In Focus: Mendoza

  • Wednesday 13 July 2005

Argentina’s Mendoza region, high in the foothills of the Andes, is the source of three quarters of the country’s wines, and has been at the forefront of major improvements over the last 10–15 years. ANTHONY ROSE visits.

On my last trip to Argentina in 2002, devaluation had so drastically curtailed the value of the peso that the bulging pound in my pocket made me feel as wealthy as the Marquis of Mendoza. This year, the pretty provincial capital was its same bustling self, but the wine industry had weathered the wobble and was marching onwards, and – as it sits in the foothills of the Andes – upwards. ‘Devaluation came as a shock and it wasn’t good for the country, but it was good for our wines,’ says Nicolás Catena, head of Argentina’s leading wine company. Making wine in Argentina costs seven to 10 times less than in Europe, so it was little surprise to see both outsiders and wealthy locals capitalising on Andean paydirt.

Mendoza is the centre of a wine culture stretching back to the Spanish settlers of the 16th century. The modern industry didn’t get under way until the mid-19th century, with an expansion of manmade irrigation channels and the importation of French varieties, including the first Malbec by the French botanist, Miguel Aimé Pouget. Successive waves of European settlers established a blueprint for a surprising diversity of wine styles based on French, Italian and Spanish varieties. Wine consumption grew with increased prosperity in the 20th century, but it came to grief on the jagged rock of General Juan Domingo Perón’s regime in the mid-1950s. The wine industry spiralled into decline and failed to get back on its feet until the 1990s.

Mendoza today, with its 140,000ha (hectares) of vineyards, accounts for around three-quarters of the country’s wines, but only 3% of the surrounding arid scrub is cultivated. In its uniquely high, sunny mountain location, irrigation is the lifeblood of its high, semi-desert vineyards of sand and clay/loam over gravel, limestone, and clay.

In the bad old 1970s, traditional flood and furrow irrigation fuelled enormous yields from vines grown on the high trellis. Today’s more yield-conscious industry is converting to drip irrigation, although carefully controlled flooding still has its supporters. One good reason is that flooding has kept phylloxera at bay, so all new drip-irrigated vineyards need to be planted using more expensive, resistant American rootstocks.

Thanks to the change in mentality from ‘the more the merrier’, cooler locations at higher altitude are now routinely sought. At higher altitudes, more intense sunlight and broader day/night temperature variations lead to better ripening and balance. New premium plantings are often at higher densities. According to Nicolás Catena: ‘Firstly you need to be able to control water. Secondly, you have to know about temperature variations to manage your canopy and that means understanding sunlight intensity.’

Picking on taste and sorting good from bad have become the norm, as overseas consultants like California’s Paul Hobbs, France’s Michel Rolland and Italy’s Alberto Antonini continue to spread the gospel of flavour ripeness.

Despite the uprooting of much of the old Malbec during the white wine boom of the 1970s, the 10,000-odd ha that remained – many in Luján de Cuyo’s Mendoza river locations – formed the bedrock of further plantings of a variety that produces a softer, riper and more perfumed style of red than back in its original French homeland of Cahors.

The Italian varieties Bonarda, Barbera and Sangiovese are now recognised as capable of making good everyday reds. A handful of producers, notably O Fournier and Familia Zuccardi, are even hanging their premium wine fedoras on Spain’s Tempranillo. Given its internationally accepted status, Cabernet Sauvignon is also important, and to an increasing extent Merlot and Syrah. In whites, progress has been made with Chardonnay, notably at Terrazas and Catena, while Doña Paula’s impressive Sauvignon Blanc is a breakthrough for the variety.

The Valle de Uco, south of Luján de Cuyo, is becoming an increasingly important quality destination. The sunlight is intense here, the roadside rocket as hot as the high-altitude vineyards (at 900–1,250m) are cool. One study has found that grapes grown at higher altitudes also enjoy more ultraviolet light, thus producing more antioxidants. But, ‘it’s not always a question of highest is best,’ says Roberto de la Mota, Terrazas winemaker. He believes that in vineyards over 1,200m, it is not always easy to achieve full ripeness. In the mid-1990s, the Lurton brothers, Jacques and François, set out their stall at Vista Flores near Tunuyán. Close by is the location for Clos de los Siete, Michel Rolland’s project and his own wine Val de Flores, not to mention Salentein and O Fournier, respectively Dutch and Spanish investments, as well as San Pedro’s Finca La Celia and Santa Rita’s Doña Paula.

Mendoza’s new hi-tech facilities are a far cry from the days when the definition of quality was based on traditional Italian and Spanish oxidation. Catena led the way in 1990, following Napa, Bordeaux and Burgundy by introducing longer macerations for reds and barrel fermentation for Chardonnay, while new oak barrels replaced large oak vats. In tandem with a growing feeling that yields had to be better controlled, foreign winemakers and consultants like Jacques Lurton, Attilio Paglia and Paul Hobbs brought the experience of their own countries to bear with such developments as early harvesting of whites for freshness and later harvesting of reds for better ripening. Gravity-flow is everywhere and the more canny foreign investors have drawn on the invaluable resource of local expertise. The ubiquitous presence of the French, particularly the savvy Bordelais, has brought with it not just a boost in prestige, but also the varied palette of blending.

Times have changed since overseas investors flooded in on the promise of a new El Dorado. It was a gold standard established by Bodega Chandon, the biggest seller of fizz on the local market. The most recent wave of foreign investment has it sights set on exports. The locals too have had to get their act together and strengthen their brands.

A more outgoing mentality better geared to the market has led to the growth of reliable brands such as Argento, Santa Julia and Norton – these may not yet be close to the volumes of a Jacob’s Creek or Kumala, but they are fresh signs of a willingness to listen. Equally significant is the appearance of a handful of icon wines. Not all of these are as convincing as their producers may make out, but the ‘halo effect’ of such wines as the Lurtons’ Chacayes, Achaval Ferrer’s Altamira, Terrazas-Cheval Blanc’s Cheval de los Andes, and Michel Rolland’s Val de Flores illuminates the vinous landscape like God’s fingers poking through the clouds.

Key Players

Catena

Before the 1990s, Malbec was so mired in the melting pot of Argentinian plonk that when it became more profitable to plant potatoes, most growers opted for the spud. So when Nicolás Catena’s father insisted he do something with Malbec, it was natural that Catena should baulk at the idea. ‘My perception of Malbec was of an extremely oxidised wine,’ he says. ‘But since my father, Domingo, insisted I do something with Malbec, I said, “Okay, to please him, I’ll give this crazy varietal a go.”’

As a convert to the virtues of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay after visiting California, it was a decision not taken lightly, but 1996 proved a watershed vintage. In nearly a decade since, he has surprised the world, and perhaps himself even more, with the quality of Argentina’s Malbec. What makes the Catena group so key is not just the will to experiment – with clones, blending and variation in altitudes – but a business sense embracing both the commercial and high quality ends of the market.

Familia Zuccardi

José Alberto Zuccardi would probably admit that he is more commercially minded than Nicolás Catena, but Argentina’s most effective wine ambassador is equally open to new ideas and experimentation in the vineyard. The normally dapper Zuccardi recently sported a beard after a two-week climb of the Americas’ highest mountain, Aconcagua – just the sort of challenge he relishes. A firm proponent of the parral system of vine trellising, this tireless champion of experimental varieties and organic vineyards has built on his father’s establishment of the La Agricola winery since taking over in 1985 to create one of Argentina’s leading brands in Santa Julia. Not content with being stuck in the under-£10 market, even for his excellent value ‘Q’ range, Zuccardi’s new, top-of-the-range Malbec-Tempranillo blend Zeta is about to be launched.

Bodega Lurton

Jacques and François Lurton (left) started making wine in Argentina in 1992, purchasing their 225ha green-field site at Vista Flores five years later when their father André blessed the gravelly patch of earth as suitably Graves-like terrain. Today, expansion is under way with a new barrel cellar and an ultra-modern liquid bath sorting machine for higher-end reds. With feet in both camps of Chile and Argentina, the two are well placed to assess the relative merits of the neighbouring countries’ vineyards and they are convinced that Argentinian terroir has the edge. Like Catena, the Lurtons are converts to Malbec as uniquely Argentinian, which is why Chacayes, their ultra-premium Malbec-based blend, has only 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, compared with the larger proportions in such new icons as Terrazas-Cheval Blanc’s Cheval des Andes (56%) and Catena’s own Catena Zapata (over 50%).

Michel Rolland & Clos de los Siete

Amid the flurry of new faces in Mendoza, Michel Rolland is a relatively old hand. He first arrived in the country in 1988 and consulted to various wineries before hatching a cunning plan, with Philippe Schell and the late Jean-Michel Arcaute, to establish Clos de Los Siete. To see is to believe, and the first sight of the Mad Max-like fortifications set in an 850ha expanse of the majestic Andean plain, is eerily breathtaking. The original aim of building seven wineries has been scaled down to three, or perhaps four, as and when Michel Rolland gets round to building his own. The significance of Clos de los Siete lies in its ambitious aim of establishing a big-volume brand selling at £10 a bottle and the tremendous boost it will give to the industry. Rolland himself has first say on the grapes he wants for the Malbec-based blend, after which the owners of Monteviejo, Flechas de los Andes and Cuvelier los Andes are free to make their own wine.

Trapiche

Based at Maipù in Mendoza, Trapiche is a subsidiary of Peñaflor, one of Argentina’s largest wine producers and owner of San Juan brand Finca Las Moras. Founded in 1923 by Tiburcio Benegas, one of the key figures in the industry who brought French varieties and winemaking techniques to Argentina, Trapiche has some 1,000ha of vineyards planted throughout Mendoza and a gravity-fed winery at Coquimbito. From 1978, Trapiche developed an extensive range of wines including The Falling Star, Oak Cask, Broquel and Fond de Cave ranges under the watchful eye of the legendary Angél Mendoza. Since 2002, when Daniel Pi took over as chief winemaker and head of vineyard management, the emphasis has been on producing wines with a more international taste profile and realising the potential of the grapes and terroir.

The Investors

In addition to wealthy national investors, foreigners in search of an Argentinian El Dorado have sunk considerable funds into Mendoza’s vineyards. Moët et Chandon was among the first, in 1959, to see the advantages of selling fizz to the locals. Then along came the Swarovski family at Norton, Brazil’s Bernardo Weinert, followed by Dutch company Salentein, Italy’s Altos los Hormigas, Spain’s Septima and O Fournier, and French investors like Hervé and Diane Joyaux at Fabre Montmayou and Chandon’s own new high-quality arm, Terrazas.

The Home Team

Despite the considerable amount of overseas investment in the Argentinian wine industry, the traditional family company remains an integral part of the industry, even if so many, like Tittarelli, Santa Ana, Nieto y Senetiner and Navarro Correas, not to mention Trapiche itself, have succumbed to the lure of national and international interests. Examples of the traditional family company remain, from quality operations like Luigi Bosca in Luján de Cuyo to Valentin Bianchi in the San Rafael sub-region.

New Faces

Poesia

At Postales y Plata Poesia is listed under the unpromising heading Vinos Tintos Genéricos, but Vinos Especiales would have been more apt as it was especial enough for me to track down the owner and winemaker, Patrice Lévêque. He and his wife, Hélène Garcin, were among the seven original investors in Clos de los Siete but went their own way as ‘the project was too big for them’.

Working with Marcelo Casazza, former viticulturalist at Salentein, they created Poesia (first vintage in 2001) from a 10ha vineyard of old-vine Malbec planted in 1938 and 30-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon in Luján de Cuyo. The ultra-stylish blend is 70% Malbec and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Lévêque loves Malbec as a variety and feels the Cabernet adds complexity and longevity to the blend.

Clos de los Siete

Clos de los Siete is a project of such epic proportions that a brief description is like trying to distil the works of Molière onto a page of A4. Essentially, the venture involved the bringing together of some of France’s wealthiest wine entrepreneurs under not one roof, but seven, with the primary objective of creating a 3-million bottle, £10 Malbec-based blend. The majestic location is a rocky 850ha expanse of permeable vineyard located at 1,100m within sight of the snow-capped Andes at Vista Flores in the Uco Valley.

Despite the otherwordly setting, there’s nothing extra-terrestrial about Michel and his wealthy friends. While not all the original investors remain in the $50m project, the three key players today, Michel Rolland apart, are Catherine Péré-Vergé, Lauren Dassault of Château Dassault and Benjamin Rothschild of Château Clarke.

Pulenta Estate

Pulenta Estate, not to be confused with Carlos Pulenta, another brother, belongs to brothers Hugo and Eduardo. In 1991, using drip irrigation imported from Israel, their father Antonio planted 135ha at 1,000m above sea level in Alto Agrelo and the grapes were initially sold to Trapiche. They also have access to 350ha planted in the Valle de Uco.

Most of the grapes are sold to other wineries, but the first vintage

of Pulenta Estate was made in 2002 and the final stage of the new winery construction completed last year. The strength of the estate lies in its red wines, primarily from Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The best wines at the moment are a stylish Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon blend and the excellent Malbec itself, a vineyard selection of the best Malbec grapes.

Pascual Toso

With 268ha of its own and 1,500ha under contract, Pascual Toso is the biggest domestic fizz producer after Chandon. Realising it had too many eggs in a declining domestic market, this traditional Mendoza company, owned by the Argentinian Llorente group, invested in new equipment and took on Californian viticulturalist Paul Hobbs as a consultant in 2000.

Paul Hobbs has helped reduce yields, selecting grapes in the vineyard and waiting for physiological ripeness rather than sugar ripeness alone. The result is that the Toso wines designed for export are much more approachable, and are in a far better position today to deliver the sort of value-for-money styles overseas consumers are looking for.

Alta Vista

Founded by the late Jean-Michel Arcaute, with François d’Aulan of Champagne Piper Heidsieck, in 1997, Alta Vista was originally supposed to be one of Rolland’s ‘magnificent seven’ in Clos de los Siete. But after Arcaute’s untimely death, Alta Vista, under the Edonia umbrella, decided to concentrate on its own brand. It retains its 65ha at Vista Flores and also owns 75ha of free-draining, loamy vineyards at Las Compuertas and Agrelo in Luján de Cuyo, as well as 1,000ha of virgin land at Cafayate in the north.

Although the traditional brick pillar and arch winery dates back to 1890, production is ultra-modern, aiming for low yields and flavour ripeness. For its top wines, Alta Vista is developing the concept of single vineyard and terroir selection wines.

Best New Releases

Cheval des Andes 2002

A Bordeaux-meets-the-Andes blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and a dash of Petit Verdot, this Cheval Blanc-Terrazas joint venture red exhibits stylish, cedary new oak aromas, intense, rich, cassis and blackberry opulence. 2008–20. £35–38, MHe

Val de Flores, Malbec 2003

Michel Rolland’s ‘baby’ from 10ha of 50-year-old Malbec vines at Val de Flores is a seductive, spicily perfumed Malbec with rich blackberry complemented by seamless oak and tannic finesse. 2007–18. N/A UK; +33 5 57 51 23 05

Catena Alta, Malbec 2001

With an increasing amount of fruit from cooler areas, Catena’s top-of-the range Malbec displays elegant mulberry and plum fruitiness with tobacco spices and finesse. Up to 2010. £25; Wai

Chacayes 2002

Bodega Lurton’s new blend of Malbec with a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon is intensely flavoured with liquorice spice and powerful mulberry and plum fruitiness. 2007–15. £34.95; Rbs

Nicolás Catena Zapata 2001

Catena’s top blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec displays Napa-like mint on the nose combining elegantly restrained Cabernet cassis with homely Malbec juiciness. £50; Bib

O Fournier, A Crux 2001

This stylish, richly concentrated Tempranillo-based blend is rich in black fruit flavours, spicy oak and fine-grained tannins. £17.95; DBy, SHJ, Wmb, You

O Fournier, B Crux 2001

This is a spicy, opulent Tempranillo-based blend of red berry flavours with seamless oak and acidity. Up to 2010. £11; DBy, NoI, Wmb, You

Poesia 2002

A finely crafted blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon with a nose of vanilla and black fruits and a dense core of cassis fruit. 2007–18. £354/case; Gns

Bodega Lurton, Piedra Negra Malbec 2002

Pure expression of Malbec, with damson and mulberry fruit and seamless notes of herb in a smooth-textured whole. Up to 2010. £18.95; EdS, Rbs, Tan

Fabre Montmayou, Malbec 2001

This Malbec from Hervé and Diane Joyaux has settled into its elegant stride with smooth plum fruit and spicy oak in perfect equilibrium. Up to 2008. N/A UK; +54 261 498 2330.

Pulenta Estate, Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon 2002

Exciting new blend with ripe dark fruit flavours, excellent weight and finesse. Up to 2010. £15; BBR

Best Value £10 & under

Bodega Lurton, Reserva Chardonnay 2004

A complex, smoky nose with attractive tropical fruit flavours of peach and pineapple and a touch of butterscotch in a balanced overall package. £8; Rbs

Catena Mendoza, Chardonnay 2003

The oak has been toned down on this ripe, opulent chardonnay from Catena, whose buttery-rich fruit delivers both intense flavour, complexity and freshness. £9.99; Wai

Doña Paula, Sauvignon Blanc 2004

The most convincing Sauvignon from Argentina yet, this is a pungently herbal New Zealand-style dry white full of intense, gooseberryish tropical fruit. £5.99; BWC

Finca Las Higueras, Pinot Gris, Mendoza 2004

This is a spicy, full-flavoured peachy dry Uco Valley white from the Lurton brothers’ flecked with honey and balanced by a twist of refreshing piquancy. £4.75; Wai

Terazzas, Reserva Chardonnay 2004

This is a refreshing, tropical fruit Chardonnay with a veneer of lightly toasted oak and pineappley fruit with added some complexity from barrel-fermentation. £9.49; Sel

Clos de los Siete 2003

A blend of Malbec with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, the second vintage from Michel Rolland displays enticing, spicy aromas with opulent blackberry fruit and a smooth sheen of oak. £9.99; Maj, Odd

Alta Vista, Terroir Selection, Malbec Grande Reserve 2003

A blend of four vineyards, this ‘terroir selection’ is rich, intensely flavoured and spicy with a bittersweet chocolate character. 2006–12. £10; L&W

Famiglia Bianchi, Malbec,

San Rafael 2003

From the Bianchi family vineyards, this is a bright, cherry, raspberryish Malbec with a summer pudding nip of acidity and easy, approachable tannins. £8; SVS

Norton, Barbera 2002

Showing what excellent everyday drinking Argentinian Barbera is capable of, this juicy mulberry and rhubarby red is full of the joys of summer drinking. £4.99; Wai

Zuccardi, Q, Tempranillo xxxx

This displays aromas of smoky oak

with an underlying palate of chocolatey ripe, strawberryish fruit complemented by a nip of acidity and smooth tannins. £9.99; Tes

MENDOZA Vintages: a guide

2005: Early days yet, but a fairly cool summer despite a few hailstorms around

mid-February augurs well for a vintage of good colour and acidity.

2004: A good to very good vintage, dry till the end of March, although with slightly lower temperatures than normal helping to slow down the ripening process.

2003: A very dry and warm summer combined with a cool autumn has produced many excellent ageworthy reds often with more concentration than in 2002 and good whites

2002: A very good vintage with a long, cool ripening period producing consistently good reds across the board. The best will keep for 10 years plus.

2001: An average to good year with extensive hail damage and March rains, overall, better for whites than reds. Drink now.

2000: A good vintage with cool conditions, March rains vintage and a bad year for hail with varying results. Drink now and keep the top reds for 5 years.

1999: An average vintage for both reds and whites, although the hot summer helped produce some good wines in both categories. Drink now.

1998: The El Niño year with storms and unnatural quantities of rain played havoc with both reds and whites. Past it.

1997: A very good year for both reds and whites. Drink now.

1996: An average to very good year for both reds and whites. Drink now.

1995: A fine year, one of the best of the nineties decade. Drink now and keep the top reds for up to five years.

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