When reviewing wines, it’s always important to make the distinction between quality and style. It’s a point that’s been covered here before, but one I don’t grow tired of talking about.
It’s fitting that I sat down with Iduna Weinert here at my office today to talk about her family’s wines. Argentina’s Bodega y Cavas de Weinert is a great example of the need to distinguish between style and quality.
Weinert, 28, handles the export side of the business for the U.S. market. Her father bought a dilapidated winery building in 1975 (the facility dated to the late-19th century and was abandoned in 1920) and released his first wines in 1977. Raul de la Mota (Bodega Mendel winemaker Roberto de la Mota’s father) was the winemaker from the beginning, all the way through 1997, after which he turned the reins over to Swiss-born, Bordeaux-trained winemaker Hubert Weber, who is still there today.
Weinert caught her wine bug off a taste of Chateau Musar, the Lebanese red known for it’s very subtle, mushroom and earth profile. After getting bored while studying chemical engineering in Buenos Aires, she decided to hitch along with her father on a trip to New York. Her dad needed a translator while he attended his importer’s portfolio tasting, and now she finds herself in the family business.
Today, the winery has 110 hectares of vines and produces about 70,000 cases a year from both estate and purchased fruit. Currently, Weinert sends about 10,000 cases a year to the U.S. While that may seem like a modest amount now, that number has actually held steady over time as the winery almost single-handedly helped carry the flag for Argentine Malbec during the 1980s and into the early '90s, up until the Nicolás Catena-led explosion of wineries and exports this decade.
The winemaking at Weinert has always been very traditional: grapes fermented in cement vats, then aged in large, old oak casks made from Slovenian and French oak. Aging for the reds typically lasts three to four years, sometimes longer. Occasionally, special bottlings labeled Estrella ("star") are selected from specific casks and aged even longer. The 1977 Estrella Malbec saw 19 years in oak cask before it was bottled. It's a wine that some still consider one of the great Malbecs ever made in Argentina.
These casks, which hold from 2,500 to 6,000 liters each, don’t impart any oaky influence to the wine because of their age. Consequently, the Weinert style always shows more earth, mushroom and mulled fruit notes as opposed to the bright, vivid, ripe flavors of fruit that can be dressed up by coming into contact with new oak aging vessels
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the winemaking style—there are good and bad wines made via all methods of winemaking. But this is precisely where quality and style need to be considered separately when judging wines. Over the years, my reviews for Weinert's wines have usually been in the good to very good range, with a few clunkers that I thought were overly dried out or rustic. But that is a function of "quality" and not "style."
Those large oak casks that Weinert uses for its style gain thick coatings of tartrates on the inside which, if not managed properly, can lead to hygienic issues—brettanomyces and other problems. Keeping the casks clean by scraping the tartrates off every few years by hand and using steaming hot water is critical to maintaining a freshness in the wines, which does connect to quality.
Weinert admitted that under de la Mota’s tenure, the casks weren’t cleaned as often as they probably should have been, maybe every 10 years or so, if that. But under Weber, that cleaning regimen has been increased to every four to five years.
“We’ve gone from predominantly rustic to more elegant,” said Weinert as the wines have benefitted from the casks' more frequent face lifts.
And I fully agree with her. There has been a shift in quality, but not style. More recent vintages of Weinert wines have showed that difference in quality—they're fresher and purer than before, and they’ve begun to earn slightly higher marks from me. But they've kept to their restrained style at the same time
It would be easy to cling to tradition as an excuse for poor winemaking. But instead I applaud Weinert for sticking to a style while trying to improve quality, because the two things are and should be considered separate.
And understanding and keeping style and quality separate in one's mind is just as important for me as it should be for producers.
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Fred Brown — Maryland — November 12, 2009 8:00pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 13, 2009 8:24am ET
Max Bozoghlian — Los Angeles — November 16, 2009 1:59pm ET
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