Sunday, October 17, 2010

Touring Mendoza - A Final Hurrah

Our third - and final - day of touring came and went all too soon. Our favourite Argentine wine guy, Ricardo, was ready to shepherd us to another three wineries - and again, we weren't necessarily being taken to the best known wineries, but rather we were being shown parts of the wide spectrum that is Argentine wine.

Today's first stop was at Achaval Ferrer. While I recalled having heard of the brand and of seeing a bottle or two on shelves over the years, I knew nothing more about them. The winery is a relatively new entry on the Mendocinan wine scene - having been started up in 1998 by a group of Argentine businessmen and Italian winemakers. From day one, however, Achaval Ferrer started pushing limits and taking out of the mainstream approaches to its winemaking. The winery is all about old vine Malbec, focusing primarily on single vineyard and sub-regional blends, although they also produce a Bordeaux blend called Quimera. If there's one winery in Argentina that tries, more than anyone else, to express terroir - or, perhaps more correctly, terruno - it's likely these guys. They pride themselves on their lack of manipulation when producing their wines - having compared their approach to virtually "throwing grapes in a bottle" and letting the grapes talk for themselves.

Focusing on four vineyards in four different regions of Mendoza province, the winery started out by buying up old vineyards that weren't being used commercially because of their age and lack of production. This was exactly what these folks wanted. Their vineyard yields are about as low as it gets - starting at one ton an acre and maxing out at two and a half tons.

As might be expected from such low yields, total production remains small - maybe 15,000 cases a year. It also results in prices that aren't likely to make Achaval Ferrer an everyday wine in Argentina. In a world of $10 Malbecs, the winery's single vineyard bottles come in at over $100. Accordingly, 85% of their production is exported to the US.

If Boo and I weren't facing the draconian limits of Canadian customs when bringing wine home with us, we could easily have left the winery with a more reasonable number than the one bottle we did. Surprisingly, with all the emphasis on Malbec, our one bottle was actually a Shiraz. To be honest, we didn't even try it; however, when you're told that only 300 cases of a wine are being produced and it's from one of Wine & Spirits magazine's 2009 Wineries of the Year, it only makes sense to seize the opportunity. I'll look forward to adding it to The List in due course.

Our next stop was perhaps our favourite visit of the entire trip. We're talking "hospitality plus" here. Started up in 1988, Domaine St. Diego began pretty much as a retirement project of Angel Mendoza (can there be a more appropriate name for a winemaker in the area?) that has become a family affair. Like Achaval Ferrer, production is limited; however, the atmosphere here is the exact opposite of the high-end, spectacular wineries that we've also seen during our visit.

During our visit at the winery, we were provided with an extensive - and enthusiastic - tour of the vineyard. Our guide clearly loved the opportunity to meet with us and show us as many nooks and crannies of the winery that time allowed. We even met three of five family members now involved with the winery, including Angel Mendoza himself and his wife. When we were told that one of his sons, Lucas, was currently working at a friend's winery in Ontario, we told him that he needs to visit the Okanagan Valley and see what we have offer if he wants to see even more of what Canadian winemaking is like.

The winery is located in a picturesque vineyard with alternating vines and olive trees. It also features one of the few terraced vineyards currently in the region. These terraced vines were the last of the farm to be planted and they consist of the Cab and Merlot varietals that are being more regularly introduced to the area. The terraced area also leads up to a viewpoint that showcases the Christian heritage of the valley. If Domaine St. Diego were located in BC, it would likely be termed a "garage winery" - to the extent that a good portion of the winery's production is still sold to the neighbouring farmers when they bring by their multi-gallon jugs for regular fillings.

Despite the low key approach to the winery, we quickly found out that we shouldn't kid ourselves about the pedigree of the wine. Angel Mendoza worked for 25 years as a winemaker with Trapiche, one of the most prominent wineries in the country. In 2001, he was named Winemaker of the Year by his peers in Mendoza. Furthermore, his wines at Domaine St. Diego continue to win a number of international awards - regardless of the fact that you'll likely never find them outside of Argentina.

All in all, this was one winery tour that I'd have happily seen go on for another hour or two. I definitely let loose a silent "WTF" when I found out that the wines were all priced under $15. Once again, those darned customs limitations curtailed a realistic purchase of what I would have liked to buy. We grabbed a couple of bottles, thinking that we would find the opportunity to quaff them down before heading home. After all, a $15 bottle didn't really fit into the plan for bringing back one or two iconic wines each.

For never having heard of the winery, this was a definite find. We thanked Ricardo profusely for taking us there.

We had one final stop on the day's tour and, like the other two days, it featured a wonderful winery lunch. Ricardo capitalized on his intimate knowledge of the region and took us to Piattelli Vineyards - yet another winery that I knew nothing about. Not surprisingly, we were shown yet another facet of the burgeoning wine scene in Mendoza.

There's no doubt that we wouldn't have stumbled across Piattelli had it not been for Ricardo. While located next door to landmark winery Catena Zapata, Piattelli only started as a project in 2002, with 2004 being the winery's first vintage. The state of the art facility and stunning visitor centre has only been open since November 2009, with the restaurant only opening its doors for lunch about a month ago. The tasting room is more like someone's living room straight out of Architectural Digest. The luncheon clearly hasn't hit the radar of the wine tourism trade yet and we were lucky enough to enjoy the wonderful facilities all to ourselves.

In addition to our sampling of the experimental menu, we were pretty much given free reign over the wine pours. The latter situation likely flowed from Ricardo's obviously good relationship with the winery hostess. As a result, we actually have a bottle to add to The List. There's no doubt we did enough damage to this bottle to have it qualify as a bottle down.

620. 2008 Piattelli Vineyards Grand Reserve Trinita (Mendoza - Argentina)

The winery actually has vineyards in two provinces - one in the northern province of Salta and this location in Luyan de Cuyo in Mendoza. Like most other wineries in the area, Piattelli also features two levels of wines - its Premium and its Grand Reserve. The Trinita is the only blend currently offered by the winery and the 2008 vintage consisted of 65% Malbec, 20% Cab Sauv and 15% Merlot. This was a nice example of how Argentina really is more than just Malbec.

No doubt due to the fact that the primary investor behind the new venture is an American wine importer and wine bar owner in Minnesota, much of the Piattelli production is destined for the American market. It was also interesting to note that this was the only winery that we visited that was looking to capitalize on the trend of reducing its environmental footprint by marketing boxed wine as well. While practically every winery we visited showcased to great extent, and expense, the oak barrels utilized, this was the only time we noticed boxed wine being prepared for shipping as well.

For only having time to visit nine wineries during our Mendoza stay, I think it's safe to say that we had the opportunity to see a good range of the wines being produced and the operations behind them. Boo and I would never have been able to pull this off on our own. We owe a great debt to Ricardo for coordinating our tours and suffering my endless questions and tendencies to dawdle.

I'll be sad to move on from Mendoza after only scratching the surface, but the three days that we had were both informative and immensely enjoyable. There's no doubt that Ricardo will be the first person I'll try to contact should we ever get another opportunity to visit the area! You should too.

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