Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Last Day in Mendoza with Visit to Achaval Ferrer

Farewell Argentina BBQ
(March 22, 2014) It was difficult to wake up after the huge Argentine BBQ at Alejandro’s house that didn’t end until 2:30am. Everyone ate so much meat and drank so much red wine that it was difficult to move.  Luckily his friends came with guitars and we sang many Argentine songs late into the night.  A truly wonderful last evening in Mendoza. 

After packing for the long flight home and checking out of the hotel, Alejandro picked me up at noon and we drove to Achaval Ferrer Winery in Lujan where we had a 12:30 appointment.  Neither one of us had visited this winery before, but it has such a great reputation in the US – especially with Wine Spectator – that I was curious to see it.  So we booked as tourists.

We got slightly lost on the way, and I was surprised to find that such a famous winery is tucked down a dirt road with very little signage on how to get there.  But eventually we found ourselves on a tiny road, driving through the vineyards decorated with white roses at the end of each row.

Achaval Ferrer Winery is quite small, but with a large grassy lawn on which many people were relaxing at tables and drinking wine.  It is situated on a dry river bed of Mendoza, but there is a great view of the snow-covered Andes with an old Malbec vineyard (Bella Vista) right in front.

History & Vineyards of Achaval Ferrer

Our tour guide was named Julien, and he was excellent. He began with the history, explaining that the name came from two men who made their money in cement, and then started the winery in 1999.  They began by buying 16 acres of an old malbec vineyard planted in 1928 in the Uco Valley, called Finca (estate) Altimira.

Entrance to Achaval Ferrer Winery
The vineyard was very neglected, so they irrigated it a little, but when they harvested it that year, it only produced 2/3 pound per vine, or 1 bottle per 3 vines. But the wine was so exceptional that they decided to buy more old vineyards and keep the same low harvest yields. This is how they acquired Finca Bella Vista (planted in 1910), where they built the winery, and Finca Mirador (planted in 1934), SE of Mendoza.

The vineyards are planted on low guyot with cane pruning only 5 to 6 bunches per vine on 3 x 3 meter spacing.  Therefore, it looks a bit like Burgundy, but with the Andes in the background.

Today they have 115 hectares and produce 20,000 cases.  They harvest from the 3 Fincas, plus also produce a basic Malbec and a Bordeaux blend called Quimera. They usually sell out of the Finca Altimira right away.

Winemaking at Achaval Ferrer

We toured the winery, and were thrilled to see that the malbec harvest was in full swing.  Eight people manned two sorting tables, one for clusters and the other for berries after destemming.  The must was then transferred into large concrete tanks with epoxy coating.  Julien said they pick at around 28 brix, and acid is usually added. They inoculate with Bordeaux yeast and a pump over is started immediately. Fermentation temp. is high at 30 to 34C, and finishes in 10-12 days.  They are the only winery I visited that doesn’t do the long extended maceration or cold soak.  Julien said they don’t believe it is necessary because with the high temperature they extract what they need in that time.

Cement Tanks at Achaval Ferrer
The wine is pressed in pneumatic press and immediately blended, if necessary, and then put in French barrels – 100% new for Fincas for one year, then one year aging in bottle.  For basic malbec only 7 months in older barrels with 3 to 4 months bottle age, and for Quimera 10 months in 50% new.

One interesting aspect is they are experimenting with 160 liter French oak barrels that they have custom ordered.  These only hold 200 bottles, and they believe the smaller size allows more oak contact and more oxidation, which results in more well rounded, better integrated oak.  Cost of the barrels is $1500 each.

I asked what the going rate was for cellar workers, and we were told that generally employees make 5000 pesos per month, or $3.50 per hour.

Wine Tasting at Achaval Ferrer

Since the winery had sold out of most of their high-end wines, we tasted the more basic level, and then Julien was kind enough to pull a barrel sample for us.

Basic Malbec 2012 - simple, approachable red fruit with some blue berry notes.  Thinner, not exciting. Harvest at 5 tons per hectare for this wine.

Sorting Grapes at Achaval Ferrer
2010 Quimera – closed, seemed to be going through a dumb phase.  Wine was flat on palate.  30-40% Malbec (always leads), then other 4 varietals.  Different each year based on vintage.  Opaque Ruby, ripe plum nose, fresh acidity, but then flattens out on palate. No spice or character at this time. Need to try again later.

2011 Finca Mirado ($700 pesos) Opaque Purple Red. More minerality from clay soil, old world style, with less fruit, but highly perfumed.  Seemed more lot a cab franc to me.  Violets, raspberries.  Thinner, less concentrated.  A little disappointing for the price.

2013 Finca Bella Vista ($90 US)  - barrel sample.  Magnificent!  Finally found a wine here that impressed me, but far too young.  Raspberry, velvety.  Great concentration.  Would enjoy tasting this again in a few years.

2012 Passito Malbec – sweet, fun dessert wine with loads of blackberry syrup, dried fig, and spice. $28

As we departed Achaval Ferrer for the airport, I was glad we had ended at this winery with its magnificent view of the vineyards and Andes.  Pure Mendoza.  Alejandro hugged me at the airport, and then I started to long trip home to San Francisco.  This included 2 airplane changes, with a 2 hour stop in Santiago, Chile, then a 4-hour layover in Miami, before arriving home 22 hours later in SFO.  However, all flights were on time, and I had a business class seat that I had upgraded to, so all was smooth flying.

Farewell to Argentina

Wines from Farewell Party in Mendoza
I feel incredibly grateful for my two weeks in Argentina, where I met some of the warmest and most fun-loving people I know.  There is so much graciousness there, with a love for the land and life, which is echoed in the wine, food, and music.  Argentina will always hold a special place in my heart.  Thanks to the Fulbright Scholarship, the University of Cuyo, and all of the wineries and other organizations that made my visit so magical.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Flying Back to Mendoza & Visiting Bodega Catena Zapata

Catena Zapata Winery in Mendoza, Argentina
(March 20 – 21, 2014) – The next day was devoted to travel, in that we left Cafayate at 9:30 and to arrive at the Salta Airport around noon.  Our 2:30 flight was delayed until 3:30 so we didn’t arrive back at the Mendoza Sheraton until around 6pm.  That evening was a quiet one of hitting the gym and having a light meal.

At 11am the next morning, a driver and car from Bodega Catena Zapata arrived to escort me to their winery in Lujan de Cuyo, about a 25 minute drive south of Mendoza.  I had visited the winery on a previous occasion as a tourist, and quickly recognized the famous Mayan pyramid architecture rising above a sea of green vineyards.

Vineyards of Catena Zapata – Largest Collection of Malbec Cuttings in the World

As we were approaching the winery, a car signaled us to stop in the middle of the vineyards, and a man walked to my side of the car.  It was Pedro, the Assistant Winemaker.  “I thought you’d like to start in the vineyard,” he said with a smile.  I nodded eagerly and jumped out of the car to walk into the magnificent rows of malbec.  Pedro then provided an excellent overview of the Catena Zapata vineyards.

They have a total of 6 vineyards with around 600 hectares of vines.  Most famous of these vineyards are:  1) Angelica – oldest vineyard planted by grandfather in 1930 near the river with many vines over 80 years old.  2) La Piramide Vineyard – next to the winery, and 3) Adriana Vineyard in the Uco valley, planted in 1992 by Nicolas (Laura’s father and current owner, now 82).  He was the first to see the potential of high altitude vineyards, planted at 4757 feet high.

Malbec Vineyards of Bodega Cantena Zapata
La Piramide Vineyard, where we were standing, is around 95 hectares and composed of mixed varietals.  It is the home of an experiment for Malbec where they brought in 140 cuttings from around Argentina and planted them here to analyze which ones produced the best Malbec. It is the largest collection of Malbec cuttings in the world. Many came from Angelica, the original vineyard that is a marsale selection of Malbec.  Pablo explained they were looking for vines that have: 1) low vigor, 2) small clusters, 3) no hen & chick, and 4) can survive the wind.

They then selected 5 top cuttings and have used those to cultivate their other vineyards.  Some of top clones are 10, 80 and 120.  These top 5 have been planted in their newer vineyards. 

The experiment illustrated how important terroir is in Argentina, with higher altitude vineyards producing more concentrated wines with black fruit and valley vineyards producing softer more approachable wines with red fruit.  Therefore, they now blend fruit from multiple vineyards to achieve desired effect in high-end wines.

Each vineyard is composed of different soil, with La Piramide having more clay mixed with sand and stone, whereas the Uco valley vineyards have limestone, rocks, and sand.  They are better for chardonnay and some malbec/cab.

They prefer VSP to Pergola, and generally plant 4250 plants per hectare with double guyot.  Spacing is 2 meters between rows and 1.5 meters between plants.  Drip irrigation is used in all vineyards except the oldest one – Angelica, which still uses flood channels.

There is some phylloxera in Argentina vineyards, but it is not a very aggressive species, and the sandy soils seem to keep it at bay.  92% of all vines in Argentina are on own roots, however, so there is some concern and they are researching the situation.  Cantena has 40% on rootstock with a mixture of SO4, Poulsen, and 1104.  Nematodes are also an occasional problem, but they have found that if the roots go deep enough, then the nematodes do not bother the vines.

Elegant Wine Tasting & Lunch at Catena Zapata

After our vineyard tour, Pedro dropped me off at the winery and I had a quick tour of the barrel room with Ramiro, Hospitality Manager, before he escorted me to a private tasting room.  Here I was greeted by Estela, Mercedes, and Pablo – members of the winemaking, marketing and export team.

Next we tasted 5 wines, followed by 3 more at lunch.  All were excellent, but the 4 that truly stood out for me were:

2012 Catena Alta Chardonnay ($35) with 80% from the Adriana Vineyard, aged 16 months in oak, wild yeast, and natural acidity.  For only $35 it was a great value, with good concentration, minerality, lemon, and pear.  It was also 14% alcohol, which contributed to its big mouthful, but with only a small amount of ML, it was still crisp enough to enjoy with food.

2009 Nicolas Catena Zapata ($120) with 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Malbec – the best fruit from 4 vineyards.  It had the powdery tannins I enjoy on an Argentinian cab but with more reserved black and red fruit and some nice herb and cassis notes.  Very elegant.  We had the 2003 and 2007 vintages at lunch, and I was amazed at how different they were – showing both terroir and the conditions of the weather that year.  The 2003 was clearly on secondary notes with leather and mushroom showing through the red mulled fruit, whereas 2007 was fresh and bold with dark cassis and tar.  All 3 were pretty amazing to taste.

2008 Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino ($120) with a tiny amount of Viognier and Cab Franc used in the ferment.  As 2008 was a difficult vintage, this malbec was more restrained with some blueberry on nose, but more earthy on palate.  Huge concentration with long finish.  A massive malbec.

2012 White Bones Chardonnay ($120) – this wine blew me away. It was so unique and so complex, I kept wanting to taste it again to see what else I could find in the glass.  It is from the high altitude Adrianna vineyard with the limestone, and the minerality clearly shows through in the class, along with lemon, straw, flint, and an intriguing bay leaf note on the finish.  I can only assume that the natural yeast that was used and the strong limestone in the vineyard provided the wine with such unique characteristics.  It was much more like a white Burgundy but with new world nuances.  It was barrel fermented with battonage and very little ML, contributing to its good concentration and crisp style.  Also natural acidity.  I was disappointed to learn they only made 60 cases.  There is a sister wine called White Stones for $99 from a different part of the vineyard.

Lunch was a beautiful affair of four courses in a private dining room with a large wooden table and the vineyards clearly visible out the tall windows.  The first course was a quinoa salad with goat cheese truffle.  It paired beautifully with the chardonnay.  The Second course was goat cheese brie with red beets and chickpeas paired with the 2003 Nicolas.  Third course was a grilled beef tenderloin with potatoes and wild mushrooms.  It was a perfect match with the 2007 Nicolas, and dessert was Dulce de leche with espresso.

I was completely unprepared for the exceptional hospitality displayed.  Everyone was very kind and knowledgeable. The whole visit was organized so flawlessly, and I enjoyed myself so much, that I lost track of time.  It was only when my car and driver came for me and I arrived back at the hotel around 5pm, that I realized I didn’t have much time to prepare for the evening BBQ and party that Alejandro was planning.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Lunch and Tasting at El Esteco Winery – White Dove of the Valley

El Esteco Winery in Patios Resort
(March 19, 2014) In the afternoon, we were honored to receive an invitation to have lunch with Max, the General Manager of El Esteco Winery.  El Esteco is owned by Pena Flores and is probably the largest producer in the area.  The winery itself is attached to the Patios Hotel where I was staying.  It was originally started in the 1850’s, and has been expanded upon. 

It was a quick walk from my room to the beautiful outdoor patio of the resort restaurant where Max was waiting at a round table with white tablecloth and multiple wine-glasses. The swimming pool sparkled in the sun, and off in the distance I could see the llamas grazing on the wide expanse of green lawn.

Max greeted us and provided information on the history of the winery.  Apparently the resort was the original hacienda of the family, but after a few years they had built a large mansion nearby.  After Pena Flores bought the property, they decided to turn the hacienda into a resort for tourist and wine distributors. They have plans to transform the mansion into a high-end winery tasting room in the future. Currently they farm 500 hectares, and have 200 SKUs, but actual production figures were not revealed. 

Tasting of El Esteco Wines

Max suggested we begin with a tasting of 7 wines, and then enjoy our favorites over lunch.  He explained that they have 4 levels:  Cumas, Don David, Ciclos, and Alimus (icon). All of these wines were excellent, and it was difficult to select a favorite.

Lunch at El Esteco Winery on Patio
Don David Torrontes 2013 – very approachable with classic floral and citrus notes.  Made in SS with 10% American barrel with ML, skin contact.  Picked in March and released in June.  Max explained that they use American oak because it gives more flavor in a shorter time ($15.99)

Ciclos 2013 Torrontes– Peach and floral,  3 months in oak.  More structure and tropical fruit.  Older vines – has an attractive sun/moon medallion on bottle.  14%. ($18.99)

Don David 2012 Cab – peppery, paprika nose, huge, complex amazing value at $18.  70% oak.  Reminds me of a Chilean cab.

Don David Tannat 2012 - Red fruit on nose, but savory on palate with massive tannins, but not painful.  Good acidity, but had to add to must.  Picked in April, released in 1.5 years (Sept.).  3.5 ph, purple black.  Interestingly, Max told us that the reason tannat is so tannic is because it has 4 seeds, rather than 2 like most grapes.

2012 Ciclos Malbec - from single vineyard – Lamaravilla ($19.99) – classic Argentine malbec. Smells like velvet with dark purple and blueberry notes. From a parrel trellis vineyard that was originally grafted from Torrontes.  Amazing 10 tons per acre! This was one of my favorites of this tasting.

2011 Ciclos Malbec/Merlot – 50/50 –80% in barrel.  Plum with some tannins, a bit hollow in middle. 

Altimus 2010 – icon wine at $40.  Made from the best grapes. Glowing ruby red with black depths, complex red/black fruit, very long finish.  A blend that changes every year (the winemaker’s wine).  This year's blend Malbec (always part of core), cab, cab franc, and tannat.  12 months in French 100% new oak, then blend and age another 6 months in oak, and 6 months in bottle. Reminded me of a Napa cab.  Luscious!

Long Lazy Lunch – Argentine Style

Roasted Pork Marinated in Torrontes & Honey
After the tasting, Max signaled for the food to arrive, and the first course was empanadas (of course) served with a fresh green salad made from local vegetables and also a quinoa salad – another local specialty.  I found myself gravitating to the Ciclos Torrontes for this course.

Then the main course arrived, and it had to be one of the best dishes of my trip – roasted pork loin marinated for 24 hours in honey and torrontes.  It was so tender it fell off the bone.  This came with a side of roasted local vegetable, and coupled with the Altimus, I was in heaven.

Vineyard Practices at El Esteco – The Importance of the Parrel System

Max has a viticulture background, so over lunch he answered some of my vineyard questions.  He explained why the parrel trellis system is so important, because it protects the clusters from the strong sun at such a high altitude.  With VSP trellising, some of the grapes get sunburned.

He said they do not have to use many sprays for powdery mildew or other diseases because the climate is so dry. However ants are a huge problem, so organic farming is difficult.  They have one organic line, but are losing money on it.

Birth Parents of Torrontes – Muscat de Alexander & Criolla

Max described one of their old Torrontes vineyards, “The fathers are in the vineyard –mixed in the Torrontes you will find its parents -- the Muscat de Alexander and the Criolla, which is a pink grape.” 

He also explained that both malbec and Torrontes produce huge clusters and are very vigorous.  Malbec usually achieves 10 tons per hectare, and Torrontes is not far behind.  In general, they need to pick Torrontes at three different times to achieve complexity, and the last pick is often after malbec.  He also said Torrontes should be generally be consumed within 3 years, unless it has oak – in which case it may last a bit longer.

The El Esteco Visitor’s Tasting Room

Ciclos Passito Malbec
After lunch, I took a long nap in order to be ready for my seminar that evening in the winery.  Afterwards, we were invited to the El Esteco Visitor’s Tasting Room where we were treated to two dessert wines – a sweet sparkling Torrontes, which was a bit too leesy, and an amazing Ciclos Passito Malbec for only 81 pesos ($10).  This was made by drying malbec grapes until they were raisened and very sweet.  A small amount of dried tannat was also added to the mix.  It tasted similar to port but with a delicious blackberry syrup edge.  I was impressed to see that the tasting room was very large and open to the public for drop in visits.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Walking Tour of 2 Wineries in Cafayate, Argentina: El Porvenir & El Transito

On the main plaza of Cafayate, Salta
(March 19, 2014) – The next morning we decided to do some shopping on the main plaza in Cafayate, and I found a charming local arts market where I bought a pair of silver earrings with llamas on them. Later I stopped by the small tourist office on the plaza and picked up a winery map. It was then quite easy to see all of the wineries within walking distance of the plaza, and I found that it reminded me a bit of Healdsburg, California where tourists can shop and find great restaurants and wineries all within a few blocks.

El Porvenir – Historic Family Winery in Downtown Cafayate

Our first stop was El Porvenir Winery, which is located in an old cellar from the 1890s with thick adobe walls and old giant oak barrels lined up in the courtyard.  Interestingly these barrels are made from the Algarrobo tree that was originally used to make wine barrels in Argentina, but no longer.  Today they import French and American oak barrels for winemaking.  Our guide pointed out a real Algarrobo tree in the grassy yard near the grape reception area.

Harvest was in full swing when we arrived, and once again we were able to see the malbec grapes sorted before being pumped into stainless steel tanks for fermentation.  We were told they also make tannat, but use large oak foudres to ferment this wine.

After the cellar tour we were escorted to the small tasting room where we had a private tasting with CEO, Lucia, whom I’d met several years ago when she visited SSU as part of the Bordeaux MBA class.  Lucia explained that the winery produces 200,000 bottles, and has 4 farms with about 90 hectares total.

Sorting Malbec Harvest at El Porvenir Winery
All of the wines that Lucia shared with us were excellent, and it was obvious that great care was taken in crafting them. We started with Torrontes in both an unoaked and oaked style. The oaked version (70% new oak) surprised me because it was a bit similar to a chardonnay with big buttery notes from ML and some pineapple.  The other was delicate with floral notes.  Lucia explained that they harvested Torrontes in 3 phases – early to get acidity and citrus, later to get floral, and even later (after malbec harvest) to obtain tropical fruit and more concentration.  Then they blend all 3 for complexity.  These wines, called 2013 Laborum, sell for only $18 in the USA!

Next we tried several reds, and I enjoyed both the malbec and tannat.  The latter had bright fruit flavors with black currant and cherry, and some savory notes with beets and meat.  It was very complex, with dark purple color.  Another unique offering was the Amauta that was a blend of malbec, cab, and syrah with spice and herbal tones.

Lucia told us they employ 48 people.  When we asked about the impact of the economic situation, she said it had been challenging because the cost of everything has increased by 40% including labels, capsules, etc.  However, most Argentine wine producers were afraid to raise prices for the export market, because importers would just switch to Spain or Chile.

She did mention that they are trying to sell in new channels within Argentina, such as retailer wine clubs.  Apparently there is a supermarket in Mendoza called Jumbo that offers a large selection of wine, and has started a retailer wine club that is doing well.

El Transito at 11:30

A few blocks away we found another winery called El Transito.  It is considered to be a boutique, but still manages to produce 250,000 bottles.  It was started in 2007 by Pietro Marini, who was a grandfather at the time, and his picture with long white beard, is on many of the labels.  They own 26 hectares of vineyards, and also buy grapes.

Tasting Room of El Transito Winery
We had a quick tour of the winery here, but no grapes were being processed that day.  We were told that they generally ferment their Torrontes for 15 to 20 days at 18C.

Our tasting consisted of around 5 wines of varying quality levels. My favorite was a 2009 Malbec (70%)/ Cab (30%) blend, which was aged for 6 months in Romanian oak, with a spicy berry nose for only 55 pesos (about $7 US)! The Torrontes was very acidic and grapefruity with a rather fake floral nose, as if they used a strange commercial yeast.  Despite this, I found it refreshing – especially at 35 pesos!