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The Wine Advocate #203, October 31, 2012
Please see below for :
-Neal Martin's reviews for "Making Malbec on the Moonscape: Argentina 2012" and his accompanying article.
-Martin's interview with Bodega Catena Zapata winemaker, Alejandro Vigil, "Keeping a Vigil: Alejandro’s Perspective"
BODEGA CATENA ZAPATA
There is no need to introduce Catena Zapata. I visited the winery, which stands like an Egyptian pyramid looking for its sphynx, and spent the entire morning darting from one room to another tasting the entire portfolio of wines from the family. Naturally, it was an honor to meet Nicolas Catena himself, who has been instrumental in Argentina’s progress over the last three decades. But what is pleasing is to find such a famous winery refusing to rest upon its laurels and in fact, through the irrepressible head winemaker Alejandro Vigil, a man who patently contemplates wines 24/7, Catena Zapata are looking forward and asking themselves questions about the style of wines they produce, what ought to be the next stage of their evolution, instead of merely replicating previous successes.
Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard 2009 - 97 points
"It has a complex bouquet of blackberry, chalk dust, leather and the scent of an old English stately home. The palate is medium-bodied with a very taut, focused, tense entry. This has wonderful vivacity and outstanding minerality, the finish doing that rare thing of transporting you to its place, that is to say, high up in the Andes. You will be hard pressed to find a better Malbec than this."
Catena Zapata White Bones Chardonnay 2009 - 96 points
“It has another bewitching bouquet of hazelnut, crushed stone and white peach that would shame many a Burgundy Grand Cru. The palate has a touch of honey and apricot on the entry. It is beautifully balanced with subtle white peach and apricot notes mingling with pear and quince towards the poised finish. Stunning.”
Catena Zapata White Stones Chardonnay 2009 - 95 points
“It has a bouquet of light wild honey, honeysuckle and minerals that lend it a Corton-Charlemagne like complexity. The palate has a gorgeous brioche, hazelnut and toffee-tinged entry. It displays taut acidity and a harmonious, mineral-rich finish with hints of smoke and almond. Outstanding.”
Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino 2009 - 95 points
"It has a more opulent bouquet than the individual blends, with dark cherries, iodine, minerals and blueberry that are all beautifully defined. The palate has a dense, weighty entry with layers of ripe blackberry and boysenberry fruit laced with crushed stone and a touch of graphite. The finish is supremely well-defined and focused, with immense length on the finish."
Nicolas Catena Zapata 2009 - 95 points
"It has a spellbinding bouquet that exudes minerality, as if crushed stones had been sprinkled into the black fruit. With continued aeration, there are scents of oyster shell and black olive. The palate is full-bodied, with immense structure and backbone. The acidity is beautifully judged with filigree tannins that render the finish so elegant and refined, with notes of blackberry, soy, black plum and that stony aftertaste. Magnificent."
Catena Zapata Nicasia Vineyard 2009 - 94 points
"It has a complex bouquet of blackberry, crushed stone, smoke and lavender that is beautifully defined and sophisticated. The palate is medium-bodied with grainy tannins. It is extremely well-balanced, with a broody, introverted, somehow enigmatic finish that you just want to keep sipping in order to unlock its secrets. Sublime."
Catena Alta Malbec 2009 - 94 points
"It offers a gorgeous, pure, floral bouquet with ripe pomegranate and wild strawberry imbued with superb minerality and delineation. The palate is medium-bodied with a tense, almost broody entry. It is a classic Malbec, one you might almost think came from the Old World, underpinned by great structure and a sense of masculinity. Yet it is superbly balanced with plenty of ripe, earthy black fruit laced with tar and tobacco towards the long, rather aristocratic finish. Excellent."
Catena Alta Chardonnay 2010 - 93 points
"Offers wild honey, jasmine, nectarine and crushed stone aromas that are well-defined. The palate has good weight on the entry, with subtle notes of orange zest, dried apricot, quince and shaved ginger. It builds in the mouth, delivering a very focused, intense finish that you could say, sits comfortably between Old World and New."
Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 - 92 points
"The bouquet is understated at first, drawing you in and then building with aeration, fomenting blackberry, wild hedgerow, wild strawberry and smoke. The palate is medium-bodied with crisp tannins on the entry. It is imbued with fine tension and focus, leading to a complex finish of blackberry, soy, tobacco, orange peel and graphite. It is imbued with a sense of classicism, especially on the dry, bell pepper-tinged finish, which exhibits great length. Superb."
Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 - 92 points
"It has a Bordeaux-like bouquet of blackberry, bilberry, graphite and dry tobacco that is well-defined and classic in style. The palate is medium-bodied with grainy tannins. There is a palpable sense of tension to this Cabernet, which exhibits great precision on the spicy, edgy finish. Full of personality, this comes highly recommended."
Catena Malbec 2010 - 91 points
"It has a pellucid bouquet with tangible minerality: notes of blackberry, strawberry cheesecake, a touch of cassis and violets. The palate is medium-bodied with supple tannins on the entry. The acidity is crisp and lends tautness towards the succulent finish, which bestows blackberry, black olive and loganberry fruit. This is a finely crafted, feminine Malbec."
Catena Chardonnay 2011 - 90 points
"It demonstrates great clarity on the nose with scents of dried honey, linden, crushed stone and dried white flowers. The palate is well-balanced with crisp acidity and is a taut, focused Chardonnay with lively notes of tangerine and quince towards the finish. This is well-crafted and complex for its price point."
Bodegas Esmeralda was founded by Don Juan Fernandez, who named the estate after his daughter. It now belongs to the Nicolas Catena family. I focused on their “Tilia” line, named after a linden tree found in Argentina. The winemaker is Aljandro Viggiani, who has worked for fifteen years at Catena. Around 90% of the grapes come from the east of Mendoza, supposedly one of the less propitious regions in Argentina, but also a locale blessed with volcanic soils that can give rise to complex wines. The vines here are planted in a high-density pergola system (2m x 1m). All these wines are (in my opinion, wisely) bottled under Screwcap. I must say, of all the ranges that I tasted in Argentina, none could match the quality to price ratio of Tilia, which all retail for an astoundingly low price. As such, I cannot recommend them highly enough.
TILIA Bonarda 2011 - 91 points
"It has a pure, floral bouquet with dark cherries and cassis aromas that are well-defined and pure. The palate is medium-bodied with fine tannins and very good weight. There is an underlying minerality here, a sense of symmetry that is very satisfying. Light on its feet and pretty on the saline-tinged finish, this is a superb Bonarda."
TILIA Merlot 2011 - 91 points
"It has a lovely nose, one of the best I have found for this varietal, with vibrant dark cherry, black plum and mineral notes. The palate is well-balanced with fine tannins. It is very pure, with crisp dark plum, tar and a savory edge on the finish. This is how Argentinean Merlot should be done. Superb."
TILIA Malbec 2011 - 90 points
"Has an attractive, comparatively complex bouquet of blackberry, wild hedgerow, crushed stone and black pepper. The palate is medium-bodied with tense, edgy tannins on the entry that counterpoise the tight ball of blackberry, briary and minerals with style. It builds nicely in the mouth, leading to a firm, black olive-tinged finish that lightly grips the mouth. Excellent."
TILIA Torrontes 2011 - 90 points
"It has an attractive bouquet of yellow plum, dried flowers and grapefruit that is very well-defined. The palate is medium-bodied with light peach notes on the entry. It needs a little more tension, especially on the finish, but it is still endowed with lovely light apricot and buttery notes towards the finish. Fine."
TILIA Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 - 90 points
"It has a ripe, dark cherry and blueberry-scented bouquet with touches of graphite and a faint hint of apricot blossom. The palate is medium-bodied with a ripe, generous entry, crisp acidity and very pure, graphite-tinged fruit towards the elegant, persistent finish. This is an understated Cabernet that does not cut back on flavor. Excellent."
TILIA Malbec Syrah 2011 - 89 points
"It has a ripe, rounded floral nose that is more extroverted than others in the Tilia range of 2011s: creme de cassis, blueberry and crushed violets. The palate is medium-bodied, with fine tannins and a firm grip."
TILIA Chardonnay 2011 - 88 points
"It has a clean, lightly honeyed bouquet with touches of lime blossom and quince. The palate is medium-bodied with a slightly viscous entry. There is good weight here and it offers a generous, pleasing, shaved ginger-tinged finish."
ALMA NEGRA M Blend 2011 - 90 points
"The 2011 Alma Negra 'M' Blend, which consists of Bonarda and Malbec, has a very fine, slightly estuarine note that turns into a more floral, rose petal scent with aeration. The palate is medium-bodied with a nice fatness to the tannins. It seems to have a little more extraction, but it remains pure and balanced with an elegant, satisfying finish of dark plum, red currant and minerals that sing harmoniously together. Excellent."
ALMA NEGRA Rose Sparkling NV - 88 points
"The non-vintage Alma Negra Rose Sparkling is a blend of Malbec and Pinot Noir and spends six months on the lees. It has an attractive pale salmon color in the glass. The nose is fragrant with light strawberry, rose petal and orange blossom scents that are well-defined. The palate is crisp and well-balanced with fine strawberry and apricot notes towards the poised finish. This is a satisfying rose sparkler."
"MARKING MALBEC ON THE MOONSCAPE: ARGENTINA 2012"
The diaphanous lake reflects the cloudless blue. To my right, the endless moonscape of Argentinean lowlands; the pampas that stretch over 1,000km to the Atlantic and to my left the skyscraping snow-capped Andes, an imperious barrier that signifies the end of the world. Around me the land is jejune, barren and infertile. There is no verdure, no hint of green; forsaken land that God predesigned inhospitable to all but the odd hardy wild fox. However, He did not count on the ingenuity of mankind or the resilience of vitis vinifera because together, against the odds, a wine region has risen and prospered from the dust. Against this awe-inspiring mountainous canvas, low-slung state-of-the-art wineries beamed down from a lost episode of Star Trek transform grapes into coveted New World wines. It is easy to be seduced. Observing the dazzling panorama, I remind myself that beautiful scenery and technological wizardry do not necessarily create beautiful wines. I have not traveled here to gawp at Nature. I am here to discover where Argentinean wines stand on the increasingly crowded world stage. Up amongst the peaks or down in the lowlands?
New World or Old World? For convenience, I view Argentina as the former since it has come to international prominence over the last two decades. However, make no mistake that the country’s viticultural heritage goes back to the 16th century, when Spanish immigrants cultivated vines for ecclesiastical purposes. Plantings expanded considerably during the 19th century due to the influx of more Spanish and Italian immigrants with winemaking in their blood. Naturally, they blended the cultural and social delights of fermented grape juice into their new homeland, but quality was not the imperative, rather it was rustic fare for private consumption. Parallel to Rioja, the plethora of small producers predicated larger enterprises that commercialized wine on a national basis. They congregated upon the newly irrigated vineyard of Mendoza and transported their wines to Buenos Aires by the railroad built in 1882. The grape varieties were mainly from France rather than Spain or Italy. One would expect Mendoza to be predominantly Tempranillo or Sangiovese given its socio-demographic composition instead of the 15% of red varietals they currently represent. Blame Frenchman Michel Aimé Pouget, who established the all-important Quinta National nursery in 1853 and imported French cuttings such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and, of course, Malbec. By the 1930s, approximately 60% of all plantings in Mendoza responded to the name “Malbec,” testifying that its sovereignty is no recent phenomenon.
Unlike Chile, producers were blessed with a domestic market where wine was a part of every meal and everyday life. At its peak in the 1960s/1970s, consumption reached an astonishing 92 liters per head. Who needed exports? At that time, Argentina was the fifth largest producer and sixth largest consumer of wine. However, a combination of political upheaval and economic strife stymied progress, and the military dictatorship virtually isolated the country from the outside world. Even the all-important railroad fell into disuse, now an extant rusting reminder of what was lost. It could be said that at that time, only Norton and Etchart in Salta countenanced the notion of higher quality wine.
By the 1980s, the industry still centered upon large companies such as Rutini (then entitled Bodegas y Viñedos La Rural), Trapiche and Luigi Bosca inter alia, all of which exist and flourish today. The pursuit of quality was rarely undertaken, but there was change underfoot. Nicolás Catena, an erudite third generation wine producer with a doctorate in economics, became inspired by wines from beyond his country’s borders, in particular California. He radically changed the philosophy of producing bulk wines through Bodega Esmeralda towards premium wines that aspired to something more than drinkability, and he achieved great success and international recognition in the process. Catena was not the only one. Raúl de la Mota changed the modus operandi at Weinert, Flichman and Canale, and is rightly revered as a game-changer in Argentina. Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s came the likes of José Zuccardi and Californian winemaker Paul Hobbs, all instrumental in Argentina’s revolution.
During the 1990s, I recall the susurrus here in the UK, when writers noticed an upswing in quality, in particular the signature variety, Malbec. Unsurprisingly, the melioration was contemporaneous with a period of stability when the currency was pegged against the dollar, thereby making its wines more attractive for export and just as crucially, for investors to come in. I remember the launch of Clos de Los Siete in 1999 in London, the first mention of sub-regions such as the Uco Valley and Altamira; word of sophisticated Pinot Noir south in Patagonia and effervescent Torrontés north in Salta. The revolution was underway. Here in the UK, journalists began devoting column inches to Argentina, but it has been the United States where consumers have taken its wines to their hearts, in particular over the last decade.
To put some figures on that, in 2011 (January to December) the United States accounted for 36% of Argentina’s foreign wine exports compared to just 6.8% in the United Kingdom. That represents a 1.9% increase from 2010 in terms of volume and is worth just over $250 million – an astronomical figure compared to just ten years ago. But perhaps more importantly, the average FOB price per case has seen a dramatic upswing. That 1.9% increase in volume translates as a 14% increase in sales revenues, since the average price per case has increased by 9.3%. This is heartening news – it means in the United States consumers are willing to pay more for better quality.
Latest figures show that 70% of all Argentinean wine originates from within Mendoza’s boundaries: a quantity more than Bordeaux, Napa and Burgundy combined! It renders other Argentinean regions such as Salta and Patagonia peripheral in quantitive terms. That is partly down to the long history of viticulture and partly down to the quality of its wines. Given the expanse of this appellation, it is not surprising that many winemakers regard it as an indefinable region: more an amalgam of sub-regions, terroirs and microclimates that are only just being discovered. For this report I have assigned wines as originating from “Mendoza” and highlighted sub-regions within tasting notes. However, in future reports it may be revealing to break them down into sub-regions in similar fashion as Bordeaux wines are segmented by its appellations. The key to Argentinean wine is altitude, and quality wines are really consigned to cooler areas above 900 meters. It would be useful to outline the Indiciaciones Geograficas (IG), with accompanying information on sub-IG’s and soil and altitude, the most significant in bold.
Maipú (13,900ha) – Lunlunta and Barrancas– 850-900m
Luján de Cuyo (13,470ha) – Vistalba, Las Compuertas, Perdriel, Agrelo and Ugarteche, Agrelo with more clay – 920-1,100m
Tupungato – Uco Valley (8.995ha) – Villa Bastías, Gualtallary (some chalk, calcareous elements in soil), Cordón del Plata – sandy-loam soils but no clay in Gualtallary – 900-1,500m
Tunuyán - Uco Valley (7,250ha) – Los Arboles, Colonia las Rosas and Vista Flores (also some chalk and calcareous soils in the latter) – 900-1,300m
San Carlos – Uco Valley (7,250ha) – La Consulta, Altamira (some chalk and calcareous soils in Uco), Eugenio Bustos and El Cepillo – 950-1,150m
I will examine the sub-regionality of Salta, La Rioja and Patagonia in future issues, once I have seen them for myself.
A brief synopsis of the growing seasons is in order.
2010 – There was a little coulure early in the season that affected Malbec. January saw the mercury rise to above normal, but it cooled down in March and there was a storm on March 19, when 110mm of rain fell in Tupungato. The sugar accumulation was retarded somewhat towards the end of the growth cycle, which tended to lessen potential alcohol levels (at least generally lower than 2009). The red wines in Mendoza were picked one or two weeks later than normal, and this was even more the case down in Neuquén.
2011 – There was a strong “Zonda,” a hot dry wind that swept across the region on November 9, which led to a major front, particularly in the Uco Valley and eastern Mendoza. The summer was dry and cool, and this retarded the growth cycle despite a sunny April. Average yields were above average, but because of the natural reduction in potential yield, there was less incentive for green harvesting. Aromas tend to be floral and expressive, and on the palate the wines are tannic and concentrated with medium to high pH levels. The whites tend to be intense and zingy, bringing out the herbaceousness of Sauvignon Blanc.
2012 – Budding started evenly with a small frost in September. It was marked by another strong “Zonda” on November 8, followed by rain fronts that interrupted flowering and reduced the potential yields, especially for Malbec. There was a dip in temperatures around December, though it warmed up in January and February. However, a predicted early harvest did not materialize and the pickers were out in the vineyards towards the end of April, which was cool and dry. It was a slightly smaller vintage than average, perhaps around 22% less than 2011, in particular in Mendoza in respect of Malbec, Bonarda and Syrah, less so for Cabernet Sauvignon. The smaller yields engendered deeper colored, slightly more tannic wines. White grapes tend to be aromatic, with good acidity and slightly higher concentration.
Terroir: Tinkering Too Far?
In the same way that a baby must walk before it can run, an emerging wine region must get the fundamentals correct and produce basic decent quality wine, before the next logical step of exploring the minutiae of terroirs. Consumers will not give two hoots that there is more limestone in your patch of dirt if they find your wines unbalanced, green, excessively alcoholic, afflicted by brettanomyces or reliant on the crutch of brazen new oak. Terroir was the watchword when I visited numerous winemakers in Mendoza, and several winemakers leapt into pits to demonstrate the complexity and individuality of their soil profiles, where ancient meandering glacial waters shifted across the landscape and deposited a jumbled gallimaufry of soil profiles. Without question, Argentina possesses a mosaic of terroirs – I can see that for myself. However the nuances of terroir are not necessarily translated into your glass for a number of reasons. Let me allow Chilean viticulturalist Pedro Parra, who works extensively on both sides of the Andes, to offer his opinion first:
“In my opinion, Mendoza is very much ‘human’ for the moment, rather than ‘terroir,’ because the mainstream of viticulture is to pick later, very late even, and get unbalanced vines. But what for me feels unbalanced is not for others. Another problem is the irrigation. In Mendoza you do what you can, not what you want to.”
I concur with this view, although I add that there is a philosophical shift towards terroir-driven wines and I witnessed more winemakers doing what they want rather than what they can. Terroir is best expressed at lower alcohol levels, though I am not dogmatic about it being the lowest. Search this report and I have no hesitation promulgating well-crafted opulent or hedonistic wines at 15 percent alcohol and above. They will always have their place. But if you wish to compare, ceteris paribus, the difference between vineyards, then winemakers were unequivocal that they are best expressed at moderate levels of alcohol. So while I applaud the notion of exploiting terroir, accumulating sugar levels must be tempered if the nuances of land are to be translated into the glass.
And whether you like it or not, in order to make high quality wine, practically all require some form of human interference, whether that is through managing flood/drip irrigation or through acid adjustment. So when divining the nuances of terroir, how does the oenophile glean what is bestowed naturally during the growing season and what is the result of say, adding 1.2gms/L tartaric acid instead of 1.0gms/L or for that matter, 20 months in new François Frères barriques rather than 12 months in 50 percent? When I write this, I am aware that this applies to any wine region in the world. But in order for Argentina to engage truly with its terroir, while it is not mandatory or realistic to cease all human intervention, there needs to be a reassessment of winemakers’ objectives.
Do you desire a wine that hits all the sensory buttons and appeals to a mass audience? At this point in time, the winemaker has no option but to adjust and manipulate his/her wine, and Argentina offers some fantastic examples that are lapped up by consumers.
Or do you want a wine that showcases the terroir of a delimited plot of land year after year? Then you are going to have to reorganize your vines, wean them to be less dependent upon irrigation, undertake more analysis of root systems, pruning and vineyard practices, pick at the optimal rather than latest juncture, rely less on new oak, tinker as a last resort and not as a matter of course. See the accompanying video to hear Alejandro Vigil’s (head winemaker at Bodega Nicolas Catena) own views. I also asked Lindaflor’s winemaker Marcelo Pelleriti his opinion upon irrigation and its effects upon the vineyard. “I strongly believe in the balance of the vineyard, so smart irrigation helps an orderly process in each physiological stage to improve the expression of the terroir’s potential. With regard to acid adjustment, I disagree with excessive adjustments, but we have to bear in mind the range of price of the wine, given that for basic or entry-level wines, a standardized process and highly commercial product is sought. In terms of premium wines, I agree with not acidifying excessively and, above all, the expression of terroir and minerality in order to achieve elegant wines. In my experience, research shows that excessive acidification changes the expression of terroir completely.”
“To correct wines is normal everywhere,” came a salient reminder from Pedro Parra. “The way we correct is important. Winemakers will correct less when they will understand their terroirs and that is a big step. To add tartaric acid in the New World or to chaptalize in the Old World is common. But a good terroir is a place where the balance is natural, and there are not many places like that in the world. I hate wines with sugar and I do not like to correct with tartaric acid, at least not too much. Natural winemaking is for me is important, and people are starting to do that. Winemakers need to be influenced by others, and Chile and Argentina have leaders that are doing that. They are few but very active.”
To Blend Or Not To Blend, That Is The Question
Let us cut to the chase. Is it a risk for Argentina to put all its eggs into one basket, to pin its hopes and its future upon one single grape variety based on past success? It is a question at the forefront of many winemakers’ minds, and indeed there appears no consensus whether it actually needs to be addressed.
“In my experience,” commented top Argentinean sommerlier Andres Rosberg, “even if there are quite a few producers betting almost exclusively on Malbec, most people are working hard to change this, and depending on who you talk to, they speak of Bonarda, Torrontés, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, sparkling and so on.”
Even so, the figures are revealing. According to Wines of Argentina, in 2011, single red varietals constituted 62.6% of the market, up from 58.8% the previous year. Compare that to red bi-varietals that represented just 10.7% and you immediately comprehend the dominance of single varietals. Of course, Malbec is the king, representing around 42% of all cases sold to the United States; Cabernet Sauvignon, less than a quarter of that. However, if fickle consumers turn their backs on Argentinean Malbec, as they did apropos German Riesling in the 1980s, Australian brands in the late 1990s and more recently New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, whether that is justified or not makes little difference if nobody is willing to purchase your next vintage. Release the same sounding record too many times and people will seek a different tune (unless you enjoy Status Quo).
We all know Argentinean Malbec can make delicious, hearty, deeply colored, aromatic, fruit-driven red wine; however, there is plenty emanating from all four corners of the (New and Old) world. It is a highly competitive market out there, especially if you are seeking the more discerning consumer. I have commented in the past that I regard Malbec as an excellent grape variety. One of its great virtues is that it can be the foundation of not only premium monovarietals, but also cheap but satisfying supermarket shelf-fillers, even if figures show this segment is decreasing. Many hope that the more productive Bonarda will replace Malbec in this market sector. At its best, Mendoza Malbec manifests a glorious, violet-scented bouquet not a million miles away from a cool climate Shiraz, and when grown under the right conditions by a conscientious winemaker, it can be world class, manifesting wines as intellectual as those from the northern Rhône (perhaps closest to a modern style of Côte-Rôtie?)
However, I am yet to be convinced that it is a genuine grape for serious long-term aging, i.e. 15 to 20 years and over. I am not discounting the possibility that a bottle of Malbec could leave me eating those words in years to come, and I hope it happens (preferably in private). But the fact is that wines need to live, not survive. They need to repay the oenophile who is likely to have paid a premium and chosen to cellar his/her case for five, ten or twenty years. Having sacrificed those gorgeous, ebullient primary sensations, they must be recompensed by secondary aromas and flavors, a wine that has evolved personality and profundity beyond sensory satisfaction. Can Malbec accomplish this at the same level as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Pinot Noir? We will find out in the coming years. Does that imply that Argentinean winemakers should accept the limitations of Malbec and seek a blend of grape varieties that could achieve a higher plane of quality?
I would argue: “Yes,” albeit not necessarily with Bordeaux grape varieties. Perhaps I see Malbec as a perfect foundation that could eventually lead to something even greater. If this is true, then the modern Argentinean wine industry is only just finishing its first chapter.
If there is one thing that I learned during my time in Argentina, it is how well Malbec marries with other grape varieties. Take Bonarda, for example. Here you have two grape varieties synonymous with Argentina that complement each other with style, the Bonarda bringing out the best in Malbec and vice versa. I see Malbec as the bedrock à la Cabernet Sauvignon and Bonarda as its blending partner à la Merlot. This is an avenue of enormous potential and not just Malbec/Bonarda. Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon blends are also impressive, or why not try more co-ferments with Cabernet Franc or Syrah as top winemakers are now doing, often with great success? Andres Rosberg himself is intrigued by Tempranillo/Malbec blends, and I hope to taste more in the future.
The thing is, under Argentinean regulation, 85% of the blend must contain the grape variety stated on the label. This naturally inhibits winemakers adding more into the blend. They do not wish to upset consumers and importers by having to change the label or alter the name and risk losing the familiar word “Malbec” on their label. Well, that is the job of marketers. You need to ratchet up the Bonarda or Cabernet to around 20% to 40% of the blend and then, like all great wines, the sum of the grape varieties can potentially be more than the parts. This not only applies to wines that offer immediate pleasure. It may well engender Argentinean wines of greater longevity, an opinion held by several winemakers that I spoke to.
Of course, all this is a moot point to many, for there is no question that few wine lovers are inclined to cellar their Argentinean wines and therefore, why make wines worth aging? They often prefer a standardized, predictable wine that they know and trust. Why not give them what they wish? Well, it depends whether Argentina wants to be considered a true world-class wine country, whether they want its finest wines to attain the same reverence as the best in the Old World in the minds of serious wine drinkers, pleased to exchange their case of First Growth for a brilliant Malbec. That does not happen – not yet.
Excuse the title of the piece – it was a combination of ubiquity and alliteration that I refer to Malbec when, in fact, Argentina is more than that. So let us examine the “bridesmaids”¼
With respect to Pinot Noir, I remain cautious, perhaps more skeptical than most about its potential. I really would have loved to have reported that, like New Zealand and South Africa, Argentina is making exceptional Pinot Noirs. However, I was surprised how few really came to grips with that most capricious of grape varieties and failed to capture that elusive “pinoté.” It is the hardest variety to get right. Look how many Burgundy growers produce substandard Pinot Noir. Similarly, I found too many lacking stuffing, and not managing that high wire balancing act of intensity and transparency. Of course there are exceptions, most notably an outstanding 2009 from Marcelo Miras family project in Patagonia, ditto some excellent examples from Bressia, Mariflor and Zorzal Wines.
Bonarda was the red grape variety that arrived in Argentina with a rather indifferent reception, but departed with its praises being sung. As already mentioned, I see it as a high performing blending grape variety but only a competent “soloist.” It only occasionally transcends its limitations. Perhaps that is a case of aligning it to the correct soils or clones? Similar to Merlot, I appreciate its approachability and roundness in the mouth, yet it is difficult to see it as anything more than a grape that offers immediate pleasure unless it forms part of a blend. But for sure, overall I was pleased with the performances of many Bonarda wines that often retail at great value.
“Bonarda was very difficult for me to understand at the beginning,” confessed Marcelo Pelleriti. “Naturally it is a productive variety, and my vision is that you get the best expression when you pick it over-ripe. Obviously we have co-fermented Bonarda with Malbec and the result made me dream of its possibilities. I think we can produce great Bonarda in Argentina.”
Cabernet Franc is a variety that many winemakers are toying with, and I can certainly see the potential; Argentina’s climate is perfect for achieving those lovely bell pepper notes while achieving phenolic ripeness. Most winemakers still view Cabernet Franc as a blending variety, although the El Gran Enemigo 2009 from Aleanna demonstrated the heights it can achieve (though you could argue that it attested as much to the art of assiduous blending!) Keeping up the positive tone, I was also pleased with the progress being made with Torrontés.
“Torrontés has great potential, although there are few hectares planted,” continued Marcelo Pelleriti. “We are discovering old vineyards in different areas of Agentina in addition to Salta, such as in La Rioja. We have made progress in terms of viticulture and vinification. We now have different styles of Torrontés and gradually we are going to achieve more elegance and bury the myth that the only way to make good Torrontés is with high yields.”
For sure, there remain many examples where it is over-cropped, and the result is rather bland and ineffectual. However, I was smitten by a number of examples where it offers an effervescent quality in the mouth, racy and citric, occasionally endowed with an exuberant fruit profile not a million miles away from a Gewürztraminer. These are the wines that really demonstrated the potential of the grape variety and I hope to see more in the future. One other point is that I also believe it is a fine bedfellow for Chardonnay – lending individuality and more joie-de-vivre.
Petit Verdot – perhaps like Pinot Noir I was seeking a monovarietal Petit Verdot that will alter my preconceptions, but alas, there is a reason why Petit Verdot is nearly always used as “seasoning” towards a red blend. I often found wines that were meticulously crafted and showed the grape variety in its best light (for example from Juan Marco at Decero) but there is something rather monotone about the variety and I am frequently left with a yearning for another variety to add a splash more color.
My approach to my first report on Argentina for The Wine Advocate was to build it up over time. I began with a tasting assisted by the generic body Wines of Argentina (WoA) of some 500 wines in the United Kingdom in May 2012, partly as an overview of the country and to take some of the pressure off my visit in July. These centered around a list of wineries distributed in the USA, previously reviewed by this publication, or requested out of my own interest. I was in South America for just under three weeks in Chile and Argentina, the time divided equally between both countries. In Argentina, I continued tastings organized by WoA held at the Hyatt Hotel in Mendoza and visited wineries in the afternoon. Then I spent a few days with the country’s top sommelier, Andres Rosberg, and we went off-piste, casting the net wide seeking small artisan growers and those that might become major names in the future. This report is all the more enriched for that. In the evenings I organized casual dinners with three or four winemakers so that I could learn what is happening behind the scenes, deepen my knowledge first-hand and discuss matters not possible during intense daytime sessions. I trust that the diversity of Argentina is translated into this report.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The reason I insist upon visiting wine regions as much as humanly/financially possible without having a decree nisi land on my doorstep is that you quickly register undercurrents of change. The surface waters of most viticultural regions appear calm, but keep your ears and eyes open and you will detect the subtle movements underneath. The Mendozan surface is a vista of winemakers content that their Malbecs are selling well and appreciated by critics and consumers alike. However, under these calm waters change is afoot as winemakers ask: Where do we go from here? The good news is that there are already pioneers and thinkers; inquisitive, restless minds; risk-taking proprietors and adventurous cellar masters, who are providing answers. I also detected a soupçon of what you might call “Mediterranean madness.” It is a form of unbridled passion spilling over into obsession that lends a wine region its dynamism. You could argue that it was madness to plant vines in such a desolate landscape in the first place, a madness that continues to fuel such passion.
But having tasted over 1,400 wines, visited numerous wineries and kept my ears and eyes open myself; I present my own conclusions.
Firstly, Argentina and specifically Mendoza cannot rely on past success. It needs to reinvent itself in the eyes of consumers, but not when they become disinterested. – that would be too late. They need to be pre-emptive. I feel that at the moment, too many wineries kowtow to anything that consumers want. That might be commercially sound and less stressful for their accountants or importers. Yet it leads to homogeneity and predictability. Consumers are fickle and constantly seek the “next big thing,” so they must be brave and furrow their own path to ensure long-term survival and to prevent typecasting, if it is not too late already.
Furrowing your own path does not mean that every winery needs a mandatory “icon” wine. I dislike that word. You cannot manufacture a true icon. It is not a formula that boils down to maturing your best barrels (what does “best” mean exactly?) for 24 months in new French oak and bottle in heavy glass with the sole intention of achieving a desired price point vis-à-vis other “icons.” It is akin to making wine in reverse: from price to vine instead of vine to price. Sorry, but I encountered too many identikit icons that lacked soul and frankly were not worth the price, especially in a country where there are plenty of great values at $25.00 and under (see below).
In the vineyard, there needs to be a rethink on irrigation for two reasons. Firstly, in my introduction I mentioned that the Andes were “lightly” covered with snow. This is an ominous sign. With only around 200mm of rain per annum, vines would perish without irrigation and the snow that feeds flood irrigation is ostensibly the life-support machine for 90% of Mendoza’s vineyards. The lack of mountain snow forewarns of water shortages down the line, and if global warming continues, then water shortage problems will become more acute. Therefore it is imperative that vineyards opt towards drip irrigation that is far more efficient. I understand that this is not a panacea. As many winemakers told me, the older vines’ root systems have grown in accordance with flood irrigation, and simply switching to drip may mean that they cannot cope with such a different water regime. But the reality is that the authorities have recently banned the drilling of new water holes for the first time. Estates must be in a position to cope with further restrictions should they arise, because you cannot resuscitate a vine that has died from dehydration.
Furthermore, there is inadequate discussion or motivation to encourage the roots down deeper. If winemakers truly want to render their vines more independent and able to cope with harsh conditions, then a deep, spatial root system will be a long-term benefit. I should qualify that I am not prescribing this for all vineyards. However, the most propitious, aspiring vines would be enhanced by deeper roots, and the only way to encourage them towards the centre of the Earth is by slowly reducing the amount of irrigation, either flooding or through drip. Remember that it is not necessary for the entire vineyard. Trial it here and there, see what happens, take remedial action if it is not working to plan and see it through, because the long-term rewards could be more than you think.
Let me return to blending, because there is huge untapped potential in Argentina.
“Malbec is a variety that can age very well, and in many years its quality increases when it participates in blends and when it is co-fermented with other varieties,” opined Marcelo Pelleriti. “It enhances the characteristics and qualities of other varietals.”
I believe that last sentence could be the key to Argentina’s future. Malbec has huge untapped potential in bringing out the best in its partners, and to use Marcelo’s own words: .”..can make us dream of what wines we can get.” At Monteviejo, he cites micro-vinifications of co-fermented Malbec and Cabernet Franc as being highly successful (as I found myself during tastings), as well as enhancing the minerality of Syrah and the elegance of Petit Verdot.
To reiterate: use Malbec as your foundation and marry it with Bonarda, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon as liberally as you desire. There are so many avenues that remain unexplored. If there follows greater emphasis on blended Malbec, then I am certain that wines will become less reliant upon human intervention. The results of this are already being seen by winemakers able to gain greater natural acidity through the addition of grapes that do not need such high alcohol levels to achieve physiological ripeness. How about experimenting with whole bunch ferments? Throw in those (lignified) stalks – play around! Blending may be the key to Argentina discovering wines that live, evolve, thrive and blossom with age, but you will not know unless a) you go out and do it and b) you have the wherewithal to hold back some stock and start those vertical tastings that can be so intellectually as well as sensorially rewarding. It was pleasing to see top estates doing exactly this, and I encourage them to continue.
I know this sounds like a broken record, but Argentina needs to dial down alcohol levels. I am not looking for anemic, green, lily-livered wines, but ones that I could order in a restaurant, pay the price for 750mls and drink 750mls rather than letting it evaporate. Just a modest 0.5% or 1.0% reduction might render more balanced wines with less need for tartaric adjustment and more drinkability.
“We see this comment come up quite often,” countered Andres Rosberg. “I don't necessarily disagree with it (although I tend to think there are good and bad wines at all alcohol levels), but I do think there are some arguments, most of them made by many Argentine winemakers and specialized press, about the subject. In Salta, it is very hard to go below 15%, just like it is hard to go over 13% in northern Germany. Wouldn't alcohol be part of the terroir, then? Doesn’t Salta make a wine with specific characteristics that appeals to specific consumers? Last February we hosted the Argentina Wine Awards. The judges spoke of lowering alcohol and lowering new oak. Yet when the time came for the medals, almost every one went to wines with a lot of oak and high alcohol.”
Andres has a point. Higher alcohol levels could be seen as an intrinsic part of Argentina’s terroir. My opprobrium is directed at wines dominated and defined by alcohol at the expense of complexity, delineation, freshness or personality, where the wine becomes fatiguing to consume in desired quantity. It is not something that can be brushed aside or ignored.
I know every winemaker is at pains to point out that their acid adjustment is barely a drop in the ocean; however, I will confess that for the first time in my career, my cast iron gums were bleeding by the end of the week and my teeth were hurting. I am sure that was due to the tartaric acid accumulating on my palate! I suspect that Mendoza will always require some acidification, but there need to be efforts to minimize its application, instead of shrugging shoulders and accepting its inevitability. Again, winemakers need to take a holistic approach, analyze every part of wine from soil to glass, because small adjustments here and there can make a large difference to a wine. Once again, there are ways and means of naturally reducing alcohol. For example, at Zuccardi, the addition of stems has imparted more acidity in their top “Tito” label, while several winemakers and I have already mentioned Alejandro Vigil co-fermenting the skins of Cabernet Franc with Bonarda to create a more naturally balanced wine. Clonal experimentation such as those being carried out as Casarena may also benefit a more natural acid management.
Oak. As I quipped in my discussion of icon wines, I occasionally felt that Mendoza (less so other regions) is inveigled to oak and that the general consensus was: the more, the better. This is a total fallacy. Fortunately, I encountered numerous enlightened winemakers, Mauricio Lorca among many others; who are now reassessing the role that oak has to play, choosing the optimum rather than maximum of oak, a level commensurate with each individual wine. That may be anything from 0% to 100%. Lazy journalists have accused me of being “anti-oak.” I am not. I just strongly believe that winemakers should be liberated from the pressure of employing (at great cost) the maximal amount of new oak without first considering each and every wine. After all, you do not tailor a suit to one size. Nobody will belittle or denigrate a great wine without 100% new oak if it is balanced, fresh, complex and delicious. What is more, it will save wineries a pretty penny. Nothing illustrated this shift more than at Bodegas Nicolás Catena, when Alejandro Vigil compared the oak regime of his splendid recent releases to those ten years ago. For example, the flagship Catena Zapata once boasted 200% new oak, now it is down to 60% and having tasted example from both eras, it is today’s wines that are far more personality driven, expressive and with great aging potential. There are many others following suit and Argentina will be making superior wines for it.
This report (including those notes relegated to www.erobertparker.com
due to space limitations in the print edition) contains tasting notes of over 900 wines that made the grade, and though I tasted a great number, it was pleasing to find few technically faulty or sub-standard wines compared to other countries. Much of that is down to the quality and consistency of Malbec in a relatively benign climate.
I found Argentina to be a region that is almost startled by the success that Malbec has brought them. The state-of-the-art wineries at Clos de los Siete, O. Fournier and Bodega Catena are all a testament to that. I would say, well done – now what are you going to do? If Argentina can innovate, as I believe it is beginning to, in particular thanks to a new younger generation of open-minded and more peripatetic winemakers who are co-operating with each other and exchanging information, then the possibilities are as boundless as their dreams.
"KEEPING A VIGIL: ALEJANDRO'S PERSPECTIVE"
Readers will be aware that I put a great deal of effort into the accompanying narrative of my reports and I occasionally ask winemakers to volunteer their own opinions to either support or contend my views. The replies of Alejandro Vigil at Bodega Nicolas Catena were so thoughtfully written and so perspicacious that it seemed sacrilegious to blend them away into my own prose. You will not find any scores here. But you will find one of Argentina’s most passionate winemakers, and perhaps the most talented, offering his opinions with lucidity and insight. My questions were occasionally provocative!
Can Malbec really age? Isn't it a grape that is great for 8-10 years, but often fails to offer secondary characteristics?
The first thing I would like to explain is how winemaking has evolved for Malbec over the last 12 to 15 years. When Catena became serious about making a world-class Malbec in the early nineties, Malbec was vinified the same as Cabernet Sauvignon. Then we realized that this was all wrong, that Malbec needed to be fermented differently, in fact that everything from the vineyard to every step of winemaking from fermentation to ageing had to be different. We did a lot of trial and error, both at the winery and at the vineyard. In some ways Malbec is a more delicate grape in the vineyard, more susceptible to coulure and to low yields. In other ways, it is quite versatile in our climate; it doesn't burn with the sun, in fact at high altitude we see thicker skins and more concentration through a combination of cool climate and sunlight. Also, although Malbec has more anthocyanin and as many polyphenols as Cabernet Sauvignon, the tannins of a good area Argentine Malbec are naturally rounder, so techniques such as punch downs can give complexity and texture to a Malbec whereas they would result in harshness for a Cabernet Sauvignon. Also, high altitude vineyards with intense sun exposure like Adrianna in Gualtallary - Tupungato - can be harvested much earlier than we thought, because ripeness is made possible by the sunlight. These wines can have optimal tannin levels with exuberant fruit and perfect natural alcohol/acid balance.
So going back to the history of the last 12 to 15 years, our first step was to understand this basic difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec and how Malbec should be treated differently. In the beginning we started to produce wines that highlighted the aromatic characteristics of the variety: the ripe fruits, notes of violet and overall round tannins. Years passed, and now we have extremely drinkable wines that give us a unique profile made of tamed, round tannins that preserve the true fruit essence of the grape and its behaviour in our high altitude terroir (this is all the more interesting because historically Malbec has been known as a rustic overly tannic wine).
And now, getting back to your question about the aging process, we wondered, how many years could we age these wines? Are they appropriate for aging? Well, we started working on this idea - after all, historically, since the Middle Ages, Malbec has been known for its aging potential.
Particularly, we looked into the idea of having less overripe wines, planting in cooler climates (Nicolas Catena was the first to dare to plant in extreme high altitudes in the nineties). We realized that through judicious vineyard management, as the high altitude vineyards got older, we were harvesting perfectly ripe fruit, 3 to 4 weeks earlier than before. Also, we found that if we picked the perfect harvest time for each lot, we could even use whole clusters to increase concentration and monomeric tannins (necessary for aging) without losing the round tannins. So I am confident that Malbec can age, but not just any Malbec from Mendoza. There must be consideration for the region, altitude, soil, age of the vineyard, plant population and winemaking/viticultural practices.
Blending - are Argentinean winemakers afraid to blend because a label with "Malbec" sells the wine? Is this a missed opportunity?
I believe that blends certainly have their role in the ever-evolving process of understanding wine making. Blending is an art that takes a long time to master, and you need to truly know the varieties to do it well. If you look at people who have done it successfully, they start with the variety. And as they learn the land and the way the variety develops there, they are ultimately able to create a beautifully balanced blend of very high quality. Blends here in Argentina are still very much a new practice. Without a doubt we have complementary varieties, including the Bonarda and Cabernet Franc, that have great potential to play a part in Argentinean blends in the near future.
If you look at the sales in Europe, Malbec is less dominant than in the US, and there are many other varieties and blends being sold from Argentina. In the US, Malbec is the dominant Argentine variety being sold. I like to think that if I make a very good wine, people will buy it. Malbec is a very drinkable wine that has an attractive flavor, but many excellent blends can also be made here in Mendoza. Perhaps there will be more of a combination of single varieties and blends in the future.
Should Mendoza winemakers just accept that they will always have to acidify? Or are there techniques, either in vineyard management or in the winery that can naturally increase acidity?
Absolutely not. Acidification is a practice that has to do with late harvests, harvests that in turn produce wines that have a huge imbalance between alcohol and acidity. It’s an age-old perception that higher alcohol content means better quality in a wine. In Mendoza, you can harvest in such a way that acidification isn’t necessary. If we manage and develop the vineyards in a certain way, we’ll find that we really shouldn’t have to alter the wine, or at least not every time.
But to put it graphically, I remember many years ago my grandfather teaching me about wine. The two things he loved were, first, what he called complexity, and the second thing was that he loved to drink lots of wine with friends. This last thing was not something that he said by chance; I remember that these meetings lasted between 4 to 5 hours where they ate and drank a lot. For this he needed wines which he called fresh (good acidity) and with low alcohol (it would take two or three liters to quench the thirst of the raw ham). Well, how did he achieve this with his wines? Something basic and with a lot of common sense, he left more kilograms per plant, this helped to have a slow maturation, with low alcohol and high acidity.
Years have passed and I came to Catena, where I learned much of what I know today. In the nineties there was a belief here in Argentina that a good wine had to be highly concentrated, high in alcohol, powerful, explosive. Doctor Catena, Laura and I spent a lot of time drinking old Burgundies and many wines from Bordeaux that the Doctor would import for our "research"; Laura brought wines from all over the world every time that she flew from the United States to Argentina. We began to talk about the wines that we liked the most, and they were subtler with good tannin/alcohol/acidity balance. They were aromatic and memorable. I made a trip to Burgundy, where I was surprised to see many different things in the vineyards - they did very little manipulation of yields; they were harvesting earlier than I would have imagined. Over the years at Catena, we have worked to harvest each parcel at the right time, depending on the soil/climate of the site; not to manipulate; to harvest earlier. We also bring out the freshness in the wine with practices such as whole cluster fermentation with low pH, use of the white wine lees during fermentation of reds and shorter macerations. In the end we go back to what my grandfather prized, the perfect combination of freshness and complexity.
Terroir - Argentina can never truly express individual terroirs unless winemakers are more committed to reducing irrigation and forcing vines roots deeper into the ground. Is that a true statement?
It is a conceptual discussion about the terroir, but I think that we have the possibility to clearly express the terroir in Mendoza and Argentina. We have two fundamental points to characterize the area. The first and fundamental characteristic of our terroir is the altitude; this parameter acts over the temperature, soil, moisture and essentially the human being. This last one determines the handling of the crop by experience gained generation after generation, learning the idiosyncrasies of each lot within each vineyard and how to irrigate it. The practice of irrigation in Mendoza has more than 500 years: a complex network of channels organized by the indigenous people today remains the basis of the distribution of water in the province, an extremely complex system that uses the pure water from the mountains. But without a doubt, the handling has taken a while and at this stage the technology has helped us. Also, 30 years ago we used more than 1500 mm of water per hectare and today there are areas where we use no more than 400 mm. This undoubtedly has helped to achieve the real balance of the plant within each zone and is giving us the opportunity to express the characteristics of the terroir of each vineyard and of sub-parcels within a vineyard. I remember measuring in the tank the evapo-transpiration, then using the Scholander pump that measures the potential water in the plant, and today we measure the sap flow in the trunk. In conclusion, there is a better management of water, and I think that there are oenologists and wine growers committed to have wines of terroir.
So I agree that in Mendoza, where viticulture would not be possible without irrigation, judicious management of water is key to expressing each vineyard and each individual lot's terroir.
When it comes to wine, I tell people to throw away the vintage charts and invest in a corkscrew. The best way to learn about wine is the drinking. --- Alexis Lichine