It's official, we have succumbed to the charm of Argentina and its wines! With a history dating back to 1557 – following the arrival of Spanish colonists to conquer South America – the country has an ancient wine tradition. The 9th largest producer of wine, with 940 million liters (3.52% of the world production) and the 7th largest vineyard with 224,000 hectares, Argentina is a major player on the world wine scene. Visit of a vineyard that stretches over 2000 km.
Do you know Bonarda, the second most planted red grape in Argentina? It has been around since 1580, with the arrival of the Jesuits, who then used it to produce the wine for mass.
It was at Algodon Estate, a superb 1800-hectare property in San Rafael, south of Mendoza, with a 18-hole golf course, hotel, restaurant, spa and tennis complex, that we discoverd this grape variety.
"Argentina has 16,000 hectares of Bonarda", Mauro Nosenzo, Algodon's oenologist, who believes in the potential of it, said. This late grape variety is usually harvested between April 25th and April 30th.
The key to success: low yields of 2.5kg/plant maximum (Bonarda can easily reach 7-8kg) and poor soils. "The region is perfect for Bonarda: a natural acidity in the soil and a pH around 3.3. In addition, we do not have phylloxera here, which allows us to replant with the same clone", Mauro added. An important factor for the homogeneity of the vineyard.
Add to this manual harvesting in boxes of 20kg, and aging in stainless tanks, to keep the freshness. As a result, wines with aromas of black cherry, violet, plum and spice, combined with a juicy palate and small tannins, giving Algodon’s Bonarda a lot of delicacy.
"It's a very noble grape, able to be blended or to be made as a single varietal, both in red and rosé colors", Mauro concluded.
So here is a tip for you: if you are not a fan of wooded wines, but you are looking instead for fruity wines, this grape variety is for you.
Here we are in Patagonia, discovering a young wine region barely 100 years old which despite its small size (3% of the Argentine vineyard), is full of promise. It's also a child's dream coming true!
I have always been fascinated by the immensity of these large arid plains, contrasting with the lush vegetation that has grown up around the city of Neuquén, the capital of Patagonia with its 200,000 inhabitants.
"The grapes that grow here are naturally organic, with a semi-desert environment, beautiful breezes and permanent winds. Our job is simply to accompany the grapes, so that they become a beautiful wine", Marcelo Miras, the founder of Bodega Miras, a small family estate located in General Fernández Oro, explained.
If Patagonia has been able to develop intensive agriculture very quickly, it is thanks to the possibility to irrigate from the Rio Limay and Rio Neuquén rivers, which together form the Rio Negro, the most important river in the province of the same name. "Irrigation here creates a green lung along the river", Horacio Bibiloni, winemaker at Bodega Humberto Canale, told us.
It should be known that before 1900, there was nothing in this desert part of Argentina, until then under the domination of the Mapuche nation. It was under the leadership of General Roca, who led the Desert Campaign (1878-1885), that the south of the country was colonized, giving birth to the city of Neuquén in 1904.
The 90s mark the peak of the Argentine vineyard, with the beginning of the export of wines and a peso/dollar parity that lasted for 10 years, enabling the wineries to equip themselves with new technologies ; improving quality. "There were no 225L barrels before 1998 in Patagonia", Horacio Bibiloni remembered, adding: "The wines of Patagonia have a different profile compared to other Argentinean wines. Neither better nor worse but different".
San Patricio del Chañar, located 53 km north of Neuquén, on the 39º parallel south, is the new wine region of Patagonia, created in the late 90s.
A project initiated by the visionary Julio Viola, who planted in 1999 what would become the largest winery of the region: Bodega del Fin del Mundo.
Until then a fruit producer, he suffered the full fret of the fruit economic crisis of 1997, like many producers in the region. Understanding that the Patagonian desert had great wine potential, he had the idea to change activity and planted 870 hectares of vines; 85% of which are red grapes (Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Tannat).
A large surface to work, certainly, but a vineyard well thought out and delimited in small parcels, all separated by tree plantations, serving as natural barriers against the wind. Indeed, the wind blew a lot during our visit. "A typical day in the region. This wind helps us maintain a healthy vineyard", Julio Viola Junior, the production manager, explained.
The estate currently has 350 employees. "It is becoming more and more difficult to have workers in Patagonia. The oil industry pays very well and we can not afford the same salaries".
The cellar is huge and we decided to visit it by bike. The opportunity to learn that the estate has recently bought the Bodega Malma, the neighboring vineyard, to diversify its offer, with an additional 150 hectares of vines.
Another great discovery, the Bodega Familia Schroeder, created in 2001, at the gateway to the desert. A beautiful vineyard, with 140 hectares in one piece, planted on rock and sand soils.
"Patagonia has become an important and recognized region, not because of the volume it produces, but because of its diversity of climates and wines", Roberto Schroeder, the German-born president whose father arrived in Patagonia in 1932 as a doctor, told us.
With pure water coming from glaciers for irrigation (only 200 mm of rainfall per year), significant temperature variations between warm days and cool nights, combined with frequent wind and low humidity, conditions are perfect for viticulture.
And if you have the chance to go there, do not miss their restaurant, it's probably the best table in the region. On the menu, cooked by Chef Ezequiel Gonzalez : seasonal products and vegetables from the garden. A delight.
A must in Argentina for the quality of its wines is Bodega Humberto Canale, the oldest vineyard in Patagonia. It was established in 1909 in the region of Rio Negro, in the city of General Roca (one hour east of Neuquén).
There, you will discover 145 hectares of vineyards planted on the 39º parallel, 250 meters above sea level, along the Rio Negro river. A special climate, where the cool nights help the optimal development of the maturity of the grapes.
And a later ripening wine region than that of San Patricio del Chañar, where it is not uncommon to harvest two weeks later, on average. For Horacio Bibiloni, the oenologist, Argentina must show the world that it is not only a Malbec country.
"Patagonia is a fantastic terroir to highlight the potential of other grape varieties, such as Pinot Noir, Merlot or Semillon, which deserve more attention", he explained us at lunch, around delicious meat skewers.
Horacio took us to the Valle de la Luna Rojo, a few kilometers from the estate, for a memorable moment. It was in the desert, after having driven on a dry and dusty track for several kilometers, that we suddenly arrived in front of a hallucinating place, with a lunar topography and colors of fire.
Magical to taste some of Bodega Humberto Canale wines is this place, like the cuvée Cabernet Franc Gran Reserva 2015.
Our stay ended with an incredible encounter and an unforgettable wine discovery: the Bodega Chacra, in Mainque, in the Río Negro region. Its founder, Piero Incisa della Rocchetta (grandson of the creator of Sassicaia), has opened our eyes to the fact that Pinot Noir is the future of Patagonia and probably the most promising grape variety in the region.
It was after drinking a Pinot Noir from Patagonia during a tasting in New York that Piero decided to visit the region in 2001. A part of the world that was previously unknown to him. He discovered ungrafted vines dating back to 1932, which had been abandoned.
He fell in love with this unique terroir, with its sandy, clay, gravel and silt soils, at 260m altitude ; perfectly adapted to the Pinot Noir grape variety. Piero settled in Rio Negro and founded Bodega Chacra in 2004.
In Patagonia, a "chacra" is a special land for pomology(2). At the same time, chacras are vital energy centers that give us the ability to connect with the entire universe. "We do not take enough into consideration the energy in the wine", he explained.
Respecting the principles of biodynamics and organic farming, Piero strives to produce wines that are pure, delicate and reflecting the region. He even planted some 46,000 trees, 6,000 roses, 8,000 plants of lavender and built 30 hives to recreate an ecosystem around the vineyard.
And when I asked him why biodynamics, he just responded humbly: "first and foremost because I drink the wines that I produce".
The red wines of the estate, all from the Pinot Noir grape, with yields of 1.5kg per vine maximum, are of rare elegance. To discover urgently.
Thank you to Algodon Fine Wines, Bodega Familia Schroeder, Bodega Del Fin Del Mundo, Bodega Miras, Bodega Humberto Canale and Bodega Chacra for their warm welcome. Thanks also to Abel Furlan, winemaker of the Dos Hemisferios estate in Ecuador and President of the Argentinian Oenologists Association, for helping us in the realization of our stay in Patagonia.
(1) Source OIV, 2017
(2) Pomology (from latin pomum (fruit) + -logy) is a branch of botany that studies and cultivates fruit.