Jose Manuel Ortega - Decanter interview

  • Wednesday 30 May 2007

Leaving Goldman Sachs to plant vines in Mendoza shows what the Spanish call cajones. But the owner of super-ambitious Argentinian winery O Fournier tells Stephen Brook it’s just Latin sense of adventure

Leaving Goldman Sachs to plant vines in Mendoza shows what the Spanish call cajones. But the owner of super-ambitious Argentinian winery O Fournier tells Stephen Brook it’s just Latin sense of adventure.

Although now resident in Mendoza, Argentina, José Manuel Ortega is a Spaniard. So I should have realised our appointment might be somewhat improvisational. After delays on both our parts, he began showing me around his property just before 7pm, and we began tasting his wines at eight, which he considered quite normal – I suppose it is for a Spaniard, this being shortly after lunch. We met again for dinner, at the estate restaurant, at 10pm. ‘Not too early for you?’ he asked. And he wasn’t being ironic.

Short, dark and bearded, Ortega is a bundle of energy, despite having three small children. Like many men of his age (40 next year), he decided on a mid-life career change. Unlike most such men, he has made a huge success of it. He comes from a family of lithographers who set up shop in Burgos in 1782. A century later they enjoyed a near monopoly as playing card manufacturers, and Fournier became a household name in Spain, which is why he chose to name his winery Fournier rather than Ortega. The lithography company was sold in the 1980s. Young José Manuel went to Pennsylvania to study, and soon after graduating, landed a rewarding job at Goldman Sachs.

‘During that time I also did my military service in Spain. So I spent some months as a humble soldier, and then a week later I was handling enormous budgets. After 1995, I ran South American investments for Banco Santander in Madrid.’

I ask him whether there were any memorable bottles bought on huge bonuses that had planted the idea of founding his own estates. The reply is far from romantic.

‘I wasn’t much of a wine drinker back then. I first got into wine as an investment. Collectors of top Bordeaux were doing well, so I started buying and cellaring top Spanish wines such as Vega Sicilia, Janus from Pesquera, and L’Ermita from Priorat. Then I started visiting wineries to source more wines. During my travels I got to know people in Argentina who knew I was thinking of getting into the wine business. I looked at various propositions there and eventually heard about what is now my property. This part of the Valle de Uco in southern Mendoza was already becoming one of the most desirable wine regions in Argentina. The local real estate guy tried to cheat me by asking double the price at which he was advertising the property – some locals hear my Spanish accent and think I must be a fool. So I went directly to the owner and made the deal.

‘That was in 2000. The vines once planted at this property had been ripped out in the 1980s and replaced by tomatoes. I tested the water wells, which were excellent, restored the abandoned houses, and planted vines again, including the only bush vines in South America. We used rented winery facilities until my own winery was ready in 2003.’

And what a winery. From a distance it looks as though a flying saucer had landed on concrete pods in the middle of scrubland and vines. Indeed, the roof is a 43-square-metre steel slab resting on four stubby concrete pillars, linked by glass-walled office areas, with the winery itself on four storeys below. The design is made even more dramatic by two ramps that sweep up to the glass offices on both sides, and the cumulative effect is remarkably beautiful. The gravity-operated facility is mostly underground, and the vast, hushed, concrete-walled barrel cellar is 50 feet below the plaza next to the winery.

Ortega chose his architects wisely: they had already designed the equally handsome, if very different, wineries for Carlos Pulenta and Salentein in Mendoza. ‘I needed the winery to be functional as well as beautiful, so my winemaker José Spisso had a large say in its design.’

Despite the investment and commitment, O Fournier got off to a rocky start. In 2004, frost wiped out most of the crop, and, in 2005, the harsh sonda mountain wind sandpapered the vines. Thus 2006 was the first wholly successful vintage here, and the first crop from the bush vines. And although Mendoza is largely free of disease, Ortega found his vines repeatedly munched over by ants, so he employs two people just to find and destroy the nests.

‘While waiting for my bush vines to mature I bought fruit from local growers. It’s also a kind of insurance. There are risks of hail and frost and it makes sense to spread the risk by buying from different areas. But my 17 growers are within 15 miles of the winery. I pay not by the tonne but by the hectare – which was almost unheard of in those days – so that I can control the farming. We set a likely harvest date and if by that date Spisso and I decide the vines need more hang-time, I assume all the risk. If thereafter the crop gets wiped out by hail, I must pay the farmer in full. In other words, I treat my growers exceptionally well. This means we made really good wines from the outset in 2001.

‘My other innovation was in planting Tempranillo. It’s been in Argentina for more than two centuries, but was never considered good enough to be bottled as fine wine, so it was always sold in bulk. The same was true of Bonarda. From the late 1980s, the regulations changed and producers were allowed to bottle it. Today there are about 30 versions on the market. Tempranillo gives different results in Argentina.In Spain, where I have an estate called Spiga producing Ribera del Duero, it has smaller berries, lower yields, more finesse, less alcohol, more acidity – at least in the higher area where Spiga is located.’

Ortega admits he is primarily a businessman. But his commitment to quality is uncompromising. The winery also houses a micro-winery, where Spisso conducts experiments on similar lots cropped at different yields.

‘We’re also comparing varying degrees of water stress, as we’d like to irrigate more as a way of lowering alcohol in the finished wines.

‘I know little about the technical side of the business, so I hire the best. Spisso has been with me from the start and oversees both my properties. I set the goals and sell the wines, and I expect my team to produce the styles of wine I know I can sell. Still, it was very hard at first and I had to knock on doors and have them shut in my face as I tried to sell my wines. But these days we’re in lots of countries.’

O Fournier’s top range is called Alfa Crux (a reference to stars in the Southern Cross), mostly Tempranillo with some Malbec and Merlot, aged in new oak, of which about 20% is American. Rather confusingly, there is also a pure Malbec Alfa Crux, made from 65-year-old vines. The second wine is B-Crux, a similar blend but aged in considerably less new oak. There is also a delicious B-Crux Sauvignon Blanc. The finest wine of any vintage is bottled separately and labelled simply O Fournier: it is usually a Syrah from old vines grafted over to the variety 10 years ago. Finally, there is a line of inexpensive wines called Urban, each variety carrying on the label a different photograph of a townscape. The Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo, and Malbec are excellent value. The Fournier style, at least for A-Crux, is quite powerful and extracted, yet never unbalanced or overbearing; these are wines built to last.

Ortega now has 60 hectares in Ribera del Duero and almost 100ha in Mendoza, but he is only just getting started. In January 2007 he leased a winery in Maule in Chile, and contracted old-vine Cabernet and Merlot from the same area, as well as Sauvignon Blanc from Leyda. ‘I hired Yanira Maldonado, who made the wines at Tabali, as winemaker. My goal is to have 1.5 million bottles from five areas.’

He has also built, next to the winery, a handsome glass cube of a restaurant, run by his wife, and has plans for small luxury resorts on all his properties. Like many men umbilically linked to their BlackBerry, he seems to have little difficulty juggling different enterprises simultaneously and his ambition, like his energy, appears limitless.

Ortega at a glance

Born: Burgos, Spain, 1968

Education: Economics and political science, University of Pennsylvania, 198

Family: Married with three childre

Second love: Scuba-divin

Dream vineyard: Napa Valle

He says: 'Wine is a way of life. I swapped a prestigious career for it, with no regrets.'

They say: ‘Candid, forthright, direct, focused, unreserved: all these describe both him and his wines. A Crux is certainly overtly oaked in its youth, but the 2001 was the most impressive wine of the whole recent Wines of Argentina awards’ [Beverley Blanning MW]

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