Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
March 2005 Flying High in Mendoza
Argentina has an attitude about altitude.
Talk to winemakers anywhere and they'll tell you about their terroir, about soils that are sandy/loamy/chalky/stony, about microclimates that seduce sea fog in at night to cool the grapes, about how they were smart enough to buy the east/west/north/south side of the hill that's a few feet higher than the other guy's and gets the best sun exposure and the best air-drainage so the frost always slides down the slope and devastates the neighbor's vineyard.
But man, these guys have the Andes!
The Andes do everything for the wine, according to several winemakers I met on a recent visit to Mendoza, Argentina's premier wine region. With vineyard land costing a mere $5,000 per acre compared to hundreds of thousands in California, combined with a favorable currency exchange rate and well, do the math. Argentine wines are spectacular values.
The Andes offer three things that define Argentina's terroir: a weather break that moderates temperatures and humidity, abundant water from winter snow melts allowing winemakers to irrigate vineyards as much or little as needed, and altitude.
Lets put this into perspective: Napa Valley's Mount Veeder tops out at about 2,000 feet elevation, with vineyard lands mostly around 1,000 feet. The Tupungato region of the Uco Valley in Mendoza has vineyards at around 5,000 feet elevation, and pathfinding wineries such as Catena Zapata are planting vineyards ever higher.
What does this do for the grapes? With every climb of 100 meters in altitude, the average temperature decreases by 1 degree Celsius. That means grapes with higher acidity and softer tannins. But the intensity of the sunlight also increases, allowing the grapes to achieve maximum ripeness while the cooler temperatures keep the sugars in check. Intense sun does not equal heat. The combination of low temperatures and high-intensity sun yields red wines of high extraction, soft if not disappearing tannins, and impressive structure and balance. Carefully made, they do not have the excessive alcohol that mars so many modern, "international" wines. White wines can feature bracing acidity and verve without the need, in the case of Chardonnay, for much if any malolactic fermentation.
If you haven't noticed these wines before, don't be surprised. The Argentines have only recently discovered the bounty they have, including Malbec, a Bordeaux grape ideally suited to the climate.
"I used to ignore Malbec, because the Americans weren't making it," said Nicolás Catena, the patriarch of Catena Zapata and a partner in several other wineries, including La Rural (Familia Rutini) and Escorihuela (Don Miguel Gascon). He started "paying attention" to Malbec in the mid-1990s, when he planted an experimental vineyard of 145 Malbec vines. Grapes from 15 of these were vinified, and five were selected to form the basis of Catena Zapata's vineyards. Then Catena started planting vineyards at higher altitudes.
"We discovered that in terms of phenolic and aromatic compounds, wines of the same varietal from different altitudes were strikingly different," Catena said. "We concluded that vineyards of higher altitude were going to create greater reds and greater whites." He also concluded that blending wines from different vineyards produced a better wine than the individual components on their own.
Malbec is also special because it lacks the type of tannins that make red wines bitter, Catena explained. Softer tannins from the grape plus softer tannins from the climate equal velvety wine. It tastes sweet, without actually being sweet or heavy. Since it ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, it is better suited for the higher altitude vineyards.
To demonstrate his point, Catena poured us components of his 2004 Catena Alta Malbec, a wine that should retail for about $40. Wine from about 2,850 feet showed plummy, pruny sweet fruit; from 3,100 feet the flavors were more intense, with blueberry and spice and a long, sweet finish. At 3,870 feet, the aromatics were displaying lavender, thyme and floral notes, while the highest vineyard, at 5,000 feet, offered acidity and structure.
This attractive terroir has captured the attention of international investors. Moet et Chandon, the French Champagne house, has been producing sparkling wine in Mendoza for several years and owns Terrazas de los Andes, a producer of fine Malbec. Dutch-owned Bodegas Salentein imports famed flying winemaker Michel Rolland several times a year to consult on the wines produced at its stunning facility in the Uco Valley.
Like Icarus, these vintners are flying close to the sun, and there are risks. Native winemakers are fond of saying that foreigners, unidentified for the sake of propriety, suffered burnt grapes when they imported typical trellising techniques into the intense sunlight of the high-altitude vineyards. And the Andes have their own kind of fury. Storms can rip across Mendoza during the crucial stages of the growing season, devasting crops with hail. On our visit to Salentein we could see row after row of lush vines punctuated by hail damage.
One way to protect against the hail, of course, is to string nets above the vines. Familia Zuccardi, producer of the popular Santa Julia wine of lines, employs this expensive technique to protect its vineyards, which are all farmed organically. José Alberto Zuccardi explains that the nets filter out about 15 percent of the sunlight from the grapes.
"This is not a problem," he shrugs. "We have more sun than we need."
Now you don't often hear that from winemakers.
Here are my impressions of the wineries we visited in Argentina, with selected tasting notes of current releases. Some generalizations are in order: Chardonnays produced for export to the U.S. and elsewhere tend to have partial barrel fermentation, some in "second-use" barrels, and partial or no malolactic fermentation. White wines in general emphasize acidity rather than oak. Red wines can differ in style according to the winery, with some (Bodegas Salentein) favoring high alcohol over 14 percent, with others striving to keep alcohol levels in check. Some of the 2004s may not yet be in the U.S. market but should be here soon.
Catena Zapata. A pioneer in Argentine winemaking, with a winery in Agrelo south of Mendoza that is modeled after a Mayan temple. No foreign investment here, this winery is home-grown. The Alamos line of wines provide consistent quality at $10 a bottle; I recommend the 2004 Viognier, which while not floral like some U.S. examples offers cream, lemon, peach and mineral flavors with nice body and acidity. The 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon offers blackberry, toasted coffee and mocha, with a sweet and long finish, a nice value for the price. And don't miss the thoroughly enjoyable 2004 Bonarda, aromatic with fennel and wild herbs, juicy and Rhone-like.
The Catena line, at about $20, offers the 2004 Chardonnay with soft, round flavors of lemon, peach and toasted hazelnuts. The stars of this line, however, are the 2003 Malbec, showing hints of clove and cocoa over restrained fruit of plums and berries, and the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, with a woodsy, spicy nose and a sweet palate of cocoa, coffee, cherries and berries and, my gosh, where are the tannins? These are stylish reds with a deft touch.
Catena's flagship wine, Nicolás Catena 2001 ($60), is a blend of 52 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 48 percent Malbec. It is a sweet, fine but well-structured and nuanced wine featuring blueberries and violets in its jammy flavors, absolutely delicious.
La Rural, also known as Familia Rutini, was the first winery to plant vineyards in the Tupungato range of the Uco Valley at about 3,300 feet elevation. While there are now vineyards at higher altitudes, there are few wines of greater finesse than the Rutini line, at about $15. The elegant 2004 Chardonnay shows green apple, pears, stonefruit and melon with a medium-long oaky finish and lots of style. (Only 50 percent of the wine went through malolactic fermentation.) The 2003 Malbec is opaque with lots of body, smoke, flint and stones, with gorgeous dark fruit and cocoa flavors over stony, earthy tannins on the finish. That sounds stupid, but taste it and you'll understand.
The winery is best known, however, for its Trumpeter line of bargain wines, in the $8-10 range. The 2004 Chardonnay shows good apple and pear fruit with vervy acidity, while the 2004 Malbec displays cola, blueberry, cranberry fruit with velvety texture and little noticeable tannin. Even better is the 2004 Malbec-Syrah, a 50-50 blend that shows black cherry, cocoa, cola and blueberry flavors with soft tannins - an excellent patio or barbecue wine for summer at the price.
Bodegas Salentein offers the "international" style of famed consultant Michel Rolland, which means ultra-extracted, weighty, high-alcohol reds, often pushing 15 percent. This is not my favorite style of wine, as it requires exceptional fruit to succeed without being out of balance. (And who wants to drink only one glass of Pinot Noir?) That said, these wines are probably quite marketable. The best in our tasting was the 2002 Malbec, juicy and bold with berry and spice flavors. The 2003 Malbec was nearly as good and will benefit from a bit more time to settle down. Salentein's bargain line is Finca el Portillo, at about $10. The 2004 Chardonnay was a standout, with zesty fruit and live-wire acidity throughout - food-friendly and refreshing, a great wine for summer.
Escorihuela winery produces the Don Miguel Gascón line of wines that are available in the U.S. for $10-12. The best of these are the 2004 Malbec, with roasted coffee and blackberry flavors, good body and licorice and caramel notes on the finish. The 2003 Syrah is a bit aggressive with the oak, but otherwise quite nice for the price, with toasty blueberry, meaty and smoky notes and soft tannins on the finish.
Finally, the Familia Zuccardi produces the Santa Julia line of wines well known in the U.S. for under $10. The 2004 Torrontés offers lime zest and floral notes in an off-dry aperitif wine, ideal for patio weather. The 2004 Malbec is soft and velvety with cocoa-dusted berry flavors, a nice value for the price, as is the smoky 2004 Syrah. The 2003 Reserva Malbec (now they're really ripping you off for a whopping $11!) offers licorice, sasparilla and yes, meat flavors over a medium finish. Some imaginative chef will soon be deconstructing a beef-flavored root beer float. For dessert, the 2004 Tardio, 85 percent Torrontés and 15 percent Viognier without botrytis, is a jasmine-scented beauty for $13 for a 500-ml bottle. The $20 Q range features a nice 2002 Malbec and a delicious, if somewhat aggressively oaked, 2002 Tempranillo. If you were to meet José Alberto Zuccardi, you would know these wines are about fun, family and friends rather than point scores.
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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.