PREMIUM

The Decanter Interview: Alejandro Sejanovich

Exploring higher elevations while at Catena Zapata led Alejandro Sejanovich to follow his own path in conquering some of the most challenging terroir in Argentina. Sorrel Moseley-Williams meets a viticulturist hooked on geographical diversity.

One day he’s tasting Malbec berries from Mendoza’s highest vineyard, the next he’s armed with a spade shovelling skins out of a stainless steel tank, naked from the waist up to cope with Mendoza’s intense summer heat. ‘I always lose weight during harvest,’ says Alejandro Sejanovich. ‘The vintage diet is the best!’

Sejanovich is co-owner, with Jeff Mausbach, of Manos Negras, and the Maipú-based winery’s name reflects the pair’s philosophy towards winemaking: getting down and dirty with a fearless, hands-on approach. And that’s not just in the cellar. Sejanovich’s passion for innovation has led him to scour Argentina in a quest to conquer challenging terroir and express viticulturally unexploited regions.

His stellar portfolio includes Manos Negras, Artesano Pinot Noir sourced from Río Negro – at 218m above sea level and 39° latitude – in Patagonia; Tigerstone Garnacha from the Calchaquí Valley (at 1,700m); and a field blend (for the time being) from Quebrada de Humahuaca GI – at 2,710m and 46° latitude – near the Bolivian border.

Then there’s Mendoza, where Sejanovich takes particular pride in deciphering Uco Valley districts including, among others, Los Chacayes, Pareditas and San Pablo. Single-soil line Finca La Escuela showcases the Paraje Altamira estate’s rock, silt, gravel and sand profiles across four Malbecs, for example, and expressing this diversity confirms Sejanovich’s reputation as one of Argentina’s most geographically diverse viticulturists.

Pointing towards the vibrant mountains that form Uspallata Valley, he says: ‘Why wouldn’t I want to make wine here?’ Captivated by the landscape’s possibilities, he isn’t actually posing a question. ‘Just look at it!’ He’s right. It’s breathtaking.

This remote part of western Mendoza, a sanctum for Estancia Uspallata’s 4ha of Malbec, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc, is otherworldly; an inhospitable basin for harbouring vineyards, carelessly drawn pink, red and yellow zig-zag outcrops surround sand and porphyry (quartz-dotted) soils sitting at 2,000m. It’s these unique terroirs (Uspallata is Mendoza’s highest vineyard) that continue to inspire Sejanovich, 30 years into his career. What’s more, it’s paying off. The estate’s Malbec 2017 – just 1,200 bottles were made – was anointed best red in Tim Atkin MW’s 2019 Argentina Special Report. ‘That recognition means we’re on the right track,’ he says, with genuine modesty.

Alejandro Sejanovich at a glance

Born 1968 in Mendoza, Argentina

Education Degree in Agricultural Engineering, 1986-1991; Advanced Agronomy Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology, 1993

Career Joined Catena Zapata in 1993, eventually becoming vineyard director. Started Manos Negras in 2010

Family Wife Emily is a French teacher; children Juana (18), Tobias (16), Olivia (15)

Hobbies Fishing, cycling, asados (barbecues)

Connected to terroir

Known as El Colorado for his red hair, the father-of-three was raised in Mendoza and, while not born into a winemaking family, had always felt a connection with the land. ‘My mum grew up on a trellis vineyard in San Juan, and my dad moved to Mendoza after qualifying as a surgeon. When I was six he bought a vineyard in Tupungato – a place to spend time with his own father – and a house from Bodega Filippini. Growing up I was surrounded by fincas and two wineries, and during school holidays there was little to do apart from pestering the farmhands in the countryside!’

Agricultural engineering was a natural degree choice; Sejanovich graduated as valedictorian. ‘When I started university, Argentina’s wine industry was on the verge of collapsing. I finished my degree controlling maturation during Chandon’s vintage, then, aged 21, studied at Montpellier, which wasn’t very common for Argentines at the time. Alumnus Roberto de la Mota [of Mendel Wines] sent a fax recommending me.

‘On my first day, the secretary looked at me and said, [referring to his hair] “I thought Argentines looked different!” That year (1992) was the last one that maestros such as plant physiology specialist François Champagnol taught before retiring. Our study trip was their farewell tour: at Château Margaux they opened an imperial from 1945. It was a fantastic experience and really opened my mind.’

Finca La Escuela

Finca La Escuela. Credit: Maya García

Back to Argentina

Sejanovich returned to Mendoza in 1993, brimming with knowledge and a Montpellier diploma. ‘My fear was coming back and not being able to apply what I’d learnt. I was hired as a researcher at the National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA) but it wasn’t for me, so I continued looking for work. Everyone said Catena Zapata’s Pedro Marchevsky was the key innovator.’ Sejanovich’s timing was impeccable: winery owner Dr Nicolás Catena was keen to experiment, but needed experience to implement action.

‘I got stuck in, taking samples, undertaking microvinifications, coordinating picking and researching. I was sent to explore higher elevations, but the winery turned everything down until I presented Gualtallary at 1,400m. Vineyards didn’t exist at that altitude then and we were uncertain whether the grapes would even ripen.

‘Catena was starting to consider Malbec and researching it was really interesting: clonal selection, understanding zones, managing irrigation and vineyards. Big changes were going on in Argentinian viticulture between 1998 and 2000, with massive plantings in brand-new regions. It was challenging but I loved it. And, as Nicolás always aimed to produce the best wine, I learnt it’s good to have impossible objectives.’

Agrelo-based Catena Zapata is where Sejanovich met Chicago-born Mausbach, who worked in exports. ‘Our first meeting was about importing plants,’ Sejanovich recalls. ‘Once Jeff moved to Mendoza with his wife Verónica, I’d invite them round for asados. Plus, our kids are a similar age. When foreigners started visiting the bodega and wanted to meet the winemaker, we’d both receive them. Twenty-five years later, we only need a glance to know what the other is thinking.’

Eager for new challenges, Sejanovich and Mausbach left the bodega as vineyard and wine education directors, respectively, in 2010 and started Manos Negras. ‘The aim was to create latitude-differentiated wines sourced from Mendoza, Patagonia and the north. We bought, then remortgaged, an old-vine finca in Paraje Altamira. In the search for different things, we created different brands: by 2011 we’d also launched Bodega Teho and TintoNegro, and had started working in Salta.’

It sounds simple but that first year involved hard graft. Renting winery space put them last in the pecking order to use equipment, and, after buying land in Maipú, they could only afford to lay a cement floor for the first vintage. ‘It was challenging doing 60 microvinifications outdoors. Once it rained so hard we had to take shelter under harvest bins,’ he recalls.

New challenges

The landscape of Salta had always impressed the viticulturist, and it was the first terroir outside Mendoza that he and Mausbach tackled. ‘I used to go there, head in the clouds, and only get half my work done; I’m more focused these days! Meeting Fernando Saavedra of Estancia Los Cardones was fortuitous for us all, as he was looking for a winemaker and we were after a project in Calchaquíes; it’s in a remote southern part of the valley. I’ve always believed in the region: its wines show potential but often lack finesse.

‘The challenge is to make a Salta wine that’s elegant, easy to drink and different from traditional norms. Tigerstone Garnacha represents everything we met as a challenge: drinkable, fresh and elegant while also showcasing Calchaquíes.’ Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Torrontés also make up the Los Cardones stable.

Uspallata represents another winemaking extreme and, although Sejanovich first visited the vineyard here in 2010, the opportunity to get involved came about five years later. ‘I remember thinking it was crazy that they had planted there,’ says Sejanovich. ‘The landscape is fantastic and unique, but the cold climate means budburst takes place six weeks later than in Uco Valley. Uspallata is intense: that’s reflected aromatically and in the polyphenols, making the wines distinctive and delicious. I planted five Chardonnay vines last year, which produced lots of grapes. Another new challenge.’

Producing a Pinot Noir in addition to a traditional-method Pinot Noir sparkling, Sejanovich says of the heralded Uspallata Malbec 2017: ‘It’s expressive and reflects the place differently than it would in other parts of Mendoza. Viticultural techniques aren’t simply replicated – you have to adapt to each place; it takes time to get to know a vineyard and learn how the different sections produce – maybe three or four years.’

New heights

But some extremes just can’t be conquered, and Sejanovich reluctantly admits that going beyond 2,000m gets the better of him. Regardless, he takes the physical consequences on the chin in Quebrada de Humahuaca. ‘Huichaira is at 2,710m on a rocky mountain path and I go there knowing I’m going to get altitude sickness. I chew coca leaves to combat it, but that’s a problem when I taste grapes. My sister says I should carry my own personal oxygen tank, then my palate will stay intact.’

Landscape-wise, with its red and yellow outcrops Huichaira is similar to Uspallata, but it presents new challenges. ‘I imagined the Quebrada would be hot, like Salta, but it’s very cold, budburst is late and there’s a balance of aromas between floral and spice. Once again, I knocked on that door and asked myself: “Why not?” Despite being just 2ha, Huichaira isn’t homogenous; some parts have more clay or gravel, and it’s sandier close to the foothills. For the time being we’re making a Malbec- Cabernet Franc-Syrah field blend, but gradually we’re discovering aromatic differences across the vineyard. The other challenge is transporting the grapes down the mountain!’

It’s not just new projects that make him tick, however, and while he won’t admit to having a preference, there’s a fondness for the pair’s Vineyard 1955 in La Consulta, which produces an eponymous old-vine Malbec. He says: ‘In 2010, we thought all that area was Altamira, but soil studies proved otherwise. Those tiny soil and altitude differences are reflected in the wines’ personalities.’

Besides traversing Argentina, Sejanovich recently embarked on projects in Peru’s pisco heartland, the Ica Valley, and Cañete province. Back in Maipú, Manos Negras is undergoing expansion to include a barrel room and restaurant due to open in 2020. Plans are also in the pipeline to build a small winery in Las Compuertas, plus he’s making his first Riesling for a client.

‘All these challenges keep us young!’ he laughs. Plenty to keep both Sejanovich’s and Mausbach’s manos negras occupied.