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Argentine Wine Redefined

From the choicest subzones of Mendoza’s Uco Valley, a new crop of small-batch Malbecs is forcing tasters to reconsider the basic parameters of Argentina’s signature wine.

Meanwhile, along the banks of the Río Negro in Patagonia, a small winery with big aspirations is turning the obscure Trousseau grape into an entirely New World wine.

Along the windy coastline south of Buenos Aires, where wine grapes have heretofore never been grown, one of Argentina’s top winemakers is crafting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and other cool-climate wines from a fledgling vineyard situated fewer than four miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

These are the kinds of new and intriguing wine projects that are redefining Argentinean wine. Here, we put the spotlight on a few of those who are spearheading these welcome efforts.

Andrés Blanchard / Photo by Gustavo Sabez
Andrés Blanchard / Photo by Gustavo Sabez

Who: Andrés Blanchard

Projects: Bodega Cuarto Dominio and Blanchard y Lurton

Where: Uco Valley, Mendoza

Andrés Blanchard grew up in San Martín, a sun-baked commune in eastern Mendoza known for volume production. His family, made up of immigrants from France and Spain, has grown grapes in this part of Argentina since they arrived from Europe three generations ago.

While respectful of the business, Blanchard long ago decided that to gain a fuller perspective of wine and the world, he would have to travel.

“It was 2001, and Argentina was in deep economic trouble,” he says. “I had to get out. I had to learn about the world of wine in a place with variety. So I studied viticulture and wine marketing in Spain, and worked retail in London.”

With international experience under his belt, Blanchard returned home in 2007. He first was in charge of exports for François Lurton’s stable of properties. That led to a commercial job at Bodega Catena Zapata and a rekindling of an old friendship with Javier Catena, who Blanchard had played rugby with in college.

Relying exclusively on a vineyard in La Consulta that Catena owns, the two started Bodega Cuarto Dominio (Fourth Generation) in 2009. Blanchard has steered the label into a 35,000-case brand, about 40 percent of which is sold in Argentina.

“We’re not trying for riches or fame,” he says. “We’re just trying to produce a style of Malbec that we like, one that’s both traditional, but fresher than what Mendoza is known for.”

In addition to Cuarto Dominio, Blanchard bottles white wine in conjunction with Lurton. The project, Blanchard y Lurton, produces a blended white from Tocai, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Viognier called Grand Vin, as well as a less-expensive blend of Tocai, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.

Recommended Wines

Cuarto Dominio 2014 Malbec (Mendoza); $40, 90 points. Oaky aromas of chocolate, wet clay, plastic and graphite control the nose of this tannic, edgy Malbec that gets a boost from bright acidity. Oak-dominated flavors share the stage with earthy berry notes, while the finish tastes minty and woody. Drink through 2021.

Blanchard y Lurton 2014 Grand Vin (Vista Flores); $30, 87 points.

Daniel Pi / Photo by Gustavo Sabez
Daniel Pi / Photo by Gustavo Sabez

Who: Daniel Pi

Project: Trapiche Costa y Pampa

Where: Chapadmalal, Buenos Aires Province

Daniel Pi is the head winemaker for Trapiche, one of Argentina’s biggest wineries and a global export powerhouse. But overseeing the production of value-priced varietal wines is not why Pi is so highly respected in his native Mendoza.

What makes Pi special is his unbridled enthusiasm for experimentation. Several years ago, Pi was one of the first to bottle high-end Malbec identified by vineyard name. He also makes wines called Imperfecto and 314 with his son and daughter.

But it’s Costa y Pampa—a project Pi has taken on for Trapiche in an unknown area called Chapadmalal, 250 miles south of Buenos Aires near Mar del Plata—that deserves a closer look. Named after the coastline that gives way to millions of acres of sprawling grasslands used for cattle grazing, Costa y Pampa produces fewer than 4,000 cases of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

Pi calls the terroir in Chapadmalal “South Atlantic.” “I think it’s like Long Island in the U.S., or Galicia in Spain,” he says. “It’s a maritime spot.”

At the 62-acre vineyard he helped plant in 2009 less than four miles from the ocean, the soils are “loessic,” says Pi, meaning wind-blown silt and sand. It’s a dry-farmed vineyard, thanks to the heavy rains that pelt the Argentine coast, and it relies on poplar trees to break the wind.

The 2014 vintage was the first for Costa y Pampa, while its 2015 crop was lost to frost. The 2016s are currently on the market, and they merit a serious taste.

Recommended Wines

Costa y Pampa 2016 Pinot Noir (BuenosAires); $20, 89 points. Trapiche may be on to something with this Atlantic Coast Pinot Noir. Earthy aromas suggest bacon, tire rubber and oak-infused berry and cherry. The mouthfeel is fresh but weighty. Flavors of roasted cherry and plum are earthy, while this inaugural Pinot from south of Buenos Aires tastes meaty and feels warm on the finish.

Costa y Pampa 2016 Chardonnay (Buenos Aires); $20, 88 points. This blend of coastal and desert grapes smells and tastes tropical, with floral notes and a preponderance of citrus character. There isn’t too much variation to the flavor profile, which is centered on white citrus fruits.

Santiago Bernasconi / Photo by Gustavo Sabez
Santiago Bernasconi / Photo by Gustavo Sabez

Who: Santiago Bernasconi

Project: Bodega Aniello

Where: Upper Río Negro Valley, Patagonia

Along the banks of the Río Negro in dry, windy Patagonia, Santiago Bernasconi and his two partners have slowly ramped up production at Bodega Aniello, named after the grandfather of one of Bernasconi’s associates.

In just its fifth year, Aniello bottles three levels of wine that emphasize freshness and red-fruit flavors, hallmarks of Río Negro offerings.

“We had grown tired of the M&M [Malbec from Mendoza] conversation and wanted to pursue diversity,” says Bernasconi. “Ours is defined by our proximity to the Río Negro, one of the few rivers in Argentina that never dries up. We have heterogeneous soils: gravel, sand and clay. It makes for some interesting wines.”

The 006 line, which includes Malbec, Merlot and Pinot Noir, is named for the original vineyard that Aniello purchased in 2011.

“On the paperwork, it reads ‘Chacra 006,’ ” says Bernasconi “Chacra means a plot of land, and this one had no name, just a number.”

Aniello’s midtier varietal Malbec and Merlot wines blended from various vineyard plots are good, and a white wine made from Pinot Noir is unique within Argentina. But the wine most worth seeking out is a Trousseau made from vines planted in 1932.

“People taste this grape from the Jura in France, and the wine is light and feminine,” says Bernasconi “Ours is fuller in body, more voluptuous and fruity.”

Recommended Wines

Aniello 2014 Vino de Parcela Unica Trousseau (Patagonia); $60, 88 points. This might be the only commercial Trousseau from Argentina, and it’s rusty in color, with translucence. Savory challenging aromas of orange peel and burnt orange include notes of dried cherry and fallen leaves. A tightly knit palate is home to flavors of dried cherry and plum as well as tomato sauce. A hint of maple vies with dried red-fruit flavors on a light finish that shows some elegance.

Aniello 2015 006 Riverside Estate Malbec (Patagonia); $20, 86 points. Foxy plum and berry aromas suggest wet animal fur. This feels jammy and resiny, with herbal flavors of minty plum. A spicy minty lightly green finish revolves around medicinal berry flavors.

Matías Michelini / Photo by Gustavo Sabez
Matías Michelini / Photo by Gustavo Sabez

Who: Gerardo, Juan Pablo, Gabriel and Matías Michelini

Project: SuperUco

Where: Uco Valley, Mendoza

The brothers Michelini—Gerardo, Juan Pablo, Gabriel and Matías (pictured)—are well known in the Mendoza wine scene. They’re also popular in the restaurants of Buenos Aires, where they hand-sell their Mendoza boutique wines: Zorzal, Gen de Alma, Via Revolucionaria and SuperUco.

The Michelinis helped the international-leaning Doña Paula brand gain traction more than a decade ago. In recent years, they’ve turned their attention to bottling mostly unconventional blends, biodynamic Malbecs and various cutting-edge wines, including a skin-contact Torrontés and a low-alcohol Chenin Blanc fermented in concrete eggs.

While a few of the Michelini wines exported to the U.S. are well out of the mainstream, there’s no denying the quality of Super­Uco, which began in 2012 as a collection of three biodynamic Malbecs.

“SuperUco is the union of me and my three brothers,” says Gerardo. “We are all very different, but united behind the same idea: to make wines that are emblematic of the Uco Valley and that reflect the places where the grapes are grown. Perfection, such that it can be attained, is only available through natural processes.”

One of the SuperUco wines hails from calcareous soils in Altamira, a spot that each year climbs the hierarchy of top Argentine wine-growing regions. Los Chacayes, in Vista Flores, is the source for SuperUco’s fullest, ripest, most traditional Malbec, while Gualtallary, a subsection of Tupungato, represents high-elevation (nearly 5,000 feet) viticulture and winemaking.

“Each of these wines is made in the same manner, yet while there are differences between each wine, they all display freshness, elegance and complexity,” says Gerardo. “Above all, that’s what we want to show.”

Recommended Wines

SuperUco 2014 Michelini Sammartino Calcáreo Río de Los Chacayes Malbec (Valle de Uco); $40, 92 points. Jammy blackberry and boysenberry aromas are on the rich side. At 15.5%, this is SuperUco’s biggest wine, and while it’s heavy on the palate, with grapy, peppery blackberry flavors, it hides its weight and alcohol well. On the finish, intense black-fruit and salt-tinged flavors are powerful but balanced. Drink through 2022.

SuperUco 2014 Michelini Sammartino Calcáreo Coluvio de Altamira Malbec (Valle de Uco); $40, 91 points. Floral blueberry aromas work alongside baking-spice notes on an inviting nose. This feels fresh and jumpy, with live-wire acidity. Leafy plum and lightly herbal flavors finish fresh and snappy, with juicy acidity and no overt oak. Drink through 2019.

Jeff Mausbach and Alejandro Sejanovich / Photo by Gustavo Sabez
Jeff Mausbach and Alejandro Sejanovich / Photo by Gustavo Sabez

Who: Jeff Mausbach and Alejandro Sejanovich

Project: TintoNegro

Where: Uco Valley, Mendoza

Jeff Mausbach (pictured, far left), a gregarious guy from Omaha, Nebraska, had been the head of wine education for the Catena group of wineries when I met him in 2001. Since 2010, he’s been making wines with Alejandro Sejanovich (left), a former vineyard manager with Catena.

TintoNegro is a project that concentrates on the Uco Valley, located to the immediate south of Mendoza city and the established subzones of Vistalba, Agrelo and Perdriel.

“TintoNegro wines are meant to reflect the heart and soul of Mendoza Malbec,” says Mausbach. “The portfolio explores the terroirs where Malbec does best. Gradually, we have isolated vineyard sites with interesting soil profiles. Our winemaking techniques aim to showcase the heights of concentration and complexity that Malbec can aspire to.”

The TintoNegro wines hail from the Finca La Escuela vineyard in the Paraje Altamira section of Uco. The vineyard is fewer than 20 acres—small by Argentine standards—with four distinct soil types: gravel, stones, sand and silt. TintoNegro bottles a Malbec from each soil type as well as a blend.

“Each plot offers different levels of water retention,” says Mausbach. “Silt is the heaviest and coolest, sand is the most coarse and driest. The stony soils are lowest in yields, with higher acidity and an herbal aromatic profile. Gravel refracts our abundant sunshine, creating higher temperatures in the vineyard, dark berry flavors and sweet spice aromas.”

The four wines show notable differences in aromas, structure and flavors, but also similarities. La Grava’s dark-fruit flavors and structured tannins are textbook Malbec. However, the four-plot blended wine, Finca La Escuela, ranks as TintoNegro’s most complete and complex Malbec.

Recommended Wines

TintoNegro 2013 Finca La Escuela Estate Grown Malbec (Mendoza); $40, 92 points. Jammy raspberry and plum aromas come with accents of dusty herbs and black licorice. A saturated, lush, jammy palate features soft, baked flavors of cassis and wild berry, while the finish delivers mint, chocolate and lasting berry ripeness. Drink through 2019.

TintoNegro 2013 Finca La Escuela La Grava Malbec (Mendoza); $30, 91 points. Welcoming cassis and wild-berry aromas are complex and feature notes of red licorice and fine herbs. This Malbec from gravel soils is flush, balanced and lifted by bright acidity. Vivid berry and plum flavors are spicy and steady across a focused, crisp finish. Drink through 2021.

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