Long overdue, here is a recap of my trip to Argentina last year with Wines of Argentina, travelling first to Buenos Aires, then to the northern province of Salta and south to the country’s winemaking capital of Mendoza.
Kicking off our tour in the capital of Buenos Aires, a group of winemakers from Patagonia joined our group for a tasting. Patagonia is an otherworldly expanse of land at Argentina’s most southerly tip, which was described as a “sleeping giant” by our guide, sommelier Marcelo Rebolé. Split into three regions of the Rio Negro, La Pampa and Neuquén, the latter two only began their winemaking journey two decades ago, making Patagonia Argentina’s youngest wine region. Rio Negro has been making wine for some 100 years. “It is like a different world,” says Rebolé. “It’s a place to create something completely new, and lots of people are now moving there.”
Wineries represented included Bodega del Desierto in La Pampa, a project that began in 2000 and counts US winemaker Paul Hobbs as its consultant. I particularly liked its Cabernet Franc expression, which was intensely concentrated, elegant and full of fruit.
Bodega del fin del Mundo (which translates as winery at the end of the world) was also on hand to showcase its wines produced in Neuquén. Here, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are common, but varieties including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah also thrive. Michel Rolland acts as a consultant for Bodega de fin del Mundo. Together, both Rolland and Hobbs are helping to raise the profile of Patagonian wine.
Leaving Buenos Aires, it was time to head north to Salta, flying over some spectacular scenery.
Driving south from Salta toward the wine region of Cafayate in the Calchaqui Valley we were spoilt with some of the most breathtaking scenery. We travelled for several hours through what must be one of the best drives in the world featuring no end of twists and turns through an otherworldly Mars-like landscape.
After a three hours we finally arrived at our destination – the very beautiful Cafayate.
Our first stop was to visit the El Porvenir winery in Cafayate, where winemaker Mariano Quiroga Adamo is working to raise the profile of Tannat – a variety held in high esteem by winemakers in Cafayate. While the majority of wineries in Cafayate produce Tannat, Adamo is producing 100% Tannat in a bid to prove that it is capable of producing “fruity and friendly” varietal wines with soft, round tannins.
Before taking up the position of winemaker at El Porvenir in 2010, Adamo worked at big name producers including LVMH Chandon SA and Catena Zapata. Adamo arrived in Cafayate in October 2010 and since then has been working as El Porvenir’s principal winemaker with the support of US wine consultant Paul Hobbs.
Adamo is such a fan of the variety that he has had the variety’s name tattooed on his forearm, describing the variety as a “misbehaving child”.
“It’s a challenge to cultivate”, said Adamo when asked to explain his love for Tannat. “It needs a long time in the vineyard and the cycle of maturation is long. When you harvest early it has more tannins and acidity and is strong in the mouth. If you wait one or two more days the flavours change completely. You need to understand the vineyard. Tannat is a misbehaving child – you have to get it into line – it’s a challenge. That’s why I like it.”
El Porvenir’s icon wine is a blend of 60% Malbec, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Tannat, 5% Syrah and 3% Petit Verdot and spends a minimum of 18 months in new French and American oak barrels and almost two years in bottle before being released.
Our next stop was nearby El Esteco, where viticulturist Francisco Xavier Tellechea outlined the producer’s efforts to cultivate what it hopes will become an “icon” vineyard of northern Argentina, having completed the first stage of its El Socorro project in Cafayate.
Based in the northern Argentine province of Salta in Cafayate, which lies within the Calchaquí Valley, planting of the first 17 hectares of El Esteco’s El Socorro vineyard was completed in December 2015. The vineyard is intended to emulate the producer’s prized Chañar Punco vineyard in the southwest of the Calchaquí Valley, which pays precise attention to terroir.
The team is hoping to plant a further 28 hectares of El Socorro’s 175 hectare rocky landscape, due to the difficulty in clearing the land of rocks for planting. Uncultivated vineyards cost around US$14,000 a hectare in Cafayate, but it cost El Esteco this alone simply to remove the rocks from the site in order to plant, Tellechea told me.
Because cacti are protected under law, they cannot be removed, meaning it is not uncommon to see lone cactus smack in the middle of a vineyard. Apparently, it takes 25 years for a cactus to produce a flower and another 25 for it to grow an arm. So this cactus is likely to be 175 years old based on its seven arms.
Rounding off our stay in Cafayate, we visited Amalaya, which is part of the Hess Family Estates. Its other Argentina winery is Colomé in Colomé, which is home to the world’s highest vineyard – Altura Maxima – at 3,000m above sea level. Amalaya’s range is all about blends, with its top drop its Corte Unico – a blend of Malbec, Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon. It also produces a brut nature sparkling wine made from a blend of Riesling and Torrontés.
Colomé meanwhile is responsible for some of Argentina’s most expensive wines, producing wines from the world’s highest vineyard.
“What we are looking for with Colomé is the terroir and expression of the vineyard, rather than blending or winemaking,” said Delmotte. “It is all about the vineyards in this case. We have three at different altitudes.”
Its Altura Maxima is a 100% Malbec produced from vineyards at 3,000m asl. Just six barrels of the 2012 vintage were produced, which c are offered as an on-trade exclusive Gaucho.
Leaving Cafayate, our group, which included Richard Siddle of The Buyer, Conrad Gras of the Wine Wankers and freelance journalist Alice Gundlach, were taken on an impromptu tour of the Calcahqui Valley, exploring the rock formations and picking up a few natural quartz stone lucky charms which scatter the landscape.
As well as admiring the wildlife….
…..which included this rather persistent goat that was determined to scavenge some goat’s cheese (funnily enough) from my plate.
Arriving in Mendoza were were whisked away to the vineyards of Kaiken, which is owned by Chilean winemaker Aurelio Montes, where we were greeted by Ignacio Torti, commercial manager. Based in Mendoza, Kaiken has vineyards throughout the sub regions of Agrelo, Vistaflores and Vistalba, and also in the northern ArgentinE province of Salta where it produces a white wine from Torrontés.
A quirk of Kaiken is that it plays music to its icon wine, Mai, in the cellar – Gregorian chants to be exact. It’s like “singing a lullaby” to its wine, says Torti.
“We believe that this type of music allows the winer to be more rested and makes for a better wine,” he said. “That’s what we think. Maybe it doesn’t make a difference but we believe it”.
Following a tasting of his wines, Rogelio Rabino, winemaker at Kaiken in Mendoza, shared his belief that Cabernet Franc will become the “second most important variety in Mendoza in the future”, after Malbec. Kaiken launched a new line of Cabernet Franc, Kaiken Obertura, in 2015 produced from the 2013 vintage, which was only its second harvest of the variety.
Kaiken is not the only producer experimenting with the variety. Bodega Vistalba in Vistalba in Mendoza’s Lujan de Cuyo, is trialling the variety having planted just two rows to test its quality. 2016 marked its first harvest.
“I love Cabernet Franc,” Christian Stoddart, commercial manager at Vistalba told me. “I think that Cabernet Franc, after the Malbec, is growing a lot. It’s being planted a lot more in Argentina. It is a grape that is doing excellently at the moment. We are just seeing how it will work in our terroir and maybe we will use it in the future.”
Vistalba’s top wines are its Corte A, B and C blends of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Bonarda. However in the Old World tradition, no varietals are listed on its labels. The winery is experimenting with Corte C by adding ‘Malbec’ to its label to see if sales will be enhanced. While its Corte range is more European in its style, focusing on blends with no varietal indication, its Tomero range, is more New World in its approach, listing its varietal on the label.
This picture, hung at the entrance of its tasting room, pays homage to its Tomero range. The ‘Tomero’, shown on the left, was the name for the person that used to control the gate to release a town’s water supply, which was regulated by the government. This role made the Tomero a very important person to residents, and winemakers.
A menagerie of wildlife greeted us at biodynamic winery Krontiras in Mendoza’s Lujan de Cuyo, including this bouncy chap, as well as llamas, donkeys, horses, sheep and the all important cow, which is crucial to biodynamic winemaking.
Bodegas Krontiras is an organic and biodynamic producer and one of the first wineries in Argentina to be built with a biodynamic concept in mind. The building has no 90 degree angles and is curved throughout in an effort to better manage the flow of energy throughout the winery. Its also the shape of a half moon – another nod to biodynamic principles. To save energy, the winery is not heated and uses very little artificial light.
Its icon wine is its Dona Silvina Reserva Malbec – a 100% Malbec produced from the winery’s 120-year-old vineyard in Lunlunta, Lujan de Cuyo. Recently the team started experimenting with the maturation of this wine by rolling the barrels during to see if it has an effect on the wine.
Our next stop was Alpamanta, another biodynamic winemaker, based in Ugarteche in Mendoza’s southern Lujan de Cuyo. Austrian-born Andre Razumovsky bought Alpamanta’s 35 hectares of land 10 years ago at a time when there were very few wineries in Ugarteche. The winery was formally certified biodynamic in 2007.
“Everything I do is with the environment in mind,” said Andre. “I wanted so do something small scale but with a little bit of soul.”
The beautiful Laechuza owl is a common site in Mendoza. Unlike their British brethren, they are not nocturnal, offering some great photo opportunities to those unaccustomed to passing owls.
Next stop was Budeguer in Agrelo in Mendoza’s central Lujan de Cuyo. Founded in 2006, the winery recently opened the doors to its brand new visitor centre, complete with a man-made lake, bar, winery tour and filled with traditional and modern artwork from Argentina artists.
The team is led by CEO Sébastien Budeguer, who is also a member of one of Argentina’s biggest sugar-producing families. The winery produces three lines of wine: Plan B, Tucumen and its top drop, Budeguer 4000 – a limited run of around 6,000 bottles comprising a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The group, well-fed after a spectacular lunch of barbecued steak, empanadas, cured meats, cheese and wine.
Heading into the Uco Valley we made our way to Luna Austral – the third biodynamic winery of our visit – where we were greeted by the lovely Mario Toso, the winery’s biodynamic consultant. We interrupted a team hard at work hand-selecting the winery’s Malbec grapes on a very cold and windy day in the Uco, which sadly prevented us from seeing the Andes mountains in all their glory.
The winery, based in La Consulta region of the Uco Valley, produces just 6,000 bottles a year from its 22 hectare vineyard, selecting and crushing grapes by hand. It uses just 10% of its grapes to make its own wine and sells the rest.
A healthy bunch of Cabernet Franc at Luna Austral.
The stunning vista across Clos de los Siete, Rolland Michel’s project in Tunuyan the Vista Flores region in the Uco Valley. Bought by Rolland in 1998, the 850-hectare Clos de los Siete site is home to four separate wineries; Bodega Diamandes, Cuvelier los Andes, Monteviejo and Felecha de los Andes.
Clos de los Siete, the project’s top wine, brings all four wineries together, with Rolland producing it from a blend of the very best parcels from each vineyard. Though each year’s blend is different, Clos de los Siete is generally Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon dominant with small amounts of Syrah and Petit Verdot. The most recent 2012 vintage was a blend of 57% Malbec, 18% Merlot, 14% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 9% Syrah and 2% Petit-Verdot.
Another Laechuza poses for the camera at Clos de los Siete.
Reaching the end of our trip, we made our last visit to Trapiche, one the oldest producers in Argentina, where winemaker German Buk proved the perfect host to take us through its extensive portfolio. Its Iscay range features two wines made from a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Franc, and Syrah and Viognier. Its Pure range meanwhile is intended to express its very best Malbec, selected from vineyards in the Uco Valley, produced without oak and with high fruit concentration.
Before making tracks to the airport, we managed to get a glimpse of the snow-capped Andes from Trapiche…