Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tour and Lunch at O. Fournier Winery in Uco Valley, Argentina

(Sept. 3, 2010) The Uco Valley is 120 kilometers south of Mendoza. After driving for about 90 minutes, we turned down a dirt road and eventually arrived at the large and impressive gates of O. Fournier Winery. Beyond the gate was one of the most impressive and unusual wineries I have ever seen in terms of architecture. It looked like a spaceship landing site in the middle of the desert with the soaring Andes rising behind as a backdrop. The winery was started in 2000 by Jose Manuel Ortega and his wife. They are originally from Spain, and also have a winery there in Ribera del Duero as well as one in Chile.

As we drove up the large ramp to the top of the 8 story winery (6 stories buried below the ground in a gravity flow design), Jose came forward to meet us. He is a delightful man with an incredible amount of energy, vision, and a great sense of humor. By the end of the visit, we were all in love with him.

He led us on an hour tour of the winery, starting with the labs and experimental blending tanks on the top floor underneath the amazing flat roof. It was from there that we could gaze out across the vineyards in which he is experimenting with different types of rootstocks, clones, varietals, and training systems. He said they have 263 hectares with very poor sandy soil. They have to dig very deep water wells in order to avoid salinity problems. He said the biggest impact on wine quality is the weather and altitude; they are cooler in temperature and higher in altitude than Mendoza.

We then descended to the next level of the winery which was the grape arrival platform where the grapes were destemmed and crushed 50%. The must then flows downwards to the 3rd level and 4th levels into fermentation tanks, which are below ground. O. Fournier has a large number of the modern conical stainless tanks you see in Bordeaux, as well as large wooden foudres and cement tanks. Jose said they have a 1.2 million liter capacity, but only produce 600,000 liters per year. He says he prefers to keep the wine in tank or barrel 6 months before release because he believes it stays fresher. Definitely not a champion of bottle aging.

With all of the levels we used an elevator to descend, but since the floors were made of see-through grates in some places, you could easily get vertigo if you looked straight down. Descending to the barrel room, museum, and gift shop level was exciting. The barrel room looked like a work of art, and did indeed include art on the walls as part of the art museum. A large red “x” was on the floor in the barrel room (see photo) to signify the Southern Cross, which is also part of their logo on the wing of an ostrich.

Jose told us that the winery was designed to be eco-friendly, and that was why it was 80% underground to save energy. The gravity flow design also helped with this. He was clever enough to have it built during the Argentina financial crisis in the early 2000’s, which allowed him to build it for a mere $4 million. He also used fairly unknown Argentinean architects – who are now well-known—which saved costs at the time.

Around 3:30 we arrived (with stomachs growling and toes frozen) in the impressive dining room with tables looking across a pond to a stunning view of the Andes. The sun was just starting to poke out of the clouds and as we enjoyed our two hour lunch, the sky cleared and became blue. Apparently many wineries in Argentina have beautiful restaurants, and the Urban de O. Fournier Restaurant is quite famous. Jose’s wife is the chef, and is known for her innovative dishes. Unfortunately she could not be there that afternoon, so we did not meet her.

We were treated to an incredible 4 course lunch with 2 ounce wine pairings -- starting with two appetizers of causas (potatoes) and philo pastry with blue cheese in malbec puree. Jose poured two sauvignon blancs, one from his Chilean winery in Talca (which had an intense asparagus nose) and the B Crux Sauvignon Blanc 2009 from the Uco Valley which was fruity and floral. We also had the Urban Sauvignon Blanc 2010, which was lighter and fruiter.

The next course was sliced eggplant with salmorejo, croutons and eggs. This was paired with the Urban Torrentes 2010 from Salta. This wine jumped out of the glass with fragrant white flowers, peach, and a crisp acidity. I was amazed when Jose told me I could buy it for $7 at Cost Plus. This was one of the most delightful Torrentes I have tasted – quite exquisite, and I will be looking to buy a case in the States.

The third course was Argentina beef steak with potatoes. This, of course, was paired with malbec. We started with the Urban Malbec 2008, which was filled with ripe berries and soft tannins – very approachable. Next was the Alfa Crux Malbec 2008, which also was filled with ripe fruit, but had more complexity and spicy oak. Third was the higher-end O.Fournier Malbec-Syrah 2007, which spent 17 months in both French and American oak (20%). This was a big, chewy jammy wine with lots of spicy and depth. I should mention that the steak I had here was the best on the trip (and I had 3!). It was the most tender with lots of flavor.

The dessert course started with a torrentes sorbet, which was not only very refreshing but extremely novel. It was followed by a brownie with coffee ice-cream and red fruit. Of course, we had more malbec with this. In addition, Jose opened a bottle of his Ribera del Duero at our request. It was primarily tempranillo with much ripe fruit, but a touch of the earthiness and higher acidity of the old world. Very enjoyable.

We finished lunch at 5:30, and said a fond farewell to Jose. The visit was wonderful, and we shall all treasure the afternoon as a special memory. On the drive back to Mendoza, I fell asleep in the back of the van and didn’t wake up until we arrived back at the resort at 7pm.

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