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Argentina on fine wine mission to rival Burgundy

Argentina has the potential to be “perceived on the same scale as Bordeaux or Burgundy” for fine wine, with time the only barrier to proving the ability of its wines to age, believes Lorenzo Pasquini, technical manager of Cheval Blanc’s Argentine venture, Cheval des Andes.

Lorenzo Pasquini, technical manager of Cheval Blanc’s Argentine venture, Cheval des Andes.

Speaking to the drinks business, Pasquini said he believed that Argentina was on a “great path”, but was still not in the minds of wine collectors as a place to buy wines to cellar. This would only change if producers worked harder to demonstrate the ageing potential of their wines, he said, showcasing a 2002 and 2008 vintage of its Cheval des Andes, made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot from vineyards in Las Compuertas, Lujan de Cuyo, in central Mendoza.

“This is the message that we want to send about our wines and Mendoza,” said Pasquini. “We are making wines that can travel through time and that show the attributes of a great wine of the world. It’s very important to show back vintages and to show agebility and release back vintages. The potential for Argentina to be perceived on the same scale as Bordeaux or Burgundy, where you can collect and store a wine, is huge.”

Often described as a “New World Cru”, Cheval des Andes was founded in 1999 and is a collaboration between Terrazas de los Andes and Pierre Lurton of Bordeaux’s Cheval Blanc.

For Lurton, it was about reconnecting with a variety that had been all but destroyed in France by Phylloxera in the 1860s, but which was once one of the most important varieties in Saint Emilion and Pomerol. Cheval des Andes is the only project outside of France that the premier grands crus classé (A) St Emilion estate has lent its name to, which for Pasquini signals its confidence in Argentina’s future.

“I think [Argentine fine wine] is growing and people are getting there, which is why I think it’s very important that there are projects like this that push in this direction,” says Pasquini, citing their own wines, alongside the likes of Catena and Mendel.

“There are plenty of other wines that really go in this direction. I think it is growing and its only a matter of time. It’s getting there but its not where it could be. I’m very confident that will come and I think Cheval des Andes has a role because every year the team [from Cheval] keep coming here, four times a year. This is proof of confidence that they have in this place and shows that even a premier grands cru classé producer, one of the most renowned in Bordeaux, believes in this terroir and its potential. They are still very excited with this place and they are not the only ones – Rolland, Hobbs, Antonini. It’s proof of the potential and it’s only a matter of time.”

Achaval Ferrer’s range of Malbecs

Proving their ability to age is the biggest hurdle to proving Argentina’s fine wine credentials, says Julio Lasmartres, marketing director of Achaval Ferrer, which was founded in 1998. In 2011 its 2009 Altamira Malbec received 99 points from Robert Parker – the highest score ever achieved by a South American wine at the time.

“Whenever we taste the wines one question is what is the ageing potential of this wine? I say I don’t know because I can’t prove it, past 18 years,” says Lasmartres, noting that it was only 15 years ago that Argentina began looking at terroir and how grapes adapt to each soil.

“All I can say is that I think this wine has the ageing potential of 20 years – I don’t have proof – but it’s definitely a path that we are trying to follow. Where we are now, in terms of fine wine, in the minds of people in the press and some people in the trade consumers are starting to recognise that Argentina has the potential, but for the main market it’s still known as a place for good wines and great value, so that’s the mould that we have to break. It’s a challenge every time we go out in the market, but the feedback has been amazing.”

Catena Zapata is similarly a producer known for following the fine wine path, highlighting not only the the evolution and ageing potential of its Malbecs during a meeting with the drinks business, but its Chardonnays – produced from its Adrianna vineyard in Gualtallary in the Uco Valley, which rises to 1450 masl.

Described by Catena as “South America’s Grand Cru vineyard”, Adrianna was planted in 1992 by Nicolas Catena with many at the time disbelieving of the ability for grapes to ripen at such high altitude. Catena’s intuition proved right, with the Uco now awash with high altitude vineyards. But it wasn’t until 2004 that Laura Catena began work to identify individual parcels within Adrianna, resulting in the demarcation of 11 soil-specific lots.

Recalling its evolution, winemaker Ernesto Bajda said before this time they believed that they would reach the quality potential of wines when they had “even vineyards”, focusing on finding differences in the vineyard and trying to correct them.

“We thought that by doing that we would have quality, but then we realised that we were doing something completely wrong which is trying to change nature and we could only correct five factors out of 1000,” he said. “Then we understood that our job was to identify the differences and drink them separately. That was the big start of the Catena Institute (founded by Laura Catena, primarily to dig deeper into its vineyards). That year, in 2005, we made 3,500 wines from different vineyards. It was huge work, and we still make around 1,200 to 1,500 wines each year.”

Catena Zapata wines produced from its Adrianna vineyard in Gualtallary in the Uco Valley, including its White Stones and White Bones Chardonnays

Catena produces a series of Malbecs from its Adrianna vineyards, alongside its two flagship white Chardonnays – White Bones and White Stones – made from vineyards with two very different soils.

“We had completely different Chardonnays coming from the same six hectare lot,” says Bajda. “We have wines that were absolutely different. We had the same altitude, 1500 all and same selection of Chardonnay. So we went to the soils and we found a huge difference. One was dry river soil of about two million years which is nothing in geology terms. A river had wiped out the original soil and set a lot of stones there [White Stones].

“The other was an ancient soil that was the original soil even before the Andes existed and had lots of calcium carbonate and limestone and organisms from the ocean [White Bones]”, which Bajda explained had been deposited there when the mountains first erupted from the seabed. “That made us realise how important it was to study each particular place where we found a difference in the wines.”

Demonstrating the progress, in terms of quality and variety, made by Argentina in a relatively short space of time, Bajda pointed to his schooldays, when he was told that Mendoza could “never make fresh white wines because we were in a desert”.

“At that time we didn’t know anything about the high altitude vineyards because our viticulture was in the lower valleys of Mendoza,” he said. “In these places you normally have warmer temperatures, but because of the altitude you can have very cool climate vineyards which means you can make fresh wines. If you considered that now we have started studying the soils the potential is unimaginable.

Pointing toward the work of Burgundy in identifying individual soil types and parcels, Bajda noted that what took them 300 years will take Argentina far less.

“The idea of getting into the soil and getting geologists into the vineyard to understand the soils was not because we dreamed [the differences]. It was because we had 300 years experience of the Burgundians to look to. The difference is that they took 300 years of trial and error. In the 21st century we can apply the scientific methods, and instead of having one answer every year we can have 10 to 15 answers every year.”

“Argentina already has a reputation for Malbec and red wines. On the whites we are starting first to understand and learn ourselves, but with these results I feel completely confident about having very fine wines from Chardonnay and other white varieties in the future.”

Catena Zapata winemaker Ernesto Bajda

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