Sunday, October 17, 2010

Touring Mendoza day 2

So, it's Day 2 of our little Mendocinan Wine Tour and Ricardo was right on time to start another ambitious day. The itinerary du jour was similar to yesterday's - a blend of the specifically requested and the utterly unknown.

We kicked off the morning's tasting at Bodega Sottano - one of the wineries that started completely off the radar for me when I first heard our proposed itinerary. Upon arrival, we, once again, found a family that immigrated from Italy in the late 1800's and has been in the production of grapes and/or wine for generations. The current Sottano endeavour, by the three brothers in the present generation, is quite recent however. The family had a history of selling grapes and producing bulk wine, but that changed at the turn of the new century.

It's that story that has been captured in the marketing of the winery's premium wine, Judas. As mentioned, the family had been producing bulk wine primarily for the Argentine market; however, like any good Italian household, there was wine being for their home consumption. One of the brothers felt that the home brew was too good to just enjoy at a family table. He bottled some of the wine and secretly provided it to prominent wine writers and tradesmen in the area and word started getting out that the Sottano family had a wine that people would want to get their hands on.

This, ultimately, led to the family changing the course of their involvement in the industry and to the formation of the new winery. The resulting legend goes that the family never "forgave" the errant brother for disclosing their hitherto family secret - and they labeled him, and named their premium Malbec, "Judas."

The fruit for Judas is grown on the vineyards located immediately next to the winery in Perdriel, where they have old vine Malbec and more recently planted Cab Sauv. The winery also sources grapes from vineyards a little farther afield in Tupungato in order to offer a more diverse portfolio. When we were taking a look at the Perdriel vineyard, we got a close-up view of the specially designed, heavy duty netting that many of the vineyards use on their premium vines.

Boo and I originally thought that, as in the Okanagan, all the visible netting might relate to protecting the fruit from predation by birds. We found out, however, that the biggest danger to vines and crops here is hail. Mendoza's wine regions may consist of semi-arid desert conditions, without a lot of annual rainfall, but summer storms (like the one we experienced on our first night here) can deliver hail stones the size of golf balls. One storm can so badly damage fruit, leaves and vines that an entire year's crop can be lost. The hail is usually localized though and, as a result, most wineries hedge their bets by operating vineyards in different regions - as is the case with Sottano and their Tupungato plots.

Concentrating on low yields of fruit, production at Sottano is limited. While sampling some big reds in their stunning tasting room, we were told that they currently only have about 16,500 cases to sell a year. Of those bottles, less than a thousand of them are the high end Judas. I wouldn't expect to find their wine at home in Vancouver but I see that they do have an agent here and that wines are available on special order. Hopefully, we'll be able to locate some for a more thorough tasting of their wines.

Our second stop of the day was an interesting addition to the mix of local wineries. Kaiken is another example of the global monies flowing into Mendoza; however, this time, the investment has come from well-known Chilean winery, Montes. The winery is named after the wild geese, "kaikenes," that criss-cross over the Andes between Argentina and Chile and, like those geese, the folk behind Montes have crossed the mountains in an attempt to create wines that reflect the best of both sides of the Andes.

The Argentine venture saw its first vintage in 2002; however, rather than build a brand new, fantastical winery like so many others, the Kaiken owners decided to purchase and renovate an 80 year old building that had previously been home, collectively, to winemaking, olive oil production and the distilling of alcohol and cognac. Although current laws now prevent such mixed production, Kaiken holds on to and offers a bit of a glimpse into Mendocinan history.

When Montes purchased the property, they also inherited some old growth, phylloxera-free vines. It was interesting to see a method of propagation used to allow continue use of those old vines. Where a vine had to be removed, for whatever reason, a branch of a neighbouring plant would be bent over and planted while it was still connected to the mother plant. Eventually, the new branch will take root and start producing vines and fruit of it own.

Touring the historical building was quite a change from all the brand spanking new, architecturally beautiful wineries that we'd been visiting so far. The incorporation of new equipment with the old footprint was something we wouldn't see at home in the Okanagan - where wine production just doesn't date back that far. Kaiken's use of one of the old concrete fermentation tanks to store current wine barrels was an intriguing look at the integration of old and new.

Montes wines are a fairly familiar sight on the wine shelves at home, so we figured that Kaiken would ultimately make its way up to Vancouver as well. Accordingly, we were "good" boys (although maybe not so "good" in the eyes of the folks at Kaiken) and didn't buy any more wine to add to our growing collection. Their premium wines concentrate on Malbec and Cab Sauv and the Malbec we tried was big, rich and full of fruit. I'd definitely grab a bottle if I do see it at home.

Carlos Pulenta Wines was our final destination for the day. This was one of the wineries that I had specifically requested as I had thoroughly enjoyed the wines that the winery served at this year's Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival. It was rare, at that event, that I'd relished an entire flight of winesl - like I did at their table. The goal of visiting was compounded when I'd read that one of the top winery restaurants in the world and top restaurants overall in Argentina was situated at Carlos Pulenta.

It also seemed like a no-brainer when our travel agent back home advised us that her husband was the local rep for Carlos Pulenta. She was clearly excited when I said that I really wanted to include this winery. I was a tad confused at first in that there are wines from Pulenta Estate (which we visited yesterday) and then there are wines from Carlos Pulenta; however, the latter offers two lines, neither of which involves the name "Pulenta." Perhaps my confusion stemmed a bit from the fact that this Pulenta enterprise is another branch of the family that had sold its interest in Trapiche.

Prior to setting up this new winery from the sale proceeds in 2002, Carlos Pulenta was already a well established name in the Mendocinan wine scene - having been the CEO and President of Salentein (one of the wineries that we visited yesterday).

As mentioned, the Carlos Pulenta winery markets its wines under two lines - the higher end red blends are sold under the Vistalba brand and the fruit driven, fresher varietals under the Tomero line. Vistalba is the name of the immediate area surrounding the winery, but there's perhaps a little more history behind the name "Tomero." A tomero is the man who's job is the distribution of irrigation water to the vineyards that are entitled, by law, to water from the river. These properties will be the ones that were established long ago. All other properties can only use well water. The system uses the waters provided by snow melt in the nearby Andes and distributes them for irrigation by a series of channels. The system has been in place for 200 years and the channels and gates can even be seen on every street in downtown Mendoza.

This was perhaps the quickest of our winery tours - perhaps a bit perfunctory - but we still saw that there had been plenty of money put into the facilities. Production is still limited, however, in that, between the two lines, the winery still only has 20,000 cases available for sale on an annual basis.

Since we were going to be tasting a full flight of wines with our upcoming lunch, we didn't actually sample any wines in the stunning tasting room. I enjoyed the visit there however. The feature wall was simply a cutaway view of the ground and soil to be found in the immediate vineyard. You often hear that "the harder a vine has to work for its nourishment, the better the fruit." It was eye-opening to see just how hard these vines' root system would have to work to establish themselves - looked like rocks, rocks and more rocks to me.

Lunch was to be both similar to - and the opposite of - yesterday's winery lunch at La Tupina. La Bourgogne still features local favourites like sweetbreads and chivito (or kid goat) but executive chef, Jean-Paul Bondoux, is a transplanted Frenchman who's presentation and preparation are as sophisticated as it gets - and delicious I might add. I'm glad to have been able to try both the down-home goodness of La Tupina and the cosmopolitan tastes of La Bourgogne. You can take me back to either restaurant at a moment's notice.

An added pleasure to today's lunch was that our Vancouver travel agent had told the winery that Boo and I would be visiting them and Paula Pulenta, daughter of Carlos, came to have a lovely chat with us. Being the one family member to commit herself to joining the family business full time, I'm sure she had a busy schedule, but she graciously entertained our babble. I'm sure she was likely there longer than expected since the waiters asked if she wanted to take lunch with us. She wasn't able to; however, with any luck, if she ever travels up to Vancouver, she'll take us up on our offer to try and entertain her a little as well.

With another three wineries down and only another 900 some odd to go, it was time to head back into town. Our two nights at the Club Tapiz winery stay had come to an end. So, Ricardo was taking us back to our new home in downtown Mendoza. We were hoping to take in a bit of the city as well during our remaining time - even though it was becoming evident that we were going to be leaving a lot of Mendoza undiscovered. Heavy sigh.

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