Argentina Part II : Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sparkling in Search of Place and Purpose
by Anthony Gismondi, David Lawrason and Treve RingJuly 27, 2015
Over the past seven months, five of our WineAlign contributors travelled to Argentina, each bringing back different stories and aspects of the country. You can read Rhys Pender MW and Sara d’Amato’s views in Part One of the series here.
A number of years ago I noted that when visiting Argentina, or most any other region for that matter, I was spending too much time in cars, eating lunch and dinner and not enough time tasting wines as they relate to the region, its terroir and its place in the world of wine. Hence the switch to early morning hotel tastings where themes and wines can collide and information is gathered in a much more efficient manner in a neutral space. Then the rest of the day, on the road, makes more sense.
A special thanks to the elegant Hyatt Hotel Mendoza for the room required and to Wines of Argentina for keeping an open mind and especially Edgardo del Popolo (Dominio del Plata) and Roberto de La Mota (Mendel Wines) for sharing some fabulous nuggets of information about their country, its wines and the places that make them special.
We wish we could see all these wines in Canada but the monopoly system and the general trend to taxing quality wine out of reach of the average wage earner in Canada makes it less and less likely. There are so many agendas that can foil the fine wine business in a heavily controlled liquor market like Canada. From ignorance to greed and back, the chances of seeing the brightest Argentina has to offer is left to a dwindling select few retailers and restaurants. Undaunted, our job is to uncover the latest and the best and push the names forward. The irony is, as the wine gets better and better, the quality, brought into Canada by many distributors, and sold by many retailers, government and private, is anything but. Certainly it does not reflect fast moving modern developments of a place like Argentina.
Cabernet Franc Ascending
By David Lawrason
I am going to state a bias upfront that Argentine malbecs pose difficulties more me. I understand them but I also find many to be blunt and monochromatic, especially at lower price points where young malbecs can have joyless rawness. I really do appreciate all the work underway in Argentina to fashion malbecs with more elegance, and I do score many very well. I also like the current movement to find more complexity and elegance by blending other varieties.
After two trips to Argentina since December I would argue that perhaps the best blender and alt-variety is cabernet franc. The first visit with WineAlign colleague Anthony Gismondi was a tightly focused, intense tasting foray, anchored by themed, comparative flights of wines at our hotel before we ventured into the fields of Mendoza and Cafayate. The second trip provided a much broader lens, accompanying a Gold Medal Plates group of Canadians to many of the same wineries, this time from a consumer perspective.
Globally, cabernet franc has long been used as a vehicle for bringing aromatic life and palate freshness to heavier wines. The negative can be that it thins too much and encroaches on ripe fruitiness with its herbal, tobacco leanings, even at moderate proportions. But the very ripe, full bodied reds of Mendoza are the perfect canvass on which to splash a little greenish franc-ness. The best show just a bit more elegance, freshness and complexity.
A caveat here that none of the wines I want to speak about are currently available in Canada – so not on the WineAlign database – but what else is new? Canada’s liquor boards always lag years behind trends on the ground abroad. It is articles like this that might one day make them appear.
Among the handful of varietal labelled cabernet francs that scored 90 points or better I was most surprised and impressed by Kaiken 2013 Cabernet Franc, that would sell here for about $40. Sourced from a small block of “massal” or original vines in the Uco Valley, it presented very pretty, totally correct franc aromatics with excellent balance and length. Melipal 2013 Cabernet Franc from the Agrelo district of Mendoza showed classic currants, tobacco and great oak integration, a creamy palate then that tweak of cab franc greenness on the finish. Still in Mendoza, but from the very high altitude Guatallery sub-zone of Tupungato, Los Noques 2013 Cabernet Franc showed amazing lift, florality and freshness. And up north in Cafayate, Etchart 2013 Cabernet Franc showed lovely savoury cedar and tobacco and pink flowers. Very charming and less heavy than Mendoza peers.
As surprised as I was to find so many excellent ‘solo’ cab francs, I was just as intrigued to discover what cab franc does in blends. A little goes a long way. Staying up north in the province of Salta, Bodega El Esteco 2011 Altimus from the remote Valles Calchaquies carried only 14% cabernet franc and 25% cabernet sauvignon – a rich, quite oaky wine that really showed refreshing, dusty cab franc on the finish. Fuego Blanco 2012 from chalky soils in the Pedernal Valley of San Juan carries 10% cabernet franc co-fermented with malbec – lovely freshness, elegance, some minerality. The Pedernal Valley landscape is desert or semi-desert but at 1400 metres above sea level the temperatures are moderate with warm sunny days and cool nights. The rocky, poor-quality soils, glacial in origin, are dotted with flat, dark stones that give the valley its name, pedernal being the Spanish term for flint. Poor soils, low yields, it is a pattern.
Per Se 2012 La Craie from the Gualtallary region is a co-fermented gem with 65% malbec and 35% cabernet franc and another big winner from limestone (craie) soils. *See Anthony’s in-depth look at this special wine below.
Manos Negras 2010 Atrevida is 97% malbec but the remainder is cabernet franc and it shows with just a touch of lift and franc tobacco. Perhaps this is all that is needed to keep Argentine malbecs aloft.
Whether the lead actor, or best grape in a supporting role, I came away convinced that cabernet franc’s future in Argentina is assured.
Argentina’s Cup Bubbles Over
by Treve Ring
When you think about Argentina, sparkling wine isn’t top of mind, and possibly not even in the picture. That’s poised to change, as vineyards climb ever higher and cooler, grapes are picked ever earlier and the diversity of styles more accepted than ever before. At the 2013 edition of the Argentina Wine Awards, the number of sparkling wine samples had increased by 220% over the 2007 edition, and a full 30% over 2012. In that year, this sparkling wine sector totaled $22,900,515, an 8.2% growth with respect to 2011.
Though espumante has been produced since the 19th century, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century and the proliferation of pinot noir that bubble began to bubble upwards. Wineries both local and foreign started to show interest in the unique dry and sunny climate and unspoilt terroirs; Chandon, Mumm, Bianchi, Norton and Nieto Senetiner amongst the leaders in the sparkling stride. In the 1950’s and after a worldwide search for new regions to develop, Moët & Chandon’s oenologist, Renaud Poirier, named Mendoza the more suitable terrain for sparkling wine outside of France. Today, the Argentinian subsidiary of Moët & Chandon produces a wide variety of bubbles including Terrazas de los Andes and Baron B.
Unquenchable global demand for Prosecco may have helped in recent years, with consumers wanting to branch out, safely, from a familiar charmat or tank style, not to mention a comfortable entry level price point which Argentina can hit. Though styles range from frothy and fruity to traditional method and serious, the majority that I saw in my travels there and on the shelves back home are akin to Prosecco, easy, approachable, fresh and accessible. Last year Moet Hennessy announced they will spend £1.5m in the UK to back the launch of Argentinian sparkling wines that it believes will tempt drinkers away from top-end Prosecco without asking them to pay Champagne prices.
The best examples, across all sparkling styles, come from altitude, allowing the grapes to take full advantage of relief from the intensity of Argentine sun. In the Uco Valley, and especially in the 1000m heights of Tupungato, chardonnay and pinot noir thrive, ripening easily while retaining crisp acidity when harvested early. In the high desert of Salta, and the arid otherworldly landscape of Patagonia, potential is great, and being recognized and utilized with greater reach every year. Malbec, sauvignon blanc, Chenin, torrontes, viognier and sémillon are also utilized, while pioneering producers trial other grapes.
Here are a few of my top sparkling picks from a brief visit to Argentina in earlier this year, as well as some that are available on our shelves in Canada. Salud.
Bodega Ruca Malen Brut NV, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina
Bodegas Norton Cosecha Especial Brut Nature 2010, Mendoza, Argentina
Bodegas Escorihuela Gascon 1884 Extra Brut NV, Mendoza
Familia Zuccardi Cuvée Especial Blanc De Blancs NV, Tupungato, Mendoza, Argentina
Bodega Santa Julia Brut Rosé 2012, Mendoza, Argentina
From Calchaqui to Rio Negra. In Search of Place and Purpose
by Anthony Gismondi
David Lawrason and I had not travelled together in years but our recent visit to Argentina was certainly one of the best weeks we had spent on the road in ages.
Our first morning tasting (there were several) was hosted by two giants of the Argentine wine business: Edgardo Popolo, the general manager of Dominio de Plata and Roberta de la Mota, partner Mendel Wines.
We began with the oldest working winery in Argentina (1831) and one of the highest vineyards. Colomé Auténtico 2012 from the Calchaqui Valley in Salta is pure Malbec, from 90 year old vines made with little intervention. The vineyards are grown and worked using sustainable practices thus presenting the “authentic” expression of the terroir. The winery practices pigeage, does not use commercial yeasts or lactic bacteria to speed up the fermentation, acid correction and the use of sulphur dioxide is minimal and it has no oak influence. This begs the question why so many softer, sweeter versions of malbec make their way to Canada? If you are making under 100,000 cases we see no need for the fruit bomb malbecs that do little if anything for your image and frankly aren’t all that healthy to drink.
One degree south takes us to Tolombón, where shallow, stony, splinter shale soils with quartz are the norm. The malbec here has a slightly riper, sweeter profile as seen in the Anko Flor Cardón 2012. It’s classified Winkler IV, as was the Auténtico, but it seems a touch warmer likely due to the lower altitude. The fruit is sourced from the Estancia Los Cardónes district of Salta, the northernmost winemaking province of Argentina, located just south of the town of Cafayate at roughly 1700 meters along the eastern slopes of the Valle de Calchaquies. The little soil found there is packed full of crushed mica. Winemakers and co-owners Jeff Mausbach, Alejandro “Colo” Sejanovich and Saavedra Azcona and family have planted the rockiest sites looking for minerality. I know, I know the notion of minerality doesn’t really exist in any wine… until you sense it. All I know is I’ll take the stony minerality of this wine over a residual sugar, soaked brand any day.
Old vines are a big part of the story told by Viña 1924 De Angeles Gran 2012 Malbec. There are many old blocks offering different styles, weight and structure. The fruit here is 100 percent malbec and it comes off Parcel 3 at Vistalba, a site planted in 1924 at 980 metres. Density is a medium at 7,200 plants per hectare and the irrigation is old school by furrow. This wine never ceases to amaze from its big black licorice, black cherry, earthy, smoky nose to its savoury, intense palate awash in black cherries, smoked licorice root, tobacco, orange peel and vanilla flavours. A wonderful expression of old vine malbec made with just the right touch of modernity. The farming is organic and the fruit picked for the Gran Malbec is picked a week later than the regular.
Next up was the Viña Cobos Bramare Marchiori Vineyard Malbec 2012 that hails from Lujan de Cuyo, at Perdriel, (33°10’29.45″S). The site is at 980 metres above sea level and faces southeast presumably to escape the desert sun. The terroir is clay over sandy loam that gives way to gravel and stone. In fact the soils are alluvial and low in organic material but very well drained. The result is bigger, sweeter tannins with plenty of flavour. More Napa in style, it tends to jump the terroir and rely more on its dense sweet tannins, floral, black berry, tobacco aromas and intense black cherry and blueberry fruit with flecks of orange zest and violets. There’s just enough minerality and acidity to keep it all interesting. Steak is a must.
A glimpse at two new wines from Gualtallary, Tupungato followed. This stony, high-altitude paradise lies just south of the city of Mendoza. First up was Bodega Aleanna Maldito Cabernet Franc 2012. At 13.8 percent alcohol this wine goes through a whole cluster co-fermentation with some malbec in cement before aging in 100-year old foudres. With no real wood influence other than it oxidative contribution the fruit is given a chance to shine. At 1400 metres the acidity is prominent at this stage and somewhat overbearing; it’s a style but it’s tart. According to La Mota and Popolo, Argentine cabernet franc needs time in the vineyard and time in the bottle.
Two kilometers away and some 100 metres below Maldito, Del Popolo makes 800 bottles of Per Se La Craie 2012, (translation by itself; and chalk). Some 1300 metres above sea level Per Se La Craie sits in the remarkable stone paradise of Tupungato. This elegant Gualtallary red, micro-fermented, tops out at 14.50% alcohol but you hardly notice it on the palate. In 2012 the grapes come from minuscule parcel selections originally planted for Dona Paula and in what was a warm year, Del Popolo chose all the limestone spots, in cooler vineyards to cope with the challenges of a warm growing season. The 65/35 malbec and cabernet franc is co-fermented; the wine spends 16 months in second use French barrels. Soils are amazingly complex: calcareous and alluvial gravels with the aforementioned spots of limestone. Both varieties were de-stemmed and they are fermented together with wild yeasts in French oak used barrels. Elegant and well-stitched Del Popolo credits talented winemaking partner David Bonami (Norton) for his assistance in year one. The fruit was destemmed before a 35 day maceration fermented on wild yeasts. The textures are chalky, silky and amazing. Bursting with fruit and minerality, it is a story teller. All class.
Vista Flores is the next stop heading south through the much heralded Uco Valley. Popolo’s departure from Dona Paula was feisty winemaker Susana Balbo’s gain. Upon his arrival at Dominio del Plata the first thing del Popolo asked Balbo was to consider taking her signature Nostros and set it free to travel to the best vineyard (fruit) each year. Originally the best vineyard in Agrelo it is now a Single Vineyard Nomade, a name meant to celebrate its journey every year to the best grapes they can find. Enter Dominio del Plata Nosotros 2012 Vista Flores, Uco Valley, Mendoza. In 2012 Nosotros is sourced from selected parcels in the region of Chacayes at 1200 metres, along the far west, high side of Vista Flores. The soils are complex, colluvial-alluvial origin with a sandy-loam frame in the first 10 inches. The second layer of calcareous soil and white gravels goes down two metres. Clearly more and more limestone sites are being planted to vine. More vertical and more linear, Popolo likes minerality and freshness while winemaker Susana Balbo likes sweetness and roundness with toast. So far it’s a fine match; Nosotros 2012 is a delicious, intense juicy vibrant red wine made with intensity and balance. A star is born.
Familia Zuccardi Aluvional 2012 La Consulta, San Carlos, Mendoza was next and the level jumped another notch. At 15% alcohol you might expect it to assault you but after 12 months in concrete vats using indigenous yeast there is an electricity and freshness and fruit that is almost overwhelming. Aluvional is made from several sites, all handpicked by winemaker Sebastian Zuccardi in the La Consulta, San Carlos region. At 990 metres above sea level, some 130 km south of Mendoza City, this is the mother lode. The vines were planted in 1974 on poor alluvial soils of sandy-silt-clay mixed with rock. Love the tension and the acidity of what is a complex rich, powerful red, full of floral fruit. All hail Sebastien and his relentless fire to find the true home of malbec.
Next door to Zuccardi’s Aluvional, the Mendel Finca Remota 2011 offers another look at Altamira, surely one of the finest pieces of terroir in all of Argentina. The 2011 was a little cooler than 2012 and the wine is a bit tighter. The vineyard is older, thought to be planted in 1950, the alcohol is a little lower at 14.3% and it spends 18 months in new French oak. Easily the most complex of the bunch, no doubt one of the most important characteristics of Mendel La Remota is the intensity and complexity of the fruit. Like the Angelus, it presents its old vines in the texture and viscosity that you don’t get in younger vines. It presents as a polished river stone, not one you have just cracked open.
Another step south takes us to Doña Paula Los Indios Parcel 2012, a tiny sub-section of Altimira in San Carlos area of the Uco Valley. The fruit here is grown on sandy, silty colluvial soils with small brick-like stones in pink and orange scattered about. Yields are only four tons per hectare. Microvinification takes place in second-used 225 liters, French oak barrels filled with 170 kilograms (375 lb) of pure-clean berries. The barrels are closed up and sent to a temperature controlled room where the alcoholic, wild culture and malolactic fermentation takes place. To make a soft extraction, the barrels are rolled daily for 10 to 15 days. After that the wine is racked to new French oak barrels where it is aged for 18 months. This artisanal vinification method ensures that grapes are handled gently and all the process is carried out by gravity. Only exceptional years can spawn a Los Indios Parcel Malbec limited in quantity to 2000 bottles. Like the Aluvional the spice and violets dominate the nose with impressive acidity and or freshness followed by texture, texture, texture. Impressive to say the least at this young age.
We concluded the tasting with two ‘southern’ reds from Patagonia. First up was the Marcelo Miras 2012 Malbec from Ing. Huergo, General Roca, Río Negro planted in 1979. This was made in the traditional style and aged for 15 months in French and American oak barrels and from a typical north Patagonian desert climate – think warm days and cool nights at 39º 08´ S. Here you can get big colour and structure thank to the thickness of the skins so you must pay attention to prevent the wine from being to rustic. The growing season can be shorter, much like the south Okanagan Valley. Solid but in tough against the group.
The finale was Noemia de Patagonia A Lisa 2012 from Mainque, Valle Medio, Rio Negro, a 90/9/1 blend of malbec/merlot with a touch of petit verdot that are sourced from estate grown limestone and purchased from nearby vineyards, managed biodynamically. Again, freshness permeates this red with only 13.5 percent alcohol. Long days of light in the summer compensate for the wind and cool temperatures bring out the floral aspects to lift the mid-palate flavours. The tannins are soft here and almost sweet. Impressive already and yet only a baby; like all the wines in this tasting it needs time to reach its full potential.
A stunning morning that only reinforces how little we see from Argentina in Canada and how little we are likely to see if the gatekeepers continue to demand cabernet and chardonnay to fill a retail philosophy completely out of touch with the reality of modern wine.
As we wrapped up the tasting both del Popolo and La Mota reminded us, “We tried to show you our terroir. There wasn’t any wine where our hope was to show you the grapes.” Aclamaciones to that los caballeros. Your objectives were accomplished and more.
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