Argentinean wineries have been dealt a strong hand in the quest for quality. It's enough to make the rest of the world jealous, says JOHN DOWNES MW.
T he first thing that strikes you about Mendoza’s vineyards is the amazing health of all the grapes. The expression, ‘wine is made in the vineyard’ may be a cliché but it is still as true as ever. Consequently, the advantage of Argentinean wineries is crystal clear and finding out how such superb fruit is grown is a truly fascinating voyage of discovery. You can’t talk vineyards in Argentina without discussing irrigation. With an annual rainfall of just 200mm in Mendoza and even less in San Juan, it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity. The Idaho Indians built the early irrigation channels to direct the Andes’ water onto their crops and this network has been extended and improved upon to provide what is today an agricultural miracle.In conjunction with the ever-present sunshine and irrigation, Argentina ‘blends’ her best soils, microclimates and altitudes to produce wines that already have the world’s attention. ‘Unlike many of the world’s vineyards, we can control the water to the vines and are able to extend the ripening periods to extract the best possible fruit,’ explains Bodegas Lavaque’s winemaker, Daniel Fernandez. A quick glance at the vineyard temperature and rainfall calendar is enough to make even the most laid-back Frenchman green with envy. Unlike France, where the autumn weather can punish the late picker who waits for extra ripeness, leaving grapes to ripen is often advantageous in Mendoza, where March and April are cooler and more stable than February. It is this climatic blessing that makes Malbec, the grape so unloved by the French, the most popular choice in Mendoza. This classic variety responds perfectly to Mendoza’s extended dry and sun-soaked autumns. These drive up the sugars and flavours and, more importantly, ripen the tough tannins. Mendoza and San Juan are also lucky to be blessed with a huge day to night temperature differential – from 35˚C during the day to a night-time ‘chill’ of less than 20˚C. ‘This difference of up to 18˚C gives better colour and lifts the aromatics,’ says Bodega Norton’s technical director, Carlos Tizio Mayer.Deep in the south of Mendoza Province the vineyards of San Rafael offer another climate and another facet to both vines and wines. The keys to the region are the two rivers, the Atuel and the Diamante, that flow from the Andes about 20km apart. ‘The rivers diverge at San Rafael and have a moderating effect on the climate,’ explains Ricardo Stradella Bianchi of Bodegas Bianchi. The valley of San Rafael runs east to west and is protected by the Pintada, a horseshoe of hills that shelters the vineyards from the cold south winds.
Unfortunately there is an enemy that can strike suddenly – hail: golf balls of ice that can wipe out a harvest within half an hour. The problem in Mendoza is so serious that hail nets have become part of the vineyard vista. ‘They cost up to $5,000 a hectare but they’re definitely worth it,’ says Valentin Bianchi, president of Bodega Bianchi.In their search for quality, however, the clever Argentinians have turned a problem into a benefit and there is much experimentation being carried out on hail nets, with particular reference to their colour. The nets have hidden powers to protect the vines from the piercing sun and so the colour counts. ‘The black nets stop up to 40% of radiation getting through, while white netting can restrict it by about 10%. This is a huge help to ripening,’ says Bianchi.In the baking heat of the plains, altitude is the buzzword as temperature differences are fine-tuned to grape variety in order to produce the purest flavours. ‘One hundred metres higher can make a difference of 1˚C,’ says Pedro Marchevsky, Nicolás Catena’s vineyard director.
Around the world low yields are a key to quality and Mendoza is no exception, although it appears that yields need not be as low as in European vineyards for equivalent quality. ‘Good wine can be produced here at 70hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare), whereas you’re down to 60hl/ha in France for the same quality,’ says Jean-Hugues Matteini, Bodega Lurton’s winemaker. And he should know – he grew up in Bordeaux and has experience in Burgundy. Yields are critical, but without careful picking a year’s vineyard care can be destroyed within weeks. All the recent labour problems in France threatening this year’s harvest seem light years away in Argentina where labour is plentiful and relatively inexpensive, and hand-picking in small 30kg baskets is the norm. There are three common types of training methods used in Argentina: the traditional high pergola, known as the parral, and two vertical guyot systems, the high version being about 1.5m high, the lower standing at about 1m. Although parral is used in about half the vineyard space, there is a swing to vertical trellising with many bodegas calling on international vineyard consultants to help them obtain the best fruit. Globetrotting vineyard guru Richard Smart has been giving advice since the early 1990s and Californian Paul Hobbs is weaving his magic with several companies. ‘He is changing our domestic wine vines into good quality vines and the difference is staggering,’ says Enrique Toso of Bodegas Toso. ‘Within 10 years all 300 hectares will be dedicated to top quality.’Although vertical trellises are fast gaining favour at the expense of the parral system, many see great advantages with the traditional system in the searing summer heat. ‘The horizontal canopy provides protection for the grapes thanks to the cool microclimate created just below the leaves,’ says La Agricola’s president, Alberto Zuccardi. There’s a fine balance between protection and excessive growth-stunting shade but Zuccardi has this covered. ‘The balance is easily monitored by looking through the canopy towards the midday sun and pruning accordingly,’ he explains.
Hot in the city
Mendoza is known as ‘the city with 365 days of sun’ yet the Argentinian heat isn’t linked to humidity, so often a catalyst for disease. ‘Low humidity means there’s little need to spray,’ notes Susana Balbo, Bodega Anubio’s winemaker. ‘We spray only twice a year – compare that to France, where they often spray six or seven times.’ With the global trend for organic wine moving ever faster, it’s no surprise that Argentina’s vineyards are keen to join the club. Of course, membership comes easy in vineyards that are almost naturally ‘green’.In today’s market if a winery anywhere in the world lacks just one item of the latest hi-tech equipment eyebrows are raised and questions asked. And they’re not taking any chances in Argentina these days – most vineyards boast a huge array of dazzling stainless steel vats, pumps, refrigeration units and filters. The facilities of such wineries as Bodegas Salentein, Norton, Balbi, Bianchi and Flichmann are world-class, and many other wineries are in the top flight. From reception the grapes are channelled through gleaming cooling pipes to reduce their temperature. ‘They can come in at 33˚C but are cooled to 8˚C,’ notes Enrique Toso. Pneumatic presses slowly extract the purest juice and the practice of cold-settling white juice pre-fermentation at 5˚C for a day or so is common. ‘It produces more flowery aromatics,’ says Bodegas Balbi’s winemaker, Pedro Yanez. At Nieto Senetiner, all the original concrete, epoxy-lined vats are restored to their former glory, and Bodegas Lurton’s brand new winery, complete with internal French architecture and Parisian street lamps, also uses concrete. ‘Concrete gives us the control we demand,’ says Nieto Senetiner’s winemaker, Roberto Gonzalez.
With maturation, French oak is king. The breakdown across the board is probably 80% French oak and 20% American. At La Agricola, they only use American oak for Tempranillo, whereas at Bodegas Trapiche, the score is 70% to 30% in favour of French. ‘They are all medium toasted and with a 25% new buy every year our casks give us four years’ service,’ says exportdirector, Juan José Canay.The use of oak, French or American, can be used to define quality levels within many of Argentina’s bodegas. While barrel maturation is adopted for premium and reserva wines, inner staves provide a touch of oak for the middle range, and the vanilla edge to the lower category wines is often achieved with the addition of oak chips. Wines for simple, easy drinking, and those destined for the domestic market do not see any oak treatment at all.Given that the wines traditionally enjoyed in the domestic market are, to say the least, dull, lifeless and oxidised, the necessary move to the zingy, elegant fruity wines demanded by the sophisticated export markets has been undertaken surprisingly smoothly within the wineries.
But the local market remains important, and wineries such as Bodegas Lopez meets this demand with wines that are rarely seen outside Argentina. ‘The locals still enjoy the old style and we cater for that with our top Montchenot range,’ explains director general Carlos Alberto Lopez Laurenz.
‘The 1990 spent eight years in large, 9,000-litre oak vats. The 20 Años Gran Reserva of the 1978 vintage is a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec, which was bottled in 1988 following 10 years in 5,000-litre oak vats.’ But several of Lopez’s whites have taken on the new zippy, export-style fruit and are evidently finding favour in the towns and cities. Perhaps the domestic market itself is changing its palate.Unlike many regions where cash flow is king and the wine flies out of the cellar door immediately after bottling, many Argentinian bodegas, aware of the immense quality boost that bottle ageing provides, rest their bottles before release. ‘We like to keep our wines in bottle for a six-month period to give more complexity at drinking,’ confirms Domaine Vistalba’s president, Hervé Joyaux.Argentina’s investment in buildings and winery equipment is mind-blowing, but Nieto Senetiner’s Roberto Gonzalez puts things into perspective. ‘We need the best equipment possible, of course,’ he says, ‘but with such great fruit to hand, winemaking becomes a simple operation.’