‘Premium whites can quash Mendoza stereotype’
Argentine producer Susana Balbo Wines believes the time has come to bury the stereotype that Mendoza equals Malbec amid the “surprising” success of its range of premium white wines.
The family-owned winery based in Agrelo, Mendoza, has built its reputation on making Malbec – the grape with which the Mendoza region is overwhelmingly associated – since it was founded by entrepreneur and winemaker Susana Balbo in 1999.
However, over the past three years, it has released three premium whites from the Uco Valley under the Signature label – a barrel-fermented Torrontés, a barrel-fermented Chardonnay, and, last year, a white blend.
These wines, produced from grapes from the cool-climate Altamira region (1,100m) in the Uco Valley, have been received so well that they are fast becoming the “flagship” wines of the estate, according to Balbo’s son, and winemaker, Jose Lovaglio.
The barrel-fermented Torrontés, in particular – a grape with which Susana Balbo has considerable expertise – has been received extremely well since its first vintage in 2013, its most recent release receiving a score of 94 points from Luis Gutierrez in his 2016 Argentina report.
The wine is characterised by a more citrusy fruit profile than is typical for the variety, with a generous mid-palate mouthfeel, well-integrated oak and a pronounced minerally finish.
“These are actually becoming some of our flagship, best-scoring wines, Lovaglio told db.
“We find them really interesting because nobody expect this profile of wines coming from Argentina, and less so coming from Torrontés.
“It’s very unexpected for us but we are very happy with the style. We feel it is much more gastronomic, that this does very well in a restaurant setting, and is also more aligned with European markets.”
Susana Balbo has considerable experience with Torrontés. Her first winemaking role was at Michel Torino winery in Salta, where Torrontés is from.
When Balbo returned to her homeland of Mendoza to set up her own winery, she took with her cuttings of Torrontés and planted them in Altamira, a relatively cool region at the southern tip of the Uco Valley.
The Uco Valley is known for making the country’s best Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs and many of its leading higher altitude reds.
As Balbo’s winery business developed, this vineyard matured and was incorporated into the winery’s entry-level Torrontés, gradually coming to define the Signature barrel-fermented Torrontés.
“From the vineyard in Mendoza we discovered that the soil and the place spoke louder than the varietal,” Lovaglio explained.
“The Torrontés became more restrained on the nose, and longer and more mineral, like a good Chablis; still with the aromatics, the terpenes, of Torrontés, but with more balance and class.
“From those experiences we started playing around with the idea of doing higher end wines – we felt that we needed to show this new discovery to everybody else.”
The first vintage of the Signature Torrontés was 2013. Boosting the premium white wine range still further was the barrel-fermented Chardonnay, introduced from the 2014 vintage, then the Signature White Blend – a blend of Torrontés, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon – from the 2015 vintage, which José describes as the “most acclaimed” of the three.
All the wines are from neighbouring vineyards planted on calcareous soil in Altamira. Part of the fermentation is conducted in convection-toasted 225L barrels and part in concrete eggs. Only a small proportion of each of the wines undergoes malolactic fermentation, in order to retain freshness.
“The fruit profile of Torrontés is very difficult to marry with oak – it doesn’t go very well,” Lovaglio said. “But we found that if we used lower toast barrels that supported the mid-palate, the mouthfeel, and not so much the aromatics, we could do this assemblage in a very interesting way.
After experimenting with various tasting levels and methods, and barrel sizes, Balbo and Lovaglio settled on barrels toasted by convection – by vapour rather than direct fire in the barrel, which confer a milder oak profile that is more suited to the leaner, cool-climate style of Torrontés they have produced.
“Due to the profile of the oak and the nature of this more calcareous, cold-climate Torrontés, which is not very common, we have something very different that we feel is the beacon, the way to follow into doing higher-end whites in Argentina,” Lovaglio added.
One market seen as having particular importance as Susana Balbo Wines grows its focus on premium whites is the UK, where white wine sales outnumber those for red.
“It’s difficult to get over the stereotype, but people really get behind the wines,” Lovaglio noted.
“It’s easier for us to present the White Blend because some people are very biased against Torrontés, because all they know is the entry-level category from the big wineries. So this gives us a better chance of persuading people to put the stereotype aside and consider it just as a white wine and whether they like it nor not.”