When four of Argentina’s leading producers travelled to Luxembourg to take part in a four-day festival, JOHN DOWNES MW took the opportunity to hear the stories behind their success, and to taste some of the country’s best wines

Argentina and Luxembourg may seem a strange marriage. Think of the pairing in vinous terms, though, and it starts to make sense. The Luxembourgeois love their wine, drink quality and are prepared to pay for it. The top Argentinians are producing world-class wine, including numerous innovative offshoots of traditionally French varieties. The equation provided an obvious synergy for Eric Baumgartner, food and beverage director of the five-star Le Royal hotel in the heart of Luxembourg city. Putting two and two together during a recent visit to Argentina he persuaded his four favourite producers to travel to Luxembourg and present their wines at his hotel. They jumped at the opportunity, and Luxembourg’s four-day Discover Argentinian Wines event was born.

The principle was simple. Each day one producer gave a presentation tasting that was the prelude to a food and wine-matching dinner prepared by German Martitegui, head chef at Buenos Aires’ Caesar’s Palace. Representatives from Catena Zapata, Bodegas y Cavas de Weinert, Terrazas and Yacochuya were the stars of the show, proudly pulling the corks.

BODEGAS CATENA ZAPATA

Argentina may be seen as new wave New World but Italian immigrant Nicola Catena planted his first vineyard in Mendoza back in 1902. The old boy was decades before his time when he claimed that, ‘Malbec could aspire to the heights of the best Bordeaux.’ Today, present owner and grandson Nicolas Catena finds himself sharing that dream.

The dream has come closer to being realised as time has revealed the best plots for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. ‘The terroir in Mendoza’s high-altitude wine country is unique,’ notes Catena. ‘The soils, the wide day–night temperature differentials, low humidity and sparse rainfall create the ideal conditions for distinctive, world-class wines.’

The majestic, snow-capped Andes provide the altitude slopes for vineyards that are now also eking out the best from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. ‘And we’re still scaling the Andes for cooler sites and taking them to the very limit of grape cultivation,’ adds Catena. ‘Tupungato, the highest vineyard in Mendoza, gives expressive aromatics and excellent natural acidity,’ adds vineyard director Alexandro Sejanovich. With multi-pass harvesting ensuring optimum ripeness, the result is harmonious wines with balanced sunshine fruit. What’s more, when these young vines mature, they can only get better.

Inspired by the quest for quality as well as Mayan architecture, Catena’s hi-tech winery was completed in 2001, in the heart of the Uxmal vineyards, way up at higher than 1,000m. ‘It’s all part of our contribution to putting our wines and those of Argentina among the best in the world,’ says Catena.

Catena Zapata’s new partnership with Bordeaux’s Baron Philippe de Rothschild (Lafite), to produce Caro, reflects Catena Zapata’s confidence in the future. A Cabernet-Malbec blend, it shows what Catena describes as ‘French elegance mixed with Latin passion’.

BODEGAS Y CAVAS DE WEINERT

Back in 1975, successful Brazilian businessman Bernardo Weinert told friends in São Paulo that he was going to Argentina to make high-quality wine. ‘They thought I was mad,’ he recalls.

With 40ha (hectares) of irrigated vineyard in Mendoza’s Luján de Cuyo region and long-term contracts with neighbouring vignerons to produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Weinert has since built a fine reputation. ‘My business philosophy has worked equally well with wine,’ he claims. ‘Plan the best, stay with the plan and make the best.’

Swiss winemaker Hubert Weber’s first vintage was in 1997, but Weinert came into the young Weber’s life long before that. ‘I remember tasting the Caras 1985 at home in Berne. It made a great impression on me. And now I’m

making an impression on Weinert.’

Weber has embraced Bernardo Weinert’s treasured traditional methods and is taking them to new heights. Bodegas Weinert’s soul lies in the vineyards of Luján de Cuyo. ‘We’re dedicated to Luján and are looking to get the best from these vineyards rather than relying on altitude,’ says Weber. ‘We have very old ungrafted vines and the exaggerated day-night temperature differentials give heightened aromas and flavours.’

Tradition also rules in the winery, where concrete tanks and large 6,000-litre oak maturation vats are the order of the day. ‘We ferment for 7–10 days but do not macerate the skins. Instead we press the skins while transferring the wine to another vat to complete the alcoholic fermentation and malolactic fermentation,’ Weber explains. Cool cellars then house the large French oak vats where the reds are aged for two to four years. Crisp, vibrant, elegant reds emerge. ‘Everybody’s moving towards the New World but we’re staying exactly where we are,’ Weber insists.

Bernardo Weinert’s daughter Iduna has recently picked up the family baton and, as marketing director, is running with it to all corners of the globe. All eyes are now on Weinert’s latest venture: ‘We were the first to plant Pinot Noir in the cool deep south and have been experimenting for 12 years,’ explains his daughter. ‘The wait will be worth it. We’ll soon produce a world-class Patagonian Pinot,’ she promises.

BODEGAS TERRAZAS

Moët & Chandon first spotted Argentina’s potential in the 1950s. In 1959, the firm built a winery at Aguelo, in Mendoza, from where its sparkling Chandon was successfully exported to various markets, including the UK.

Success breeds success and in 1999, Bodegas Terrazas was launched, with eyes firmly on the global still wine market. ‘We opted for a simple three-tier system,’ says president Margareth Henriquez, ‘with our Alta varietal range being followed by the Reservas and single-vineyard Gran Reservas, the latter only being produced in top vintages.’

Vineyard selection linked to strict yield control produces deep colours and intense concentrations of vibrant fruit. ‘Our philosophy is to plant each variety at the ideal altitude,’ says winemaker Roberto de la Mota. ‘Chardonnay at 1,200m above sea level, Malbec at 1,070m, Cabernet Sauvignon at 980m and Syrah at 870m.’

Cheval Blanc of St-Emilion fame doesn’t often miss a trick when it comes to making world-class wine, and its recent partnership with Bodegas Terrazas came as no surprise. The result is the super-premium Cheval des Andes.

The chosen estate is high up in Mendoza’s Tupungato region where 20ha of Cabernet Sauvignon and 16ha of Malbec is planted. ‘We also have 2ha of Petit Verdot and 5ha of Cabernet Franc that are soon to be planted,’ explains de la Mota. The hope is that Cheval des Andes will stand out for the subtlety of its blend, and a more Bordeaux-like style.’

Entering the market only four years ago, Bodegas Terrazas has already made its mark on the global wine scene. ‘Our exports have boomed over the last four years but we still have a long way to go,’ adds Henriquez. A long way maybe, but you can bet your bottom peso they’ll get there in a hurry.

YACOCHUYA

Travel the world’s vineyards and there’s one phrase that keeps cropping up: ‘Michel Rolland, the famous Bordeaux oenologist, is our consultant,’ owners say proudly. Michel Rolland does consult the world’s vineyards but mention Argentina to him and his oenologist wife Dany, and a warm smile follows. ‘For us, Argentina is a love story,’ she says.

Michel and Dany Rolland’s love affair with Argentina started in 1988 when Michel became consultant to Bodegas Etchart. ‘Through the Etchart family we discovered the warmth of the people, the country’s marvellous scenery, its climate, and of course its soils,’ notes Dany.

When the Etchart family sold its winery it looked like the end of the affair, until the Etcharts moved north to a tiny winery in the mountains of San Pedro de Yacochuya.

By 1998 the Rollands realised the potential of this small, 20ha vineyard with its old Malbec vines, breathtaking altitude, and unique climate. ‘The weather is magical for grapes,’ explains Dany. ‘Being just a few hundred metres south of the Tropic of Capricorn but at a heady altitude of 2,035m, the altitude balances the latitude perfectly.’

Blending international expertise with local tradition, the first vintage of Yacochuya appeared in 1999 – 25,000 bottles of a non-filtered, non-fined wine that was aged for 15 months in new French oak. ‘It has an opaque colour, a sensational bouquet of liquorice and spicy blueberry jam, a velvety texture on the palate, powerful tannins and a long finish,’ according to Rolland.

The Rollands fell in love again, recently, when they discovered new terroir in the south of Mendoza, at an 800ha ‘campo’ near the Great Cordillera. Through made-to-measure viticulture, the couple have moved into a completely different venture on a completely different scale. Their first wine, Clos de los Siete was produced in 2002. Very near to this vineyard, they found 20ha of old Malbec. ‘This is our ‘Val de Flores,’ Dany says, almost breathless.

It looks like the Rollands’ love affair with Argentina has only just started. With such

illustrious supporters, and such advantageous altitude, the only way is up.

Written by John Downes