and the bigger volume wines with larger crates and a massive stainless steel tank room.Undoubtedly Patagonia needs volume producers to put the region on the map of a significant number of consumers.
The basic range of wines here, and to a certain extent the other larger estates of Neuquen, are solid commercial wines, but they show nothing of Patagonia’s unique cool-climate character, and its ability to bring finesse and lightness of touch. Del Fin Del Mundo has no UK agent at present, but is represented by 10 International in the UK.
Valle Perdido is an impressive new project started by Buenos Aries lawyer Fernando Munoz de Toro (right) and his wife. They have just finished the construction of a large vineyard hotel in front of their winery, about one hour Northwest of the city of Neuquen. With 80 rooms, this is the first five-star hotel in the entire province and speaks of this estate’s ambition. The company took over 180 hectares of vineyard and a partly-built winery in 2004, but Fernando says “The 2004 and 2005 production were both sold as bulk wine, as they were not of good enough quality, and we were doing a lot of work in the vineyards and completing the winery during that period.”
Today, the large winery is in full production, and though there is a 2.1 million litre capacity, they plan to grow to 1.5 million litres over the next five years, and settle at that level. They have been increasing plantings, with Petit Verdot, Viognier, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. The winemaking facility is set up as two separate wineries, one for commercial wines where must is pumped, and the other working entirely by gravity-flow, and fed from densely-planted vineyards aimed at higher quality (top right, a giant lift transports grapes). Ellis of Richmond is the UK agent.
Another new winery and another project started by a businessman from outside the Neuquen Province. NQN is the project of Lucas Nemesio (right), and his family. Their first commercial vintage was 2004, having planted Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Pinot Noir Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, in 2001. The estate runs to 1,100 hectares, though currently only 162 are planted. Consultant winemaker is Roberto de la Motta of Mendel.The winery, a low, flat building set into the landscape, is set to maximise the cooling effect of the wind to regulate temperature.
Like Valle Perdido, there is a scale and ambition here that is on a potentially large, commercial level, quite different from the boutique wineries like Noemia and Chacra in Rio Negro. There are excellent visitor facilities and Malma, a contemporary and extremely good restaurant (photograph right), that is already attracting 17,000 visitors per year. 16% of NQN’s production (currently 700,000 cases) goes to UK, through importer Hispa Wine Merchants.
I was very disappointed that a packed schedule and a flight to catch meant my visit to Schroeder estate was cut short, with time for just a whistle-stop tour and tasting. That was especially so, as these were potentially some of the most interesting wines from the batch of Neuquen producers I visited. The basement of the winery contains a small exhibition of the 75-million-year-old dinosaur bones and eggs (bottom right) that were unearthed during excavations for the building, and which give their names to the “Saurus” range of wines. Established in 2002 by the Schroeder family, who already farmed fruit in the region, the estate covers 120 hectares (top right: Roberto Schroeder).
The five-story building, built partly underground, allows for an all gravity-flow production, with grapes arriving at the top level, and finished wines leaving from ground level. Schroeder is another estate encouraging tourism in Neuquen, with very good visitor facilities and tours, and a fine restaurant. The UK Agent for Familia Schroeder is Moreno Wines and some wines are available from Laithwaites.
The end of the road
And so ends this story and my journey across Argentina. With over two dozen wineries visited and 360 wines tasted, what are my conclusions? The enormous potential for Argentina is clear, and is as yet only partially realised. There are some wonderful terroirs here, some fantastic old vines, and some of the world’s most talented winemakers. The best are rapidly improving their knowledge of how to achieve the highest quality in this often harsh environment, including the matching of vines, to climate, to soil. Winemakers are also learning how to better express what is uniquely Argentinean – or what is unique about the Uco Valley, Luján de Cuyo, Rio Negro and the rest – with a more sensitive handling of the grapes and more subtle use of oak. As these forces come together, and as Argentina’s European origins influence the making of balanced, food-friendly wines, that potential looks likely to be fulfilled with style. Some wines are already hitting surprising heights, but there is absolutely no doubt that the best of Argentina has still to come.