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Viva Argentina. Part II

text and photographs © 2008 Tom Cannavan

part I - part II - part III

part II - more Mendoza

From Tupungato, to Luján de Cuyo, to Eastern Mendoza.

Catena Zapata

Bodegas Catena Zapata needs little introduction to most wine lovers, and certainly not to wine-pages regulars, as this was my third visit to the estate in the past few years. I met up with viticulturist Alejandro Fernandez (bottom right) in the Adrianna vineyard, which at 1500 metres is one of the highest in Mendoza. Alejandro knows more about Malbec than just about anyone else on the planet, and he told me that altitude makes a big difference in Malbec flavours, because of both temperature and sunlight intensity. The extra 300 or 400 metres elevation of his vineyard over most in Tupungato lowers temperatures, and means plants do not 'close down' because of excessive heat, leading to very efficient photosynthesis. In summer, the overnight temperature here is less than 10C, concentrating aromatics, polyphenols and potential alcohol. But Alejandro is quick to point out that the variety of slopes and aspects allows him to play with a variety of flavour profiles.

Over dinner that evening, owner Nicolas Catena talked about Argentina's growth as a fine wine producer since his earliest ambitions for Catena Zapata. In 2001 Argentina exported only 15% of Chile's wine exports, but by 2006 Argentina exported almost half as much as Chile. Catena has increased its vineyard holdings twice in the last two years to meet rising international demand. UK agent for Catena is Bibendum.

for tasting notes on 22 wines from Catena Zapata


A new name on the Mendoza map, but one that comes with a fantastic pedigree, Mendel is a partnership between Annabelle Sielecki and Roberto de la Mota, one of Argentina's most experienced and talented winemakers. I last interviewed Roberto several years ago, when he was in charge at Cheval des Andes. Roberto suffered severe spinal injuries in a near-fatal car crash in 2007, and it was a joy to see him looking so well and full of enthusiasm for his new project.

Founded in 2003, Mendel is an estate who's vineyard in Lujan de Cuyo is 80 years old. It was finding the vineyard that was Annabelle's inspiration to start Mendel, and she immediately approached Roberto to be winemaker and partner in the venture. The vineyard consists of just 22 hectares of Malbec and three of Cabernet Sauvignon, though it is also studded with ancient olive trees. Formerly belonging to a farmer who sold his grapes to big wineries, under the new regime the yield has been cut by almost two-thirds. This is a firmly 'boutique' operation, aimed at the highest quality levels. The beautiful little winery was abandoned when they bought the property, but is now fitted out very carefully and pragmatically, with gravity fed movement of grapes and must, all stainless steel tanks and one pneumatic press. There is enormous potential here. Prestige Agencies is the UK agent for Mendel.

for tasting notes on 7 wines from Mendel

Dominio del Plata

Husband and wife team of winemaker Susana Balbo and viticulturist Pedro Marchevsky led me straight to the vineyards, where Pedro led a masterclass in how to grow grapes successfully in the hot environment of Luján de Cuyo. Pedro spent 30 years as vineyard manager for Catena, and has strong views: "Mendoza is a desert, so the most important factor is not terroir, it is human decisions taken on training, irrigation and, especially, canopy management." Attention to detail is meticulous. For example, the vineyard is planted at exactly 21 degrees northwest, exposing the vines to 1 hour 20 minutes more sun in the morning than the afternoon; gentle slopes help cope with sudden rainstorms.

Pedro explains how he rebuilds the canopy each vintage, to manage growth and ratio of new leaves to old. When the canopy is optimum, irrigation can be stopped. Seen behind Pedro in the photograph right, netting the vines protects against hail, but also can deflect 50% of sunshine, protecting against sunburn.

The infectiously giggly Susana Balbo is equally passionate, and quickly establishes a quiet authority when she talks about her philosophy in Dominio del Plata and the various wineries where she consults. All grapes are sorted on tables, only stainless steel is used for fermentation, and each variety is handled in a specific way that aims to optimise varietal expression.

for tasting notes on 15 wines from Dominio del Plata

Familia Zuccardi

'Baking hot' may be a cliché expression, but it is the only way to convey the furnace-like temperatures on the day I took a stroll through the vineyards with José Alberto Zuccardi and his winemaker son Sebastian, seen sheltering under some trellised vines. The 40-degree heat of December followed an abnormally cold winter, with nine snowfalls recorded in some vineyards.

José Alberto is one of the great figures of the Argentinean wine scene, and a significant producer with one million cases annually. But when asked he says "That is optimum. The task now is continuing to improve quality not increase volume."

To that end, 200 hectares of the property is certified organic, and 500 more are farmed without pesticides. The winery is organised as five separate wineries, each handling separate ranges of wines. We made straight for the experimental winery, where the ever-restless Zuccardis are making everything from Touriga Nacional, to Marselan, to Fiano.

Sebastian is fully involved in the winery as one of the key winemakers, though he also took time to show us his own quirky sparkling wine project, Alma 4, which vinifies not only classic Champagne grapes, but everything from sparkling Viognier to sparkling Sangiovese.

for tasting notes on 36 wines from Familia Zuccardi

Terrazas and Cheval des Andes

An outpost was established here by Moët & Chandon back in 1959, after Chief Winemaker, Renaud Poirier, identified Luján de Cuyo as an ideal spot for sparkling wine production. It was not until 1999 that Terrazas was born, as a new name focused on premium still wines. The beautiful winery is a restored Spanish style bodega dating from 1898, and also houses the joint-project initiated in 2003 between Terrazas and St Emilion's Château Cheval Blanc, called Cheval des Andes.

Roberto de la Motta of Mendel winery quickly built a reputation for Cheval des Andes, and though he has moved on, still consults for the winery. Current winemaker, Bordeaux-born Nicolas Audebert, works with Pierre Lurton of Cheval Blanc and Château d'Yquem, in a "blend of Argentine knowledge of terroir, and French expertise." The wine is composed of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon from vines that are up to 80-years-old, and smaller proportions of Petit Verdot, which was sourced from Château Margaux, and Cabernet Franc sourced from Cheval Blanc.

Audebert says "Our interest is to express the terroir, so we avoid baked fruit with over-maturity and ripeness, and not enough freshness." Agent for Terrazas is Moët Hennessy UK.

for tasting notes on 8 wines from Terrazas and Cheval des Andes

Viña Cobos

Viña Cobos is another of the cult names of Argentinean wine, it's range of wines from the Marchiori vineyard (bottom right) earning high points and commanding high prices, especially in the United States. That may have something to do with the fact that co-owner and winemaker Paul Hobbs is the eponymous owner of Paul Hobbs winery in California (right) but it is also to do with the quality of the wines from the vineyard at 980 metres above sea level, low in organic material and deeply layered with loam, silt and clay, and planted with Malbec, other Bordeaux varieties and Chardonnay.

Topping the range is a Malbec called 'Cobos', produced only in exceptional vintages from the oldest vines (60 to 80 years) in the Marchiori Vineyard. Next comes uNico, a Bordeaux blend named after Nico Marchiori, patriarch of Marchiori vineyard. Beneath come varietal Chardonnay, Malbec and Cabernet under the 'Bramare' label, from younger yet well-established blocks of the Marchiori. Finally, a small range of other wines is sourced from other vineyards in Luján de Cuyo and other quality districts. The Cobos wines are brilliant, though fall squarely into the 'International' style category.

for tasting notes on 6 wines from Viña Cobos

Alta Vista

Alta Vista is the one that got away: the breakaway seventh member of the original Clos de los Siete. The winery is owned by the d'Aulan family, who once owned Piper-Heidsieck, and got back into the wine business buying chateau Sansonnet in St Emilion, and then Alta Vista in 1998. The vineyards remain within the Clos de los Siete project, but the company now vinifies totally separately.

They also have vineyard holdings surrounding their winery in Luján de Cuyo, though new gated residential communities, which have sprung up in the area since the economic crisis of 2001, mean many vineyards are disappearing.

Under oenologist Matthieu Grassin production has risen from 200,000 bottles to two million in 2008. The winery bristles with stainless steel, but Matthieu tells me all top wines are fermented in cement tanks with a wide top for punching down. He also tells me that stressing the vines with water deprivation in the French style does not work - contrary to what other producers believe - as leaves dry up and overheat, stopping ripening of the grapes. Alta Vista measure stress through full vegetative cycle, controlling stress and never going above "3" on a 5-point system. UK agent is Cockburn & Campbell.


for tasting notes on 15 wines from Alta Vista


Founded in 1895, Norton is a one of the most familiar Argentinian names on UK wine shelves, though 60% of their production is sold domestically and exports to the USA are booming. Norton is a big player, producing around 1.2 million cases annually (though still dwarfed by giants Penaflor, whose brands include Trappiche and Michel Torino). The company is now owned by the Austrian family behind Swarovski crystal.

Norton is busily increasing fermenting capacity, replacing old vats with the latest steel technology and installing a power generator that will keep the winery functioning if the power shortages of last winter are repeated.

Five different vineyards in Luján de Cuyo total over 700 hectares, with extensive plantings of 80-year-old Malbec. Six hundred workers live on the property, with an infrastructure that includes a bus service, schools and a medical centre creating a small village. Winemaker Jorge Riccitelli (right) says the number of workers opting-out of this housing is increasing all the time, as their economic circumstances improve.

An impressive visitors centre and casual dining restaurant opened in February 2008, to give Norton's 25,000 annual visitors another incentive to come. UK importer is Berkmann.

for tasting notes on 13 wines from Norton

Luigi Bosca

The Arizu family are immigrants from Navarra in Spain, who started their winery business in 1901. The current generation (Leoncio Arizu, right) have expanded their Luján de Cuyo operation to become significant players.

In the vineyards, we spoke at length about climate change, and the fact that rising temperatures are causing grapes to lose their aromatics. It has not rained in Luján de Cuyo for seven months before my visit. Luigi Bosca is putting a lot of work into canopy management, in an effort to compensate for the effects of global warming, though for now cool overnight temperatures work to the benefit of the grapes.

With some persuasion, I convinced the Arizu's to let me taste a pre-release sample of their new wine, 'Icono', unashamedly aimed at becoming an icon wine for Argentina. Time and money have been lavished on the project, to create a wine from a plot of 90-year-old Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, harvested at 20hl/ha, and aged for 18 months in Alliers oak. The first vintage, 2005, is now on the market and was undoubtedly impressive though carrying a £64 per bottle price tag. UK Agent for Luigi Bosca is H&H Bancroft

for tasting notes on 11 wines from Luigi Bosca

Bodegas Séptima

In December 1999, the Codorníu Group, a large Spanish producer best known for their sparkling wines, purchased 306 hectares in Luján de Cuyo. By July 2000 the building of the wine cellars began, and today Séptima's modern wine cellar sits surrounded by its vineyards, literally in the shadow of the Andes. Septima does make sparkling wine, but Mendoza-born winemaker Rubén Calvo (right) is in charge of a large commercial portfolio of wines, 80% of which are destined for export markets. The Andes are crucial to Séptima's vineyards (nearby Aconcagua is one of the world's highest mountains at 6,959 metres), with the land almost arid and considerable thermal inversion between day and night.

for tasting notes on 5 wines from Séptima

Finca Flichman

Like Bodegas Séptima, Finca Flichman has foreign owners in the shape of Sogrape, one of Portugal's biggest wine producers and the name behind many powerful Portuguese brands. Winemaker Luis Cabral de Almeida (right) worked 14 vintages in Portugal, in the Douro and Dão, before coming to Flichman in 2001 and taking over as chief winemaker in 2004.

Sogrape bought Flichman in 1997, with vineyards in Maipu and Tupungato. 350 hectares are planted in total, with a programme to expand to 500ha. Luis explains that he will typically harvest Tupungato fruit 16 to 20 days later than the same varieties in Maipu. Their Vineyards in high Tupungato, near Salentein, and Luis says the quality of this area is renowned, with grapes costing 35% more than those from other Mendoza regions.

He is, however, extremely positive about the quality and potential for Syrah in Maipu, and in a sub-region called Barrancas specifically, where they have access to fruit from some very old vineyards. Finca Flichman's range is available in the on-trade through Matthew Clark. Off-trade agent for the UK is Stevens Garnier.

for tasting notes on 19 wines from Finca Flichman

Pascual Toso

Pascual Toso came from Piedmont and founded this winery in the 1890's. Today, Paul Hobbs of Viña Cobos is winemaking consultant, as he has been for the past seven years. He visits six times per year to both vineyards and winery. All of the fruit comes from the company's home vineyards in Maipu, apart from a little Torrontès bought from a neighbour. This is the hot, eastern Mendoza region, about 60 kilometres south of Familia Zuccardi.

A sizeable operation that produces around three million litres (though the winery has a six million litre capacity), Pascual Toso has both stainless steel and cement tanks, but all have been fitted with temperature control.

We visited the Magdalena Tosa vineyard, which is 90 years old. Vines have been re-trained in a higher, modern style as the old low-trained vines are extremely difficult to work, and the canopy extremely difficult to manage. According to the team in charge of the vineyards day to day (right), the quality is "Superb." Cabernet is trained in old high trellises, but the ancient vines have trunks as thick as tree trunks, and a very open canopy that lets in lots of light and sun on the berries. UK Agent for Pascual Toso is Stratford Wines.


for tasting notes on 12 wines from Pascual Toso


Trivento is a giant winery, created in 1996. By 2006, total sales of $34 million made it the second largest wine exporter in Argentina (after Trappiche) in an operation with more than 460 permanent employees. The most interesting thing about Trivento perhaps, is that it is 100% Chilean owned: it is an outpost of Concha y Toro.

The political ramifications of this could be huge, but Concha y Toro has handled the situation carefully, with an all-Argentinian team, who are actually briefed to give the wines a different personality to Concha y Toro's Chilean brands.

A new winery in Maipu, east of Mendoza, is a huge investment and will double bottle capacity. They have also just bought 309 hectares in the Uco Valley at 1200 metres, giving them eight vineyards of their own spread over 1289 hectares, plus taking fruit from contract growers.

New wines like the Eolo icon wine and the Amado Sur range, are typical of the company's plan to expand its ranges and increase volume. Total exports were up 12% year on year last year, and the company stresses this is driven by their premium ranges. Federico Galdeano (right) is winemaker.

for tasting notes on 12 wines from Trivento

other Mendoza producers

Wines of Argentina kindly arranged for a number of producers to come to my hotel in Mendoza, bringing with them one or two wines each.

Amongst the stars of this tasting were Joffre y Hijas, a family-owned label and estate whose wines are in the UK (through Great Western Wine) and represented really good value at the £5.99 level. I was also very impressed by a Malbec from a Spanish-owned company called Belasco de Baquedano, and by the range from the ambitious Andeluna, who are aiming for a big UK presence for their wines.

for tasting notes on 15 wines from Mendoza

part III