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

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