Visiting wineries in Mendoza, Argentina

Mendoza snow capped Andes

Mendoza snow capped Andes

As thanks for the great performance of our wines in 2010, Etienne, Susan, Ansone and myself are on a 10 day wine trip to Argentina and Chile. Why Argentina & Chile? They are both wine producers doing very well in the global markets; direct competitors to South African wines and none of us have been there before.

With the winery expansion project completed on time and a small window open ahead of the 2011 harvest, we flew out of Cape Town on the 9th of January. We looked forward to tasting some of the best wines from both countries, having a close look at the latest wineries and their approach to wine tourism.

It is interesting to note that South Africa had only 1 wine in the Wine Spectator Top 100 wines of 2010, while Argentina had 5 wines and Chile 4 wines.

As James Molesworth reviews the South African wines for Wine Spectator, as well as being responsible for rating the wines of Chile and Argentina, it presented a great opportunity to better understand his taste.

We spent the 1st night in Buenos Aires and headed off to Mendoza early on the 10th. The first few hours were somewhat challenging, as the GPS in the rental car did not really match the road system, the Garmin had no wineries loaded as attractions and we found Mendoza to be somewhat light on road-signs. The hotel also turned out to be a bit less exciting than its TripAdvisor rating reflected. As we do not speak any Spanish, we found communication to be a real problem!

What does the Mendoza area look like? To me, it looked very much like the Denver/Colorado Spring area along the Rockies’ front-range. Tall, snow capped mountains to the west, with flat plains stretching east as far as the eye can see and similar ‘high desert’ landscape.

Clos de Los Siete Tasting with Shakira!

Clos de Los Siete Tasting with Shakira!

Once we got over the first few challenges, we found our way to Trapiche and Tempus Alba in the Maipu area. Trapiche is a very large producer (Argentina’s largest export brand) but presents its heritage and sophistication really well. Our visit to the winery and tasting room was expertly hosted.

The wines tasted were an eye opener given the volume of some of the wines produced. Tempus Alba won some Wine Tourism awards and its self-guided tour of the winery was well thought out.

On Tuesday we headed out a bit further south to Catena Zapata, where we were once again treated like VIPs. It is an amazing project and reflects the Catena family’s investment of passion and significant funds for nearly 110 years.

The winery design is top drawer and the wines we tasted were just as good. It has a unique style based on the Inca temples. They buy 3,000 new barrels every year. Like many of the wineries we visited, they use about 65% French oak and 35% American oak. It is a formidable operation!

Next we enjoyed lunch at Ruca Malen, which is a private winery that only presents their wines via a 7 course tasting menu. It is a great way of doing running their wine tourism business and very popular, despite a fairly heft tag of nearly R450 per person. The wines were good and prices, once again, represented great value.

We went on to the highly touted Achaval Ferrer winery after lunch. It claims to have the top rated Malbecs in Argentina and one of their wines is rated in the Wine Spectator Top 100 for 2010, but we were somewhat underwhelmed. It may have been the low quality of the first wine offered, or the arrogance of the attending staff, as no tasting is blind at a winery!

On Wednesday morning we drove nearly 100km south to the high lying, cooler, Uco valley. We spent 4 hours at the amazing Clos de Los Siete estate. The project covers 847Ha with about 500Ha under vineyard at present. It was initiated by world famous oenologist Michel Rolland and Jean-Michel Arcaute in 1998.

Monteviejo Winery in Clos de Los Siete

Monteviejo Winery in Clos de Los Siete

They brought in a total of 7 investors, who were all high profile winery owners from France. Divided into seven bodegas, the group was named Clos de los Siete (Vineyard of the Seven) and is as ‘new world’ for the French as it’s possible to be. We visited the DiamAndes, Flechas de los Andes and the brand new Rolland wineries. We also had a good look at Monteviejo from the outside.

The wines tasted were all of an excellent standard. The wine jointly produced by the wineries as Clos de Los Siete was very well priced and surprisingly good for a 1,3m bottle annual production wine! The wineries were all state of the art, with sorting, gravity based designs that spared no cost.

DiamAndes' gravity based cellar

DiamAndes' gravity based cellar

It is a major investment in the Mendoza wine industry and one that has helped to really put them on the global map. The initial project cost the investors about $50m and I suspect that another $150m has gone into the wineries built by the various partners.  A project of this scale and nature would help South Africa’s wine industry immensely!

Salentein Underground barrel maturation cellar

Salentein Underground barrel maturation cellar

We were a bit worried that it would be hard to beat Clos de los Siete, as we headed to nearby Bodega Salentein.  Fortunately it was another eye-opener! This was another project of huge proportion. The estate is more than 2,000Ha in size with about 800Ha under vines.

Its Dutch owner had tremendous vision as one of the first major investors in the Uco valley. The Salentein winery is extremely well designed, modern and like most of the other wineries visited, very spacious.

It is a gravity based cellar with both stainless steel and large format oak fermenters. The underground barrel and bottle storage areas were cavernous, but beautifully executed.

We saw and experienced only a small part of what Mendoza has to offer. I hope to see more on future visits to this unique wine region. The time in Mendoza flew past way too quickly. As we flew to Chile, we reflected on some of the learning of this first visit:

  • The Argentinean wines have exploded on the world markets for very good reason – they offer fantastic value for money and the volumes are large enough to ensure broader distribution.
  • The level of foreign investment has had a major impact on the style and quality of wines produced. It probably played a key role in the dramatic growth of Argentinean exports during the past decade.
  • The people who hosted us at the wineries were unbelievably hospitable.  They went out of their way, spent more time with us than expected and shared so much information and opened their best wines.
  • The group of top end, medium sized wineries visited (and there are more we would loved to have seen given more time) have the latest technology, deep pockets, access to great fruit and are very passionate about what they do.
  • It is amazing to see wineries producing 1 to 2 million bottles of really high quality wines, at export prices that are tough to beat at double the price.
  • The vast area of very homogeneous, deep, well drained, alluvial soils (with sufficient water) along the Andes is a powerful weapon, as it provides access to a large quantity of very predictable style and quality grapes.
  • The climate is very good, with 330 days of sunshine a year, tempered by cool evenings along the snow capped Andes Mountains.
  • The Argentinians have built a strong wine industry and supported it with potent marketing in key markets like the USA and China during the past few years. They have enjoyed high growth as result. A very tough competitor to South Africa and the likes of Australia and Chile.
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