Old ways in new regions—it may be the future.by Barry Smith / January 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Talented winemakers often see their task as striking the right balance between tradition and innovation. They adopt new methods in the vineyard and cellar that can lead to an improvement in quality, but only insofar as they help to bring about the perfect expression of what the grapes grown in their soils have produced season after season. Burgundy provides a good example of this. Innovative growers will experiment, but are keen to preserve the legacy of Cistercian monks who cultivated vines on the very same slopes. But it’s not just in the old world that the struggle between tradition and innovation is taking place. In the hundred-year-old vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina, winemakers have embarked on the same quest, though it plays out somewhat differently in the shadow of the Andes. Driving the straight road from Lujan de Cuyo to the Uco Valley can be reminiscent of the drive from Gevrey-Chambertin to the Côte Chalonnaise: a flat plain flanked all the way by slopes on one side. But the scale is utterly different: the distances are vast and the slopes are not hills but massive snow-capped peaks. The vineyards would not be here without the mountains and the snow-melt that irrigates them. You may think of Mendoza as the home of Argentinian Malbec, and to a large extent it is. However, there is far more going on these days than the growth of a single varietal. It is a place of invention and re-invention. Cabernet Sauvignon has always grown well here, especially in the higher altitude vineyards where cooler conditions at night allow the sun-drenched vines to rest, thus preserving the acidity of the grapes. Cabernet Franc and Syrah do well here too, leading to new adventures in blending. Perhaps the best exponents of this trend are the winemakers at Luigi Bosca. The Arizu family have Italian and Spanish roots and their wine reflects old-world values. These are fresh, almost savoury wines with depth and interest. A highly successful blend is De Sangre, composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot; the kind of blend now popular among innovators in the south of France. Gustavo Arizu tells me about other blends of Malbec with a small percentage of Petit Vedot and Cabernet Franc. The exact percentages are the result of experimentation and, as usual, it’s the smaller percentages that make the biggest differences to the resulting wines. Luigi Bosca are not alone in seeking out something new for the new world. José “Pepe” Galante, who was for a long time the Catena winemaker responsible for many fine Cabernets, is now cultivating single vineyard Burgundy-style Chardonnays for Bedegas Salentein. The vineyards, at altitudes of well over 1,000m, provide the ideal conditions for grapes that produce wines with a delicacy and vitality often missing in new world Chardonnay. They offer a refreshing contrast to the more traditional new world Chardonnays made lower down the slopes. At the other end of the tradition-innovation scale stands the boutique winery of O Fournier. This state of the art, gravity- controlled winery was established in 2000 by José Manuel Ortega Gil-Fournier, a former banker, whose Alfa Crux Bordeaux-blends, matured in French oak, have already won international praise. But it is the sibling blend, Beta Crux, with the surprising addition of Temperanillo from old vines previously cultivated on the site, that has more to say, reviving traditions of the first attempts at winemaking in the Uco Valley. The latest innovation from Mendoza revives an even older tradition: making wines without barrel ageing. The Michelini brothers are making extraordinarily fine expressions of the Malbec grape from vines grown at high altitude and fermented in concrete tanks. These Zorzal Malbecs have purity of fruit without the usual fruit-driven character of fine wines. These are some of the purest expressions of Malbec I have ever tasted. Old ways in new regions—it may be the future.