Article first published Wine Times Hong Kong, February 3 2017.
After two weeks in Chile my study trip continued over the Andes in Mendoza, Argentina, where I visited Altos Las Hormigas and Familia Zuccardi. What was immediately apparent upon entering Argentina was the vast difference in infrastructure between Chile and Argentina and how lengthy periods of economic and political instability have impacted the latter. Arriving into Mendoza late on a Sunday night and after a bank strike the previous Friday, I found all the ATMs had run out of money providing a sharp reminder of the challenges faced on a daily basis.
As one might expect, Malbec dominated the producer portfolios, together with Bonarda, Tannat and some Cabernet blends. Where Chile may lead with diversity of grape varieties offered to consumers, Argentina, specifically in Mendoza, showcases diversity via an extensive range of Malbec styles. To realise this distinction a number of techniques in the vineyard and in the winery are employed.
In addition to the Guyot system, some producers are using the pergola training system in a bid to regulate fruit exposure to sunlight, thus reducing sunburn potential and helping to ensure ripening is as even as possible. By managing the ripening period, Malbec of medium body with good complexity of aromas and flavours can be produced. Additionally, an even growth period helps preserve acidity without needing to pick early, which could sacrifice flavour and aroma development.
Furthermore, in a bid to produce quality fruit the vineyard manager must also deal with a number of different pests in Mendoza. Speaking with Juan José Borgnia, Vineyard Manager at Altos Las Hormigas, one of the primary problems, as the estate name suggests, is hormigas, or ants. Swarms of ants will devour young shoots and buds to potentially devastate a crop. In keeping with the estate’s use of organic and biodynamic agricultural practises, the current strategy is to search out and manually destroy ant nests, which requires considerable time from the vineyard team.
Another challenge in the Mendoza area is wildlife competing for a limited water supply. In this desert area foxes will often damage the drip irrigation pipes by nibbling on them in search of water. To counter this at Altos Las Hormigas, alternative water sources are placed around the vineyard, which has successfully lured the foxes away from the irrigation pipes.
There is also the ever-present threat of frost and hail, which is managed by the permanent application of hail nets and with smudge pots out in the vineyards to maintain vine microclimate. In fact, during my visit to Familia Zuccardi at the newly built Piedra Infinita vineyard in the Uco Valley, the smudge pots were being prepared as forecasts had predicted a frost for later that evening.
During my visit the Zonda wind blew in to the region. The Zonda builds up on the eastern side of Chile helping to form snow in the winter but in the spring and summer it crosses over the Andes to Argentina. When it appears in Mendoza it is a very hot, dry and dusty wind, at times wrecking havoc where it blows. It is common for schools to close and restaurants and shops to shut when a Zonda is forecast and the damage to the vineyard can be significant with young or flowering vines at particular risk. When it arrived during my visit visibility was greatly reduced and the temperature increased significantly. The following day, as is common I was told, the skies were brilliant clear and a cool air had been left in its wake.
Coming into the winery, the use of concrete fermentation and maturation vessels was being employed to create red wine with a fine and supple tannin structure. The most extensive example being at Familia Zuccardi where the Piedra Infinita winery is filled with new concrete fermentation tanks (without epoxy lining) and with concrete amphorae – the design of each created specifically for Zuccardi and under design patent.
As the stylistic reference for Argentina’s signature grape variety continues to evolve it is most certainly the consumer who benefits from the sheer breadth of styles on offer. The Malbec I tasted during my visit to Mendoza encompassed the full gamut of interpretation from dark and brooding full-bodied wines to moderate, medium-bodied expressions with fresh acidity and elegant structure – quite simply, something for everyone!