One of the most exciting things about ‘new world’ wine regions, said loosely in the context of Argentina given its long history, is that they are always evolving – there is always something to discover.
Freedom from appellation laws and, to an extent, winemaking regulations, give winemakers more scope to experiment, explore and challenge stereotypes.
Argentina is one of those wine regions that is moving at such a pace it requires a watchful eye. In the last five years alone, it has come on leaps and bounds in terms of its exploration of terroir, digging ever deeper into its soils and learning more about the grapes best suited to different altitudes and climates.
While it is known for its Malbec, it now has its eye on shaping up its white wine production, with many producers working to make high-end Chardonnay, Torrontes and white blends at higher altitude sites, which given time almost certainly have the potential to rival the best white wines of the world.
Having visited in 2016, I was keen to return to Mendoza to find out what its winemakers had been up to, catching up with the likes of Zuccardi, Catena and Susana Balbo, who don’t lack in ambition or enthusiasm, while also looking north to San Juan’s Pedernal Valley, casting an eye over Argentina’s its sparkling wine scene and checking out its culinary ambition.
Arriving to the Susana Balbo estate in Lujan de Cujo, Mendoza, we were cautioned not to panic if we saw a small rodent-like create scurry about the vines. It is not a rats, as staff often have to assure visitors, but a Cuis – a rodent closely related to the domesticated guinea pig and found in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru.
Jose Lovaglio, winemaker and son of Susana Balbo, talked us through their selection of white wines, with the producer currently on a mission to put high-end Torrontes on the map, building upon Balbo’s previous experience working with the grape in Salta. Believing the grape could find a home in Mendoza, she planted a vineyard in Altamira in the Uco Valley, at first blending with grapes from Salta. The winery now produces a 100% barrel-fermented Torrontes from grapes grown in Altamira – Susana Balbo Signature Torrontés 2015.
Susana Balbo also produces a barrel-fermented Chardonnay and a white blend – Susana Balbo Signature. First released with the 2015 vintage, the latter is made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Torrontes and Semillon, to create greater complexity.
“Having Torrontes in the blend gives Argentina identity,” Jose Lovaglio told the drinks business. “It’s important that we can achieve this style of wines. They are getting more and more recognised, first by the press and then eventually sommeliers and after that the general public. We think that if we can achieve that with the variety we can start to be recognised as a category for high end whites – that’s the main goal.”
I also caught up with Argentine white wine pioneers Blanchard & Lurton – a collaboration between winemaker Andres Blanchard and Bordeaux producer Francois Lurton – founded in 2014 with the sole purpose of producing white wines. Pictured here, Blanchard & Lurton winemaker Thibault Lepoutre with winemaker Andres Blanchard.
The base of its flagship Blanchard & Lurton Grand Vin is made from a movable blend of predominantly Tokay (Sauvignon Vert), Viognier, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, and sometimes Sauvignon Blanc. “Tokay was one of the biggest discoveries that Francois made,” said Blanchard.
“It ages amazingly well and doesn’t have explosive aromatics. For me the 2014 is perfect to drink now but in five years it’s going to be fantastic. The 2006 Gran Lurton [Francois’ other Argentine project) is a 100% Tokay. If you taste the 2006 it’s a fantastic wine. We are still selling 2009 Gran Lurton, just to explain the fantastic ageing potential of Tokay.”
Also championing Argentina’s white wines is Matias Riccitelli, who only began producing white wines five years ago as it was only then that he felt Argentina had developed its knowledge of terroir and higher altitude sites to a point where the production of higher end white wines was possible. In May he will release his first Uco Valley white blend, Blanca de Casa 2016, made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc from Gualtallary, Semillon from La Consulta and Chardonnay from Las Carreras and aged for nine months on its lees in concrete eggs.
“Some wineries are making beautiful whites so I feel that now, with the new areas, we can keep more of the freshness and obtain more quality white wines,” he said. “The problem with Argentina’s white wines in the past was that after two or three years in the bottle they were dead – very low acidity, no expression and very boring wines. My objective with whites in Argentina in Mendoza is try to find the best places that we can keep this freshness naturally. I don’t add any tartaric acid to our white wines.”
As well as his projects in Mendoza, Riccitelli is also making a Semillon in Patagonia from 50-year-old vines in Rio Negro, citing its low rainfall, cooler climate, low yields and stony soils as contributing factors to the production of wines with natural acidity, freshness and intensity of flavours.
Also on pour was a 100% Chardonnay from grapes grown in the Uco Valley (80% Gualtallary and 20% Las Consulta) – 60% fermented in barrel and 40% in concrete eggs – for which Riccitelli recommends an ageing period of six years.
Then it was onto Catena Zapata’s winery in Agrelo, in the Lujan de Cuyo, to find out about Argentina’s fine wine mission, which for Catena centres around wines produced from its Adrianna vineyard in Gualtallary in the Uco Valley. Described by Catena as “South America’s Grand Cru vineyard”, Adrianna was planted in 1992 by Nicolas Catena at an altitude of nearly 1500 masl. It wasn’t until 2004 that Laura Catena began work to identify individual parcels within Adrianna, resulting in the demarcation of 11 soil-specific lots.
Winemaker Ernesto Bajda walked us through five of the wines produced at Adrianna, including its River Stones, Fortuna Terrae and Bacillus Terrae Malbec, produced from specific lots based on their soil types. However the standout of the tasting for me was its two flagship white Chardonnays – White Bones and White Stones.
While White Stones is made from grapes grown on a former river bed, heavy with stones, White Bones is made from grapes grown on ancient soils, that pre-date even the Andes, rich in calcium carbonate, limestone and organisms from the ocean. The difference in the wine was evident, despite the two, two hectares plots being positioned directly next to each other. “That made us realise how important is was to study each particular place were we found a difference in the wines,” said Bajda.
I also caught up with Achaval Ferrer, founded in 1998, which in 2011 received 99 points from Robert Parker for its 2009 Altamira Malbec – the highest score ever achieved by a South American wine at the time. For Julio Lasmartres, marketing director of Achaval Ferrer, proving the ability of their wines to age is the biggest hurdle to establishing Argentina as fine wine prospect.
“Where we are now, in terms of fine wine, in the minds of people in the press and some people in the trade consumers are starting to recognise that Argentina has the potential, but for the main market it’s still known as a place for good wines and great value, so that’s the mould that we have to break,” he said.
Looking suave, Lorenzo Pasquini, technical manager of Cheval Blanc’s Argentine venture, Cheval des Andes, talked db through back vintages of Cheval des Andes, including the 2002 and 2008, made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot from vineyards in Las Compuertas, Lujan de Cuyo, in central Mendoza. Often described as a “New World Cru”, Cheval des Andes was founded in 1999 and is a collaboration between Terrazas de los Andes and Pierre Lurton of Bordeaux’s Cheval Blanc.
“We are making wines that can travel through time and that show the attributes of a great wine of the world,” said Pasquini. “It’s very important to show back vintages and to show agebility and release back vintages. The potential for Argentina to be perceived on the same scale as Bordeaux or Burgundy, where you can collect and store a wine, is huge.”
Journeying further into Agrelo, we arrived at Rosell Boher Lodge, an ambitious tourism project, which is attached to the Rosell Boher label, which produces traditional method Argentine sparkling wine. Upping Argentina’s wine tourism game, the brand new complex comprises a spectacular main guesthouse surrounded by vineyards and mountain views and three independent villas, with each boasting its own wine cellar and private terrace.
Rosell Boher produces predominantly traditional method sparkling wines from grapes grown at 1300 masl in the Uco Valley. The original Rosell Boher estate was founded in 1900 by Bernardo Martínez, Alejandro Martínez’ grandfather, and was about to be demolished but was recovered in 1999. Its top cuvée is its Grand Cuvée 70 Meses, made from a blend of 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay and aged on its lees for 70 months. Here I am enjoying a glass of fizz with the director of Rosell Boher, Alejandro Martinez.
Herve Birnie-Scott, estate director of Chandon Argentina, part of the LVMH Group, shows off Chandon’s latest innovation – Chandon Delice. The semi-sweet sparkler, intended to be served with ice and accompaniments such as cucumber, grapefruit peel and basil, is a blend of late harvest Semillon and Petit Manseng.
Argentine sparkling winemaking legend Pedro Rosell presents a very lucky db with a bottle of Cruzat Millésime 2006. Trained as an oenologist and biologist in Mendoza and Bordeaux, Pedro is head winemaker, co-founder and co-owner of Cruzat, which focuses entirely on making sparkling wine according to the Methóde Champenoise. He has been working in the sparkling wine industry in Argentina since 1978.
A real treat – brimming with autolytic notes on the nose of bread, yeast, hazelnuts, and a hint of honey, which follow through on the palate with a refreshing zip of lemon and green apple. A traditional method sparkler that had spent four years on its less and seven in bottle.
Then it was onto Altamira in the Uco to check out Famila Zuccardi’s brand new winery, and inspect some of its stony sub soils with winemaker Sebastian Zuccardi.
The family’s new winery in Altamira stands at 1100 masl with its surrounding vineyards planted in 2007. The vineyard, which produced its first wines 2008, was named Piedra Infinita “Infinite Stones”, due to the necessary removal of 1,000 truck loads of stones prior to its cultivation. The soil itself remains heavy with stones, which are typically covered in a calcareous white layer, and a high proportion of chalk and granite. “For us this is one of the key to the place,” says Zuccardi. “I believe that the chalk came from the Andes and gives the wine more texture.”
The winery itself opened in March 2016 and is made entirely from materials found in its natural environment, largely concrete and stone. The winery itself houses 150 concrete vats – made up of 2,000 litre eggs, 3,000 litre round-shaped concrete vats, and a number of 5,000 and 7,000 litre conical concrete vats. Zucarrdi limits his use of oak, preferring the wines to speak for themselves without the addition of an oak character. Of the wine he does age in barrel, he is moving toward the use of larger foudres.
Cabernet Sauvignon receiving a pump over, with juice taken from the bottom of the tank and poured over the top to wet the cap. This gentler style of cap management is preferred by Zuccardi, as it results in less extraction and softer wines.
Marcos Fernandez, head winemaker at Dona Paula, enlightened db as to one of the more niche varieties cultivated in Argentina, Casavecchia – an Italian black grape used to produce its high altitude 1350 in Gualtallary. Dona Paula is the only Argentine winery working with the variety, having planted five hectares of the grape.
Dona Paula’s 1350 is a blend of 5% Casavecchia, 50% Cabernet Franc and 45% Malbec. “When we planted that five hectares we increase the total surface area of Casavecchia in the world by 10%,” said Fernandez. “There’s only 50 hectares in the world. We are extremely happy with it. In Lujan it didn’t work, but in Gualtallary we are very happy with it. In lower, warmer locations it is a regular wine, but in high altitude and stony soils its beautiful tannic structure style of wine.”
Juan Pablo Michelini, of trailblazing winemaking outfit Zorzal, tucks into a caveman-like cut of meat, proving the Argentine’s love of beef while representing Gualtallary via his choice of t-shirt.
Zorzal’s range of single varietal Eggo wines, made in concrete eggs, began with Malbec in 2012. “The idea was to make the same Malbec from the same vineyard in an egg, in stainless steel and in barrel and in a couple of months hold a blind tasting,” explained Juan. “Everyone chose the one made in the egg. It had more character, texture, expression and more finesse. It was very impressive for us that we decided to create a new line called Eggo.”
Eggo now comprises five single varietal wines: Bonarda, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Cab Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.
Umbrellas at the ready – Sebastian Zuccardi and Juan Pablo Michelini. See, its not all sunshine in Mendoza, despite its reputation as a desert. Being a brit it was bound to rain during my time there.
From Altamira it was back to the Lujan de Cuyo and onto Bodega Lagarde, one of the oldest wineries in Mendoza having been built in 1987. db was very happy to be presented with this perfectly formed empanada on arrival, made on spec by its chef, after learning that db had been in Argentina for four days and was yet to sample one.
Among its many treasures, Bodega Lagarde has a a plot of Malbec and Semillon vines in Lujan de Cujo that were planted in 1897, making them some of the oldest in Mendoza, alongside newly planted vineyards in Gualtallary in the Uco Valley. “We are an old winery but I like to thinks with a fresh view and an innovative future because i think that the only way you can sustain yourself in this business, by maintaining your identity but always looking towards the future and doing something new,” said Sophia Lagarde, who now runs the winery with her sister Lucilla.
Keen to put food up front with wine, Bodega Lagarde opened its Fogon restaurant around six years ago, helping to prove that Argentina cuisine is far more than Asado and beef steak. This was its chef’s take on the tomato, three ways: whipped into a sorbet, as a soup and with goats cheese….
……was was followed by goat two ways, roasted with a red wine jus on the left, and encased as a nutty croquette on the right.
Our final stop saw us look north of Mendoza toward San Juan, and the promising high altitude hot spot of Pedernal – tipped by some as the ‘Uco Valley’ of San Juan. It is home to several grape growing regions including of Tulum, Ullum and Zonda. However the Pedernal Valley is its most revered, producing cool climate wines at altitudes of between 1250 to 1500 masl, rivalling the highest cultivated parts of the Uco Valley’s northern sub region of Tupungato (which comprises Gualtallary and Altamira) in terms of its altitude. Today, the region is almost entirely planted out at 850 hectares.
Recognised as an official GI since 2007, the Valle de Pedernal benefits from a cool, continental climate and year-round sun, resulting typically in thicker grape skins, concentration of flavours and natural acidity, giving their wines the potential to age, its producers believe.
“When people say what is Pedernal like, the first word that comes to mind is “extreme” – in a good way. It’s a very marginal terroir,” said Ignacio Lopez, chief winemaker of Graffigna Wines, part of Pernod Ricard. “It’s really challenging to produce grapes there because of the frost and hail. It’s a very extreme terroir and in my opinion that translates in the wines – extreme terroirs produce extreme wines. The potential of the area is incredible. So many wineries are looking to Pedernal and we have to understand and learn more about this region.”
The bright lights of Mendoza. Until next time!