24 Dec 2011

South America – observations and learnings

Talk about potential! Chile and Argentina have been improving every aspect of wine production since the 80s, and as they learn more about their unique terroir and which varieties and styles to focus on in their regions, the sky is the limit. Chile in particular seems to have such an amazing range of different climates, soil types and elevations that they could theoretically produce any wine style imaginable. People in the industry here are some of the warmest and most genuine I have ever encountered. The quality of the wines speaks volume, but it is the enthusiasm and honesty with which they are produced that makes them so special. In many of the wineries I visited I felt so welcome it was hard to leave so soon.

Very old vineyards in Cafayate, Argentina
Wine tourism is a rapidly growing business, particularly in Mendoza where it seems hundreds of backpackers are taking bike tours to wineries every day. The proximity and number of wineries in places like Mendoza and Salta make them a bit more attractive for wine tourism, compared to the fewer and more dispersed wineries in Chile. This doesn’t mean they are necessarily better, as I saw some very sophisticated and in some cases personalised and premium examples in Chile. They just need to bring more people there for wine. Whilst tourism is becoming very advanced, communication is not. Countless emails I sent either through my browser or via the winery website went unanswered, which makes it very hard to make appointments. It defeats the purpose of providing contact details on a website if emails are not going to be checked. Many travelers don’t have access to a phone to make calls, and even if they do their Spanish might not be very good and thus are anxious about speaking on a phone.

At Terrazas de los Andes in Mendoza, Argentina
There seems to be more stylistic variety in Chilean wines compared with Argentinian. Whether this is to do with the variety in climates in Chile, or the willingness to make wines against the grain, I am unsure. Malbec too often is too simlar under US$40, and in some cases over $40 it is hard to see what you are paying for. In Chile I tried a great variety of sauvignon blancs and carmeneres that always represented great value. There are many large wineries in both countries, and these tend to produce very similar commercial styles of wine, but it is the smaller artisan producers that are the future of quality wine in these countries. Some of the highlights were Casa Marin, Amayna, Neyen des Apalta and Antiyal in Chile, and Mendel, Carmelo Patti, Monte Quieto and Colome in Argentina. Whilst some may be part of larger groups, the hands-on and yet hands-off approaches to these wines were exceptional.

With a friend in the Apalta Valley, Chile
Single varietal wines are the focus here, taking a leaf out of the success of Australian wines in the export markets. These wines are much more approachable in style and understandability (it’s a word!), but I feel there is so much potential with blended wines, as many of the best I tried took advantage of the best of each variety and combined them into one great wine. It is not hard to understand the historical significance of French varietals in South America, particularly considering the edge they have over the rest of the world with old-vine cabernet sauvignon, carmenere, malbec and torrontes. Considering the climate and the limited access to water, it is a shame there isn’t as much of a push with Spanish and Italian varieties here as there is in Australia. The few that I tried were outstanding, particularly tempranillo and bonarda, but there are many other options as well. Considering the Spanish heritage and language, I would have thought it made more sense to plant Spanish varieties…

Amongst the barrels in Colchagua, Chile
Export strategies are paramount, particularly in Chile where they export far more than they consume. Not only do they understand their markets by placing employees in market, but they also understand the value of not relying too much on too few markets. When you consider the state of the global market, Europe and North America might be down, but Asia and Brazil are up, so it is just a question of shifting focus as markets fluctuate. Salta is expensive and extremely isolated. I’m still trying to determine if I enjoyed my time there. People taking the afternoon off for lunch and a siesta makes things difficult in regions.

A little carried away in the Maipo Valley, Chile
The continent is wide open for organic viticulture; the climate is very warm and dry, and there isn’t much water to be shared. So often I would look at my GPS and it would say I was travelling over a large river, and I would look down to see a trickle of water underneath me. Dry-farming and organics need to be invested in as a much more sustainable and long-term approach to viticulture and wine production.

Carmenere was 'rediscovered' here in the Maipo Valley, Chile
Best region and variety matches; Alto Maipo: cabernet sauvignon, Cajon de Maipo: chardonnay, Apalta: carmenere, Leyda/San Antonio: sauvignon blanc, Elqui: syrah, Uco Valley: malbec, Lujan de Coyo: tempranillo (potentially), Cafayate: torrontes, Colome: ???

With new friends in Santiago, Chile

22 Dec 2011

Come on down to torrontes town (Salta, Argentina - Day Two)

Funny how hindsight is always 20/20, but Salta was a very expensive detour to make. Firstly the rental car here was the most expensive I've experienced at $100+ per day, plus a navigator. Then you factor in the three hours each way from Salta, and the three hours each way to Colome, and that adds up to a fair amount of fuel for two days. Then on the way back from Colome on the previous day I had a blow-out without realising on the gravel highway, and subsequently damaged the wheel, which cost me $220 damages. When you add on accommodation and food, I ended up spending about $500 for two days, well over the $100 per day budget I have set myself. Was it worth the effort and expense? We shall see...

My generous winemaker host from Terrazas in Mendoza had recommended a few wineries to visit in Salta, most notably his close winemaker friend Ignacio at Etchart in Cafayate. At short notice and so close to Christmas I really appreciated Ignacio making some time to take me around the winery. Etchart is one of the oldest wineries in the region, but is now under the French Pernod Ricard banner. It is very strong in the domestic market, which accounts for 70% of its production. The brand is so strong that they are associated with Cafayate, having trademarked the term back in the 60s when torrontes wasn't trendy. Torrontes is the focus here, and with good reason as even though the region doesn't produce the most of the variety, it is regarded as producing the best. This has a lot to do with the large oscillations in temperature between day and night. Ignacio took me out to the estate vineyard which has some of the most amazing vines I've ever seen, torrontes and a parent variety of torrontes, planted back in the 1860s.

Ignacio then took me up to the winery tasting room for a snapshot of the wines produced at Etchart. He opened three torrontes, all at varying price-points to show the variation in style. The Privado 2011 was very crisp, fresh and bright, with good acids and fruit. The Reserve 2011 was a step up in quality, looking for more texture on the palate whilst retaining the freshness and vibrancy. Thanks to some lees contact the wine also had a very soft character of parmesan rind. The top of the range torrontes was the Gran Linaje 2010, which is definitely in the rich, textured and volumous style. There is a nice element of honeyed rosemary which floats above the fruit and floral notes, and the acids ebb and flow gently on the palate. The Reserve Malbec 2010 we looked at had far too much fruit and sweet tannins to be taken very seriously, pretty much consumer friendly fare. The Arnaldo B 2008 blend on the other hand had great subtlety and depth, balance of fruit and savoury sweetness on the back, and excellent structure. Not a great wine per se, but great for US$25!

One of the other wineries that Gonzalo recommended was Nanni, and once I realised why (apart from the wines being good) I had a chuckle. The reason is that Ignacio recently got married to the daughter of the family who own Nanni, and she is good friends with Gonzalos girlfriend. Naturally Ignacio recommended the winery, and was nice enough to call ahead so they would expect me. Nanni is one the oldest wineries in the region that is owned by the original family, now run by the fourth generation. The focus is naturally on torrontes, but they also make a range of reds that include cabernet sauvignon, malbec and tannat. They also make a rosado made from cabernet, and their icon blend is led by bonarda, the next great variety in Argentina. The historic winery is very quaint and charming, and they are one of the few certified organic producers in Argentina, so very progressive as well. Of the wines I tried the Torrontes 2010 was wonderfully fresh and tropical, the Rosato 2011 was textured enough to match with a variety of foods, and the Torrontes Tardio 2010 had a lovely floral and citric nose with good and fresh sweetness on the palate.

Click here to see more photos from Day 2 of Salta

Did someone say isolated? (Salta, Argentina – Day One)

I tossed around a couple of ideas for the name of this entry; Cafayate to Colome Rally; On top of the world, looking down on creation; Extreme altitude; High society; There and back again. Really any of them could apply to the adventures of the day. After arriving quite late into Cafayate the previous night and getting a good night sleep, I was keen to get to Colome on time. Little did I know that getting to the Colome winery is possibly one of the most laborious and treacherous I have ever experienced. Now in my days as a wine professional I’ve driven on unsealed roads to get to wineries plenty of time. Mostly they are the driveway or a side road off the highway, but nothing like this. The National Route 40 for a good 75km from Cafayate to Molinos and beyond is like outback Australia, also because of the scenery. This is not the kind of setting you expect to find a winery, let alone vineyards. Significantly drier and warmer during the day than Mendoza, the altitude of the Salta region alone makes this a cooler climate, as the daylight hours are shorter and the nights are colder.

The Colome winery dates back to 1831 when the last Spanish Governor of Salta planted Bordeaux varieties and established a winery, making it the oldest winery in Argentina. The vineyards here are therefore pre-phylloxera cuttings that are up to 180 years old, possibly the oldest in the world? The winery was re-established in 1998 by Swiss legends, Donald and Ursula Hess, who own wine businesses on four (new-world) continents. Newer vineyards have since been planted to expand the business, and through much better understanding of micro-climates they have planted the highest vineyard in the world, at 3111 metres above sea level. This makes the Colome vineyard seem paltry at 2300m, but still a good 1000m above the highest in Australia. The vineyards are biodynamically and organically farmed, which they take seriously by having signs at the entry to the property asking visitors not to interfere with the environment. The Hess Family are proud of their commitment to the local community and their staff, who are integral to the success of the business. There is also a hotel on the estate that uses organic produce grown on the property to prepare fantastic meals.

The winemaking philosophy is fairly simple, just don't get in the way of the expression of vineyard and varietal. To this end the winemaker Thibault Delmotte ferments in stainless steel vats and tries to use minimal new oak, retaining the freshness and vibrancy. Having access to four vineyards at an altitude range of 1500m means he has lot's of options for blending. Tasting through a number of varieties all grown at different altitudes is fascinating when you consider how the blend will come together. For example Thibault uses tannat that has high natural acidity instead of adding any tartaric or citric acids. In the tasting room I also tried some of the single vineyard wines that I mentioned earlier, and the standout was definitely the Syrah 2010, which had a really interesting shell fish character to it that I've only ever seen in sauvignon blanc from coastal regions.

Click here to see more photos from Salta Day One

Flagships (Mendoza, Argentina – Day Five)

For my (unfortunately) final day in Mendoza, I visited three wineries; two similar, one different. The first was established back in 1901 (the year of Australia’s federation!) by a Spaniard, who named the winery Bosca. It became Luigi Bosca for reasons I can’t quite fathom, but they had something to do with marketing. I’m not sure how the addition of Luigi helps, considering he was the dud Mario Brother… Anyway, the cellar is very large and historic, combining Mendoza cement fermenters stainless steel, 5,000 barrels for maturing the wines, and a fantastic museum area where the 12 pillars of the cross are reimagined as the life cycle of wine and Luigi Bosca. The winery produces in excess of 8 million litres of wine each year, covering 35 different wines. No mean feat for the consultant winemaker Roberto de la Mota, who you may remember is the winemaker at Mendel.

I was taken through part of the winery and part of the range of wines by Soledad, from the hospitality department. She picked a few wines to show me, and whilst good the wines didn’t impress me. The Gala 3 2009 which retails for about US$40 is a blend of viognier, chardonnay and riesling, and not surprisingly the blend doesn’t work. Very tropical mango and paw paw aromas from the viognier and chardonnay give way to a very rich, textured and hot palate, not in balance with the acids. The De Sangre 2009 suffered from a similar blending problem, being cabernet, merlot and syrah. A wine that is very unique to Luigi Bosca is the Finca Los Nobles Cabernet Bouchet, which is a field blend of cabernet sauvignon and bouchet. According to the sommelier the bouchet is the father grape of cabernet franc, but I seriously doubt this. For US$100 this is possibly the most over-priced wine I have tried in South America, as it is incredibly ripe, juicy, broad and full, lacking any subtlety or structure. The wine also appeared hot for 14% alcohol. I really liked the Malbec D.O.C. 2008, coming from a single vineyard in Lujan de Coyo, as it had nice balance between plum and spice with hints of lavender and earth. Definitely the most balanced, and really good for US$40.

My wonderful host Mariana from Finca Flichman recommended a small winery called Monte Quieto, and even put me in touch with the marketing guy. Not expecting to be leaving Luigi Bosca after only an hour I arrived at the winery about 45 minutes earlier than arranged, but they were good enough to welcome me anyway. Monte Quieto was opened in 2001 by another eccentrically wealthy South Americans, initially to grow and sell fruit, but converting to wine production and sales shortly after. The winemaking philosophy is to blend, except of course to make a malbec which the market needs. The winery is evolving fast, changing the blend and learning more about the three vineyards being sourced from. The newly appointed French winemaker is poised to pull the winery into the upper echelons of Mendoza, and is certainly on the right track with blending varieties. We looked at some components for the 2011 blend, which is blended post tank fermentation and maceration before barrel maturing. We tasted the 2006 wine but it isn’t worth talking about as the style and blend is changing. We spent several hours chatting about wine and life, as he had worked for a year each in New Zealand and Australia, at Leeuwin Estate and the Wine Room in St. Kilda. A fantastic afternoon with two great guys, hopefully we can catch up again in the future.

The final visit in Mendoza was to possibly the most important winery in the region. The Catena family have been growing and producing wine for almost 110 years in Mendoza, surviving economic, political and environmental difficulties along the way. What makes the winery so important is that Nicolas Catena was the first in the country to modernise his winery and aspire to make world-class wines by introducing oak barrels and premium techniques from Europe. As such Catena Zapata was a pioneer in the Argentinian wine industry, and was more recently the first South American winery to receive a score of 90+ points in the American media (Wine Spectator). Points are pretty important to the brand as the welcome video shows. The current winery was built in 2002 to represent South America by being built to resemble a Mayan pyramid. Driving towards the building is a somewhat imposing experience, as is standing in the middle of it and looking up. The hospitality side of the business is the most sophisticated I have seen in South America, but has the benefit of selective visitation. Still family-owned, you can tell the employees love working there, particularly as they are taken care of and given opportunities not always possible in corporate organisations.

Catena Zapata now exports about 80% of their production, significantly higher than the national average of 30%. There are essentially three ranges in the portfolio; the Catena range, the Catena Alta range, and the icon range. In the first two ranges I was shown the chardonnay and malbec for each. The Catena wines were very fresh, vibrant, clean and balanced. The acids were nice and bright, whilst the fruit was not to full or simple. The Malbec 2009 in particular had some nice savoury elements rarely seen in an entry-level wine. The Alta range had distinctively more complexity and structure to them, the Chardonnay 2009 being creamier and richer whilst maintaining balance and subtlety, and the Malbec 2008 having great depth, consistency and texture. We finished with the Nicolas Catena Napata 2007, which is always a blend of Bordeaux varieties (mostly cabernet sauvignon and malbec), and is the icon wine of the brand. This wine has received very high points from the likes of Robert Parker and Wine Spectator, and it is not hard to see why. It is very vibrant and intense, full and velvety with good length. In my personal opinion I found that it lacked subtlety and depth for a wine priced at US$120+, and wonder if it is designed for ageing. The wine is by no means bad, but it suffers a common new-world problem of being hard to see what you are paying for. The new oak does get in the way a bit much.

Click here to see more photos from Mendoza Day Five

Uco your way, and I’ll go mine (Mendoza, Argentina – Day Four)

In case you weren’t already aware, the Mendoza wine region is large in area and volume. Covering an area not unlike the entire Murray Darling Basin, and producing more wine than Australia and New Zealand combined, there are a lot of vineyards. There are also over 1,200 wineries, equivalent to all of Australia, and a range of different viticultural areas. The main difference between these areas is elevation, ranging from 800m to 1500m above sea level. The Uco Valley, 1.5 hours South of Mendoza city, is one of the more elevated and newer viticultural areas in Mendoza, and it was here I visited the only winery of the day. The reasons were two-fold. Firstly I didn’t realise how far away the winery was, and secondly because it was difficult to find and I took several wrongs turns. Worth the drive though, even in the blistering heat with virtually no air conditioning. It was also amazing how the Andes are so clear in the morning and you can see the snow-capped peaks, yet by the afternoon the clouds and fog has set in and they are almost invisible.

O. Fournier was established in 2000 by the Spanish family, Ortega Gil-Fournier. The goal was to take advantage of a previously undeveloped part of Mendoza by buying huge tracts of land to plant predominantly tempranillo vines. Much like Rioja or Ribera del Duero, the Mendoza region is very dry and hot, and a long way from the coast, so it is not hard to see the potential of Spanish and Italian grape varieties. Building a world-class winery was no mean feat, taking serious investment in money and time. Purchasing land, establishing entirely new vineyards and designing and building a modern and functional winery is no easy or cheap enterprise. Back in the late 90s the entire project cost US$10M, but today the land alone is worth US$15M. Pretty good investment if you ask me. The scale of the winery has to be experienced in person, no photos can do it justice. The enourmous cellar is called the cathedral for good reason, and the packaging and warehouse area feels like an airport terminal.

It was really interesting to share perspectives with the Hospitality Manager Paula as we tasted through some of the wines. There are essentially three ranges, the entry level Urban Uco, the Alpha and the Beta Crux wines, and then there is an additional icon blend. The two blends I tried from the range stood out for their quality. Both tempranillo led blended reds, the Beta Cruz 2007 was very bright and fresh for a four year old wine, with intensity and clarity. In spite of the concentrated red fruit characteristics there was a Spanish flair to the wine that I enjoyed. The Alfa Crux 2003, although a similar blend, was very different. The fruit characteristics that remained in the wine had evolved into calamata olives and capers, quite developed and earthy. On the palate it had developed nicely, becoming soft but retaining its structure. Very savoury and long, it was a far cry over the more expensive Alfa Cruz Malbec 2008, which was good but not great.

Click here to see more photos from Mendoza Day Four

17 Dec 2011

Once in a blue moon... (Mendoza, Argentina - Day Three)

Once in a while if you are really lucky you have a wine-related experience that fills you with such joy and yet regret that all wine can't be like that. One of the things that makes these experiences so singular and invigorating is that they are always unexpected. I had one of these experiences in Mendoza today, and never thought it would happen here of all places. I think this was why it had such an impact on me. Getting slightly ahead of myself...

My Mendoza experience continued with a visit to Casa Argento, located in the town of Chacras de Coria. And when I say Casa, I mean it's a house. The wine brand Argento is the brainchild of Bibendum UK, the largest importer in the country, and Catena Zapata, who provide the local knowledge. They also provide the winemaking facilities and connections, so that Argento can operate locally out of the Casa, whilst the main office is in London (not Buenos Aires like most other wineries). The brand was established in 1998 to occupy a space in the UK market for good value Argentinian wine, and has since grown substantially to be the market leader in the UK, and be exported all over the world, including Australia. The wines are priced firmly in the AU$12-AU$20, and are unusually for Mendoza sealed under screwcaps (probably the UK influence).

Paula and Agustina from the Casa took me through a range of the wines, starting with two whites and followed by four reds. The wines all had a hallmark of very clean and fresh varietal fruit characters, without being fruit-sweet, over-alcoholic or oaky. For the price they are outstanding, completely unpretentious and full of flavour. Of the wines I tried there were a few standouts. The Pinot Grigio 2011 was a lovely fresh vibrant and crisp style, with a little texture to add to its food-matching ability. The Bonarda 2010 (which apparently is a variety that has a lot of potential in Mendoza) had wonderful vibrancy and a great acidic bite, whilst retaining balance and softness. And finally the Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 was dark and intense, with mouth-filling soft tannins and suppleness. Following the tasting I shared a light lunch of empanadas and salad, welcome respite from the heat and constant wine tasting.

I found an article posted on a blog run by Argento about the most expensive wines in Argentina, and this is how I came across Achaval-Ferrer. I then had Tim Atkin MW recommend the winery to me, so I was really pleased when they responded to my request for a visit. The winery is not exactly easy to find, particularly as the houses and properties on the street aren't numbered. Eventually I arrived and was given a tour of the estate vineyard and winery to explain the philosophy and process. Achaval-Ferrer was established in 1998 by four Argentinian friends who had no experience with, but a passion for great wine. Engaging Italian winemaker extraordinaire Roberto Cipresso to consult lead to his joining them as a co-owner, and boy did he have big plans for the winery (and I mean big).

The goal for Roberto was concentration and extraction, and this is achieved in a number of ways. Firstly, the vines they are growing malbec on a very old, meaning they are already producing less fruit. During the ripening period they do significant leaf thinning to expose the berries to the sun, intensifying the sugars and colour. Finally, bunch thinning bringing the yields back to 1,5 tonnes her hectare (!) means that you are getting extremely intense concentrated fruit at harvest, a potential alcohol of 18-19%. In the winery the fermentation and maceration is taken to 35 degrees to ensure that the yeasts can handle the alcohol and sugar, and through a highly oxidative handling they evaporate at least 4-5% of the alcohol, bringing it back to 14%. Amazingly the fruit is processed as it arrives, parcels are generally not kept separate, and the blending of the Quimera is actually done in the vineyard, through harvesting. Depending on the wine they get up to 100% new French oak, but aren't kept there for too long. The range consists of only red wine; an entry level malbec from five vineyards, a blend of Bordeaux varieties, and then three single-vineyard malbecs from different areas in Mendoza.

To say these wines are intense is putting it mildly. For me they are so against the grain that it is difficult to separate preference with impartiality, as it is safe to say these aren't my kind of wines. For the style however, they are very good. The Malbec Mendoza 2010 was probably the weakest, as the fruit is so cooked and stewed that there is no subtlety or complexity to it. Meatiness is not something I would want for a wine like this, nor would I want smokiness. The Quimera 2009 on the other hand achieves a level of balance that is possibly a combination of the blend of varieties (31% malbec, 27% cab sauv, 20% merlot, 15% cab franc and 14% petit verdot), and the use of 50% new oak and 50% second use barrels. There are slightly brighter fruit notes in the Quimera, and achieves better integration of oak and fruit. Of the three Finca wines, I tried the Altamira 2009 and Mirador 2009, and the difference between the two was quite astonishing. My preference was for the Altamira, as the Mirador for me had no subtlety and had an almost balsamic chinotto kind of character, whereas the Altamira was floral and fresh. It was strange tasting these wines, as the intensity and tannins make you expect big alcoholic heat, but it isn't there. Compared to some of the zins and petite sirahs I tried in California, the balance is totally different. Not hard to believe that Robert Parker loves these wines, rating the Finca wines at 98 points.

And now I return to the subject of my preface. Whilst at Argento they recommended and placed a call to Carmelo Patti to arrange a visit. Not having any idea what to expect, but hearing that his cabernet sauvignon was excpetional, I wandered into what looked like a big garage. I found Carmelo boxing up bottles himself, and soon discovered that his English was virtually non-existent. Somehow we managed to communicate and understand each other, as he explained his philosophy. As I tasted his wines and then got a tour of his winery, it dawned on me how special this man is and why he is so well respected and loved in Mendoza. Carmelo essentially runs his winery by himself, controlling every step along the way. Operating out of a small but quite old facility, he uses the simplest of processes to make his wines, of which there are only four. Fermenting his reds in concrete at naturally low temperatures, transferring to tank and then barrel for limited amount of times, captures the terroir of the vineyard 6km away. The really exciting thing is Carmelo's uncompromising approach of leaving his wine in bottle until it is drinking at its best, not when the market wants it or when Carmelo wants to pay his bills. The Malbec gets at least three years, the cabernet four and the Bordeaux blend between five and eight. Now this is integrity!

Even though I understood only 25% of what Don Carmelo was saying, I found myself hanging on every word. A couple of young Argentinian guys joined me for a tour, and I was able to make out certain things Carmelo was explaining thanks to my understanding of wine production. Tasting the wines was one of those things that stays with you, as they were all amazingly elegant, soft, velvety, complex and long. The 2007 Malbec had a persistence that I had only seen in Mendoza at Mendel, but the extra age of this one meant the tannins were rounder and generous (making me wish I could have tried some older Mendel wines). The Cabernet Sauvingon 2004 had that gorgeous character that only mature Bordeaux varieties have, with an inviting savoury character complemented by balanced fruit and acidity. To finish with we tried the 2003 Gran Assenblaje, which comprised 47% cabernet, 24% malbec, 19% merlot and 8% cab franc. Amazingly it was still showing vibrant fruit in spite of its age, showing the quality of the wine. It was silky soft yet firm, neither heavy nor hot.

Carmelo's wines are the kind of wines that make you want to tell someone you love them, that fill you with joy and yet regret that all wines can't be this good. They are the kind of wines that make life worth living, that speak to you so much let leave you speechless. Because what can you say about wines that are virtually perfect? I would never have thought I would have this kind of spiritual wine experience here in Mendoza, but perhaps that was why it was so good?

Click https://picasaweb.google.com/103966152761599927074/MendozaArgentinaDay3?authuser=0&feat=directlink to see more photos from Day Three of Mendoza

16 Dec 2011

Anyone for icon wine? (Mendoza, Argentina - Day Two)

Mendoza gets pretty hot. Wanna know I found this out? The cheapest car I could rent (which isn't that cheap) has really bad air conditioning. As I drove south from Mendoza city for another day of visits, I was very worried that I would get noticeable sweat stains on my shirt. Similar to Casa Lapostolle in Chile and Newton in Napa Valley, I was familiar with Terrazas de los Andes from my days at Domaine Chandon Australia, as they were part of the group. Having tried the wine and learning a lot about the brand, it was pretty mandatory that I visit to experience it personally. Through a connection back at home I used to work with, I was able to arrange a visit to the winery, which didn't even come close to disappointing.

Terrazas de los Andes is a winery that was established by Moet Hennessy (the only non-Chandon winery that wasn't purchased) in Mendoza in 1999. This was forty years after they opened their first sparkling wine house outside of France, when they established Bodegas Chandon in the same region. . Terazas was established to capitalise on the emerging market for premium quality table wine both domestically and in export markets, and having established distribution in both cases Moet Hennessy were well positioned. The name which translates to Terraces of the Andes relates to the vineyards being planted at various altitudes in the foothills of the Andes. Mendoza itself is a pretty amazing region, as there is very little rain and they are almost a continent away from the coast, so they use ice and snow from the mountains to irrigate. Like most of the wineries in Mendoza, Terrazas focus on single variety wines sourced from the best locations, but they also produce an icon blend in collaboration with Chateau Cheval Blanc, called Cheval des Andes. This is a blend that uses malbec as it's core, but uses other Bordeaux varieties to complete the style.

One of the winemakers Gonzalo (a native Mendozian) was my host for the visit, and he briefly took me through the winery, appreciating that I had already visited enough wineries that I didn't need to see more tanks, presses and barrels. In any case, it doesn't matter as much what happens in the winery as it does in the vineyard, and this is where Terrazas shines. They have two ranges of wines, and two icon wines. There is a varietal tier of wines designed to introduce newer markets to the winery and Argentinian wines, whilst the Reserva range is a more premium varietal expression. Within the reserva range they make two whites (torrontes and chardonnay), and four reds (malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah). Over a tasting and lunch I got to try almost all the Reserva wines, and the higlights were definitely the merlot, chardonnay and malbec, wonderfully balanced and full expressions without weight, and great acidity and structure.

We also looked at the 2007 Afincado, which is a single vineyard malbec. The balance between bright fruit and subtle complexity was astonishing in this wine, and for US$40 is an absolute bargain. I doubt you'd find it this cheap in Australia though. The depth and velvety soft tannins make this a great pairing wine, and the well-handled oak adds a nice savoury dimension. The best news was that I got to try the the 2007 Cheval des Andes, which is one of the iconic wines of Argentina. Each year winemakers from Chateau Cheval Blanc join the local winemaking team in assessing the various parcels and barrel samples, and devise a blend together. The benefit they have is a much wider selection of base wines from different vineyards and altitudes, quite different to the chateau system of selecting from one property. The 2007 vintage had that classic Bordeaux variety blend aroma, gorgeous leathery cigar box earthiness, complemented by black cherry and cassis. There is unbelievable power and intensity in the wine, but still with generous and voluptuous tannin structure. Sensationally long and persistent, it is a wine that commands age. The tasting was followed by the best meal I have enjoyed thus far on my trip; four courses of high cuisine-style regional food. The menu is below, I won't spend any more time running it in.

In researching which wineries to visit in Argentina I was browsing the Wine Spectator Top 100 for the last five years, and came across a winery called Mendel. Checking out the website I was intrigued to see a boutique winery in a region that produces more wine than Australia and New Zealand combined, and promptly got in contact. Having visited many large wineries in Chile and Argentina recently it was a shock to see a very discrete winery tucked away from the main road, and I was filled with anticipation. The winery is a partnership between an Argentian family with a history in wine, and one of the modern icons of the Argentinian winemaking fraternity; Roberto de la Mota. Discovering abandoned malbec vines dating back to 1928, they regenerated the vines to produce old vine-expressions of the variety that would distinguish themselves from the vast majority of wine produced in Mendoza. The aim is to allow the purest expression of terroir and variety, and not to get in the way of that. This philosophy epitomises what I firmly believe in, and am so excited about. The winery itself is older than the vines, and has been modified from it's original bulk production house to a super-premium facility.

I sat down with the viticulturalist and winemaker Santiago to taste through tank and barrel samples of their red wines (they also produce a semillon). We compared the 2009 and 2010 Malbecs, and you could see the influence an extra year made. The 2010 was vibrant, fresh, floral and dark on the nose, with a subtle lavender note (something I'm picking up a bit in the Mendoza malbecs). The palate for the 2010 was similarly bright and forward in its fruit notes, but with great balance. The 2009 in comparison was showing more integration and savoury elements. The acids also had a nice structure to them, carrying the complexity all the way back on the palate. We then compared the 2010 vintages of the Unus (a blend of 70% malbec and 30% cabernet sauvignon), and the Finca Remota (single vineyard malbec from the Uco Valley at 1000m altitude). The Unus for me wa a harmonious combination of the best of the two varieties, elegance, savoury notes and amazing structure and balance. I thought I had found yet another wine that supported my theory that blends are best, until I tried the Finca Remota. This was the most complete single variety wine I had tasted in a long time, with both black cherry and chocolate fruit complexity. My theory has now evolved so there is an exception; single varietal old-vine wines.

Click here to see to see more photos from Day Two in Mendoza

15 Dec 2011

Welcome relief (Mendoza, Argentina - Day One)

With absolutely no disrespect at all intended to Chile or any of the wonderful people I met whilst there, but it was such a relief to be leaving considering all of the issues with getting around and making it to wineries on time. When I dropped off the rental car I tried to explain the complications with the GPS, but was met with general indifference. I was a little frustrated at the lack of WIFI in the terminal, as I could have got a bit of work done whilst I waited for my flight, which was late. Once we were up in the air though, none if it mattered; I was on my way to Mendoza and I got to enjoy views like this (albeit for only 25 minutes!)

After arriving at the airport and discovering the car hire company I booked with didn't have an office at the airport, I had to take a short cab ride into town to pick it up. Upon departing the offices for my winery appointment for the day, I discovered several things. The first was how different the climate is in Mendoza compared with Chile, and that is decidedly drier. I struggled to find any rivers at all. The second thing I discovered was that the GPS I had reserved here ACTUALLY WORKED, telling me exactly what roads to drive on and where to turn. The third thing I discovered is that driving on freeways in Mendoza is ACTUALLY FREE! The final thing I discovered was that the cars people drive here are also very different; generally older and smaller, so there is a little bit of slow-moving traffic on the freeway. But the roads, cars and weather makes me feel like I could be in the South of France...

Another winery that exports their wines to Australia through Wines of Chile and Argentina is Finca Flichman. The winery itself dates back to 1873, but didn't officially become Finca (meaning estate in Spanish) Flichman until 1910. Now 101 years old, they were purchased by the Portugese group Sogrape in 1998, who also have holdings in Portugal (naturally), Spain, Chile and New Zealand (Framingham). As the group are responsible for introducing the world to wine with Mateus Rose, they know how to run large commercial wineries, whilst maintaining quality across the board. Producing somewhere in the vicinity of 24 million litres of wine were year, the responsibility of managing all this is put on Luis Cabral de Almeida, the Portugese chief winemaker extraordinaire. After having a lovely tour through the historic cellars with Mariana, I sat down for a tasting.

The focus for the tasting was on reds, specifically malbec (d'uh!) Many ranges of wine in various price points are the strategy, and at every point they exceed their value. Understandably the three malbecs that retail for under US$10 are fruit forward, approachable, bright, fresh and soft, exactly what you would hope for at the price range. Minimal oak influence is achieved through the use of staves, and they give a hint chocolate tannins to the palate. These wines are designed to be drunk young, and were all from the 2011 vintage. The Expressiones 2009 is a big step up in quality but not price, a blend of 60% malbec and 40% cabernet sauvignon, using a blend of French and American oak barrels. The combination of oak and cabernet fruit gives the wine an interesting complex character of tar, spice and cassis, whilst the malbec keeps things full, soft and approachable. A fuller and denser wine, it isn't heavy or aggressive. We finished with the two terroir based wines from two vineyards; Tupungato and Barrancas, which are distinctive for the age of the vines. The old-syrah from the Barrancas vineyard provides the majority of fruit for this wine, whilst the old-vine malbec provides the majority in the Tupungato. The wines were both very good, but I found there was a little freshness and complexity lacking in the Barrancas, whilst the Tupungato had great velvety tannins and wasn't as warm as the former.

Click here to see more photos from Day One of Mendoza

Return of the Jedi (Maipo Valley, Chile - Day Four)

And thus through the error of circumstance I returned to Santiago two nights earlier than I originally intended. Whilst I wasn’t too thrilled about having to come back and suffer the trials and tribulations of driving in Santiago, I knew that I could get a few visits to wineries whilst there. As mentioned in my last post, I got the opportunity to meet Julio Bouchon Jnr. and his winemaker for a tasting of the J. Bouchon wines in their Santiago offices, and was also treated to a lovely dinner with my official Chilean host, Jaime Rosello. Jaime was again instrumental in me getting appointments for my final day in Chile, back again in the Maipo Valley. Over dinner I filled him in on the experiences I had further South whilst in the Colchagua, Curico, Maule and Cachapoal regions. At El Bacco where we ate, they also had Neyen by the glass, so I got to try the 2005 vintage, which interestingly tasted younger than the 2006. I will forever be indebted to Don Jaime for all of his generosity, time and connections for making my first trip to Chile so memorable.

Perez Cruz in Alto Maipo, one of the newest wineries I visited in Chile, opened in 2002 with the first vintage release in 2003. The family who own the business are one of the wealthiest in Chile, and established the winery as a memorial to their father who passed away in the late 1980s, leaving the 11 children very wealthy. Thanks to their significant holdings in other industries, they have plenty of cash to invest into the wine business. The ultra-modern winery is very high-tech and well planned, but has already become too small for their fast-growing business. After less than ten years they have reached capacity, and have planted new vineyards on the estate (which will bear fruit to be used next vintage), and are completing a new cellar that will hold 500 barrels adjacent to the winery. The Alto (Upper) Maipo area is very close to the Andes so is slightly cooler than the valley floor. The main thing that I liked about Perez Cruz was they are operating in the Regional Model, whereby they are focussing only on the varieties that perform well in the immediate area. For Maipo this is undoubtedly reds, particularly Bordeaux varieties.

They only produce seven wines, all red, using only five varieties (currently). Naturally as it is the Maipo Valley, the most dominant variety is cabernet sauvignon, particularly as the Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for 80% of their production. The wines they produce are definitely in the ultra-premium category, with no wine retailing for less than US$10. The Limited Edition range has three wines, all single variety; a syrah, a carmenere and a cot (the original French name for malbec). The LE Carmenere 2010 I tried was one of the most balanced wines I have tasted in Chile, finding a true harmony of fruit, tannin, alcohol and complexity. The nose had a cocoa and violets aroma, with nice herb & spice elements, complimented by great length and concentration of red currants and dust on the palate. As it was the first release, my host Maria Jose wanted my thoughts on the Chaski Petit Verdot 2008, which I was happy to share. An inky black colour gives way to an intensely perfumed blackcurrant, spice and tomato leaf aromas. The nose is luxuriously inviting, powerful yet complex. The palate on the other hand was very dark and concentrated, with very little complexity. Slightly hot, you can see how it contributes to the Bordeaux blend. On it’s own it is exactly what many consumers want, but will never be a great wine.

Less than 2km down the road on a very indistinct road, with no sign, was Antiyal. Two missed turns meant it took 30 minutes when it should have taken 10. I was greeted by Pablo the operational winemaker, who introduced me to the history and philosophy of the business. Antiyal was established by the king of biodynamic viticulture in Chile: Alvaro Espinosa. Consulting to numerous wineries across the country including Emiliana, he previously worked for Concha y Toro. After spending a year at Ceago in Mendocino (click here to read about my visit there), he returned to Chile to introduce biodynamic practices. Establishing Antiyal (which in the native Mapuche means son of the sun) in 1990 to be completely biodynamic, it is a meticulously planned estate. Almond trees separate most of the blocks, weeds are allowed to grow naturally, a vegetable garden, animal pens and natural flora and fauna are encouraged. Understanding the nature of the climate and the soils, only cabernet sauvignon, carmenere, syrah, and petit verdot were planted on the estate. These along with fruit from their other organic vineyards make up two of the three wines. Walking around the estate and actually seeing the many elements of biodynamic viticulture in practice was amazing, and I learnt a lot just observing and feeling the difference.

Keep in mind, that the Antiyal wines are super-premium, a category which constitutes less than 1% of Chilean wine. The Kuyen (Mapuche word for moon) is a syrah led blend, followed by cabernet sauvignon, carmenere and petit verdot. The 2009 vintage had a fascinating strawberries and cream fruit character, complimented by almond oil and intense earthy currants. The palate is full and intense, very dark and tight, but with great freshness. It is by no means heavy or hot, just full. The Antiyal 2009 blend consists of almost the opposite of the Kuyen; carmenere 42%, cabernet sauvignon 32%, and syrah 26%). It has a much dustier aroma, with cilantro, cumin and cassis. The brightness of the black fruit on the palate was powerful, yet the finesse of the velvety tannins and viscosity allowed the wine to glide across the palate. The front palate was undeniably new-world, possibly due to its youth, whilst the back palate had a distinctly old-world leather and earth complexity. For $90 you can’t really be disappointed with this wine. They have also started to produce a 100% biodynamic carmenere coming off the estate, but it sells out so quickly there was nothing to taste!

The final visit for the day (and for Chile), was to the ultimate icon winery of Chile; Almaviva. You may remember my first visit in the Napa Valley was to Opus One, a joint-venture project between (then) Robert Mondavi , the largest wine business in North America, and the Rothschild family of Bordeaux (click here if you've forgotten). Well, back in 1997 they made a similar partnership with the largest wine business in South America, Concha y Toro. In both cases the goal was to create the ultimate expression of terroir, and a true icon wine for the continent, using the experience and expertise from Bordeaux. Naturally in both cases the wine is based on the Bordeaux method (a blend of cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties), as is the winery, modelled after the famous Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. Use of the finest equipment and techniques, coupled with exquisite assemblage is the consistent theme; however the wines are quite different. The Almaviva winery makes only one wine each year, not unlike Opus One, Neyen and Clos Apalta.

As the winemaker for the ultimate expression of Chilean wine, I was quite honoured to have the opportunity to have a private tour and tasting with Michel Friou. Originally from Nantes, France and studying at Montpelier, Michel gained experience with Chilean Bordeaux blends at Casa Lapostolle for many years, as well as experience in working for a French-owned winery outside of France. Whilst the Almaviva winery is not as impressive as the Clos Apalta from an architectural perspective (few wineries would be), it is just as functional and a lot less ostentatious. The practices employed are obviously premium in nature, so I won’t bother you with all the details as you’ve probably heard it before. One of the interesting things Michel has started to do since starting in 2007 was to pull back on the oak, no longer using 100% new barrels. There has also been come significant investment in the vineyard since he started, combining irrigation systems and planting merlot to add to the blend.

The tasting comprised three vintages of the Almaviva, all from recognised vintages, and from half-bottles. The first was the 2005 (not made by Michel), the 2007 (not vinified but blended by Michel as he started mid-vintage), and the 2009 (100% Michel). It was interesting to see the evolution of the wine since he has started, as the 100% new oak had a pronounced influence on the 2005 and 2007 compared to the 2009. The 2005 vintage was starting to show some new-world aged characters, dried cranberries and dark carob on the nose. It had good balance apart from a hollow mid-palate, good earthy tarry length, but the oak was very prominent. The 2007 was a much tighter and more brooding wine, very intense fruit and oak tannins dominating. The fruit expression seemed to be quite closed for its youth, but underneath the oak you could see the classic cassis and leather characters. The 2007 seemed the most ripe. The 2009 to finish with, was one of the most delicious wines I have ever tasted, and in discussion with Michel he agreed that a delicious wine at release will be a delicious wine with age (providing it is stored well). It was exceptionally well balanced, great harmony between well handled oak, perfectly ripened fruit, and adequate alcohol. It had freshness of fruit and approachability, yet it was far from a simple wine, a difficult balance to achieve. Velvety and luscious, with great length, a wine that truly deserves aging as it will most definitely improve. Feel free to drink it now though!

Click here to see more photos from the Maipo Valley Day Four