Profiling South America’s new fine wine: Balasto
Balasto, from Uruguay’s Bodega Garzón, has muscled its way onto fine wine collectors’ must-have lists, thanks to the ambition of the winery’s owner, Alejandro Bulgheroni, to create a rival to the world’s best expressions.
Gaining collectible status in the world of fine wine is notoriously difficult. After all, you have to convince the critics, the trade and consumers that your quality is high, your style unique, and your positioning consistent.
This is why so few reach a point where they become must-haves in any serious cellar, even though there are many wonderful bottles from an increasingly broad cross-section of great wine- producing areas.
Nevertheless, there are examples of modern labels that have managed to break into the exclusive club of sought- after wines, those that are widely collected and traded after their initial release. Among such brands from recent history, one should count so-called garagiste wineries from Right Bank Bordeaux, such as Le Pin, or French-US joint venture projects, notably Napa’s Opus One, and the rule-breaking Super Tuscans from Italy, most famously Sassicaia, as well as the more recent addition Masseto.
Today, there’s an emerging fine wine newcomer from South America, this time from an unexpected source, and made from a blend of grapes that isn’t led by the classics of Bordeaux. Launched in 2017 with the 2015 vintage, it’s called Balasto, after the weathered granite soils in its vineyards, and hails not from Chile or Argentina, but Uruguay, while employing this nation’s flagship wine grape: Tannat.
Uniting Balasto with all these labels – save for Sassicaia – is the way they are distributed. They go through the singular distribution system of Bordeaux, known as La Place. Although historic, it is a highly affective means for great wines quickly achieve global distribution, as long as you have gained enough fame the international stage for the labels to drawn through the system.
WORTHY OF LA PLACE
So, the fact that Balasto has convinced Place de Bordeaux that it is a worthy wine brand for worldwide dissemination alongside the great names of the drinks sector says much for this label – after all, it is only one of four from South America that are handled by the French négociants: aside from Almaviva, there’s also Chile’s Seña and Argentina’s Catena.
So why should La Place want to take on Balasto, and fine wine collectors add it to their cellars? For three reasons, which concern its source, its winemaking, and its ambition.
To deal first with its source, Balasto is the ultimate expression from Bodega Garzón, a remarkable estate 18km inland from fashionable coastal village José Ignacio, which itself is near the much larger resort town of Punta del Este. Standing alone on a hilly terrain not unlike the undulating landscape of Tuscany, Bodega Garzón spans 210 hectares of high-density vines on free draining gravel-like decomposed granite soils – which is the oldest granite on the planet. Planted with no expense spared by expert viticulturalist Eduardo Felix in 2008, with support from famous Italian wine consultant Alberto Antonini – who still works with the estate – the vineyards for Balasto are in peak condition, and are managed with great care.
Then there’s the winery. With as much as US$200 million (£157m) spent on the entire property by the founder and owner, Argentine oil and gas billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni, this is, as you might imagine, one of the most advanced and impressive wineries in the world, and was declared New World Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast in 2018.
Featuring truncated concrete fermentation tanks and Italian oak botti for ageing, the winery is phasing out barriques in Antonini’s quest to produce wines that more closely express their inherent character, which, with Balasto, is a style that is concentrated but fine – more like Brunello than Bordeaux.
This is thanks to Antonini and the moderating maritime influence, and sensitive handling of the berries by gifted on-site winemaker Germán Bruzzone.
Finally, there’s the ambition. Balasto wants to be an icon on the world wine stage, and seen globally in the finest establishments. Already drunk at the bodega’s on-site restaurant, which is run by Argentine celebrity chef Francis Mallmann, Balasto has been sampled by
some of the richest and most powerful figures alive today, many of them friends of Bulgheroni’s. Indeed, this great South American personality has launched the Garzón Club at the bodega, an ultra exclusive organisation for billionaires to network, as well as make their own wine. But there’s one further reason why fine wine collectors should want to add Balasto to their portfolio. This is an utterly inimitable product in a small circle of very fine, ageworthy wines, made up mostly of labels from Bordeaux and Burgundy. Not only is Balasto dominated by Tannat, but it is overseen by an Italian wine consultant, and sourced from an Altantic-influenced site, planted on ancient granitic soils – in Uruguay.
No collector could fail to be curious to sample such a combination, and cellar the result, not just for their own drinking pleasure, but also so that they could surprise their fine wine-loving friends.
BALASTO: THE FACTS
Vineyards: Bodega Garzón, in Garzón, Maldonado, Uruguay. Located 11 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the estate has more than 1,000 small vineyard blocks covering hillside slopes, which benefit from varying microclimates. Vineyards for Balasto are planted at a density of 5,000 vines per hectare on well- drained weathered granitic soils.
Winemaking: The hand-harvested grapes are macerated for five days before fermentation in 80 hectolitre cement tanks, at 26oC-28oC for one week, with twice daily pump-overs. The wine is transferred to a mix of 25hl and 50hl untoasted French oak barrels (fourth use) for 20 months’ ageing before being bottled unfiltered.
Balasto blends over the years:
2015: 45% Tannat, 25% Cabernet Franc, 10% Marselan, 20% Petit Verdot
2016: 45% Tannat, 25% Cabernet Franc, 12% Marselan, 18% Petit Verdot
2017: 50% Tannat, 40% Cabernet Franc, 5% Marselan, 5% Merlot
Approximate retail price, 2016 vintage: US$150 (£118); 2015: US$200