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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Turning Around a Tanker

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 27, 2008 2:04pm ET

Since I began covering the wines of Argentina in 2000, Trapiche hasn’t exactly been among my favorite wineries. As the winery cranked out large volumes, I often found quality to be lackluster. That now seems to be changing, thanks to the efforts of head winemaker, Daniel Pi.

Pi, 47, took over at Trapiche in the 2002 vintage. That same year the Peñaflor company which owns the winery was sold to an American investment bank and among their first moves was to divest the company of its beer, mineral water and juice companies, turning it from a drinks company into a wine company as they used the proceeds from the breakup to purchase the Michel Torino and Santa Ana wineries in San Juan.

In 2002, Trapiche produced 1 million cases, 70 percent of which went to the domestic market in Argentina. Today Trapiche produces 2.5 million cases of wine and has shifted toward exporting the majority of its wine. Trapiche sent 250,000 cases to the U.S. in 2007 and expects to reach 300,000 this year. Turning around a winery of that size while production is growing is akin to getting a tanker to do a 180 while at full steam.

“In the past, the edict to the vineyards was volume, but the edict to the winery was quality, and that doesn’t work,” said the soft-spoken but serious Pi. “When I took over, that changed.”

Pi has made changes literally from the ground up. He’s overseeing the renovation of a massive, abandoned winery facility in Coquimbito, near the La Rural winery, which produces the Rutini wines. The facility, built by an Italian company, dates to 1914 and features some stunning brick work while fronting an old rail line. Bought by Trapiche in 2006, it will house production for the winery’s value-priced Oak Cask line. A 5-hectare parcel of Malbec has also been planted on the property, and is being farmed biodynamically on a trial basis.

In 2003, Pi brought in viticulturist Marcelo Belmonte to oversee Trapiche’s 1,000 hectares of vineyards. Now the duo plans to plant 100 hectares a year for the next five years while also building a new winery facility in Altamira. And to top all that off, the main winery facility was also renovated under Pi’s watch, expanding capacity from 8,000 to 20,000 barrels. Under those circumstances, maintaining quality control would be difficult. To actually have increased quality, Pi deserves some major credit. The increase in quality is seen primarily in the form of Pi’s new single-vineyard lineup of wines.

Renovation is a common theme in Mendoza these days. Trapiche and winemaker Daniel Pi are bringing this early-20th century brick winery back to life.

“In Argentina there are 30,000 growers but only 800 wineries,” explained Pi about the new lineup. “The wineries owe a lot of their success to these growers, but they are mostly anonymous. It’s a competition, but it’s also in homage to them.”

The competition comes in the form of the finished wine: If an individual grower’s vineyard is deemed worthy for the single-vineyard portfolio, the wine is labeled with the grower’s name. The program debuted with four wines in the 2003 vintage, three of which earned outstanding marks. The concept has been well-received by the growers as well. Those who are successful in getting their wines into the top tier are paid more of course, but they also take pride in the production. A friendly rivalry now exists among the growers as they strive for quality instead of quantity. Pi is also keeping a tight rein on the final selection process—only three wines made the cut in the 2004 and 2005 vintages.

The 2005s are about to be released and they’re the strongest set so far. All of the single-vineyard wines receive 18 months of aging in 100 percent new French oak. The Malbec Viña Elodoro Aciar, sourced from a parcel of 90-year-old vines in Perdriel, is polished and suave with loads of sweet spice, raspberry and red licorice flavors. The Malbec Viña Francisco Olivé comes from parral-trained vines in Agrelo, a trellis system not normally associated with delivering quality fruit. But the 66-year-old vineyard crops naturally to just 20 hectoliters per hectare, thanks to five vines on each post—the increased competition between the closely planted vines reduces vigor. The result is a racy raspberry ganache, currant, cocoa and spice-filled wine. The Malbec Viña Fausto Orellana from the prime La Consulta area caught my attention with its pure, driven cassis bush, black cherry and floral notes along with a racy, minerally undertow. I’d give the nod to it as the best of the trio. We also tasted through the final selection of 2006 single-vineyard bottlings, as well as the seven contestants lined up for the 2007 vintage. All show potentially outstanding quality.

The rest of Trapiche’s lineup has also improved under Pi’s guidance. The larger volume lines, including the Broquel label, are now much more consistent, with forward fruit flavors and round, easy finishes that offer good to very good quality. The single-digit priced wines still need to pick it up though. All in all however, it’s an impressive feat by Pi, one that draws praise when you discuss his efforts with his fellow winemakers, and that’s high praise considering the overly intra-competitive nature of the Argentine wine business.

Also attempting a turn around is Bodega Luigi Bosca. The winery has 700 hectares of vines concentrated in the historical home of Malbec production in Mendoza, the Maipú and Luján de Cuyo areas, which is unusual for Mendoza wineries that typically spread their vineyards around. Owned by the Arizu family, fourth-generation Gustavo Arizu, 38, oversees the 410,000-plus case production, of which 45,000 cases were sent to the U.S. last year. Like most Argentine wineries these days, Bosca is projecting for growth, up to 70,000 cases in the U.S. market in 2008.

The lineup here is probably the most varied of any in Mendoza: 29 different wines over three different labels with a range of different blends and varieties, from Alicante Bouchet to the only commercially produced Riesling in the region. It’s perhaps that wide swath of offerings that leads to the inconsistencies in production here, though there are flashes of outstanding quality, namely the Malbecs and even a good Pinot Noir. Winemaker José Irrera, 46, has been with Bosca for seven years, following an 11-year run at neighboring Trapiche.

The top Malbec bottling is the Single Vineyard Malbec, sourced from 50-plus-year-old vines in Vistalba. The 2006 bottling shows a dark, juicy texture along with the house style of plum, currant and raisin notes. Other wines include the 2006 Gala 1, made from a blend of Malbec, Petit Verdot and Tannat, which is slightly jammy, along with notes of fruitcake and blackberry, and the 2005 Finca Las Nobles, made from a field blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Alicante Bouchet that shows dark color (color is Alicante’s strong suit, which seems unnecessary since color is not a problem for Mendoza reds to begin with) as well as dark fig and bittersweet cocoa notes. There are several Gala cuvées (each numbered) that represent the work of the winemaker according to Arizu, as they are blends created in the winery, while the Las Nobles wines are traditional field blends. While several of the wines show very good potential, I don’t see the qualitative leap that justifies the price increase from the regular Luigi Bosca line to the Gala and Las Nobles bottlings—the Single Vineyard Malbec is under $20 while the Gala and Las Nobles cuvées are over $40. The house style, with dark, sometimes jammy or pruny notes, might not be for everyone, either.

Heading south into the Uco Valley, about an hour’s drive from Luján, I met up with José Ortega, the energetic Spaniard who dealt with the economic crisis by bringing in suitcases of cash to pay his employees. Ortega’s Bodegas y Viñedos O. Fournier is a 300-hectare property, with 100 hectares already planted. Production at O. Fournier stands at 50,000 cases annually, with plans to reach 150,000 as more estate fruit comes on line. (Ortega has similarly named wineries in Chile and Spain as well).

Ortega also contracts out, sourcing fruit from small, old-vine vineyards that his vineyard manager Jorge Nahim manages. Nahim, 41, is the latest in a string of vineyard managers to work for Ortega, who admits to having trouble finding the right person. But he thinks Nahim is the right fit, a local with long experience born from a viticultural family.

“I could keep hiring all these textbook guys who don’t know [stuff],” said Ortega. “Or I could hire this guy, who was born in a vineyard. His father was a viticultulist. His grandfather was a viticulturist.”

The wines from O. Fournier are sourced entirely from Uco Valley fruit, yet they don’t show the typical floral aromas and purple fruits the area is known for. Instead the wines, made by former Alta Vista winemaker José Spisso (where he apprenticed under the late Jean-Michel Arcaute), aren’t shy about their toast. They typically display hefty cocoa-driven personalities and ample concentration. Some of the wines have the stuffing for balance while others can be overly firm. Owing to his Spanish heritage, several of Ortega’s wines use Tempranillo along with Malbec, lending a note of roasted or shaved vanilla to the wines.

Ortega’s philosophy also relies heavily on the winery itself—the wines can change in terms of their varietal makeup from year to year, rather than relying on a consistent choices of specific vineyards.

“When you send the single-vineyard message, you are disregarding the weather,” said Ortega. “But things can vary from one year to the next. We want to make the best possible wine every year, but sometimes a vineyard performs well, sometimes it doesn’t. I’d rather have the flexibility of making an 'A' wine and a 'B' wine and so on, while allowing the winemaker to decide what goes into each cuvée.”

Yields here in the 2005 vintage are down nearly one-third due to a severe frost early in the season. The 2005 BCrux Uco Valley, made from a blend of Tempranillo, Malbec and Syrah, shows intense black cherry and currant fruit with a vanilla-filled finish. O. Fournier’s top wine is its Malbec Uco Valley Alfa Crux, which in 2005 is focused, with lots of dark fruit and dusty, fine-grained tannins. It’s potentially outstanding, though I didn’t think it was as strong as the exceptional 2004 version.

O. Fournier also produces small lots of wines in vintages where quality is particularly high. A 2002 Syrah, sourced from a vineyard in Vista Flores and aged for 17 months in 100 percent new oak, is still showing concentrated cassis and fig sauce notes along with a toasty, smoldering finish. Ortega’s penchant for experimentation led him to use some of the same exact fruit for a different cuvée. The wine was racked back into new barrels and aged for 24 months. It’s overtly smoky, with mesquite and roasted coffee notes, and seems a bit extreme to me, but will have fans among those who prefer the power game. You can also look for the winery’s Urban lineup, priced in the $10 range, which offers consistently good value.
Owner and winemaker Karim Mussi is renovating an old winemaking facility to produce his Alto Cedro wines. The old crusher and stone lagare won't be used but are preserved for posterity.

One couldn’t go more from one extreme to the other by following up a visit at O. Fournier with a visit at Altocedro. Located in the prime La Consulta area, Altocedro is owned and run by Karim Mussi, a third-generation immigrant of Lebanese descent, who was actually born in Chile when his family was living there for a period before moving back to Mendoza. Mussi’s father was in the wine business brokering juice for many years, so Mussi grew up with the wine bug. When he told his father he wanted to go into the production side, his father asked him where.

“I told him the best wines were made in Luján and Maipú,” said Mussi. “And then he gave me a nice hit upside the head before saying 'La Consulta.'”

Now, after working in the area for a few years, Mussi admits his father was right.

“I like La Consulta because it’s an old terroir, with history. But no one knows it, so at the same time, it’s also new,” he said.

Mussi, who has a staff of one, is renovating an abandoned winery—which has become a trend in the region—and is another fan of cement vats. Mussi uses a basket press and partial carbonic maceration in vat, noting, “I like to preserve the character of the fruit.”

Mussi owns just 4 hectares of vines while purchasing fruit from rented vineyards, including a 1-hectare parcel of 100-year-old vines. Mussi found the vineyard while combing through the records of the irrigation department, which records dates of plantings.

Despite the bare bones operation and zero production in the ’05 vintage (that same frost frost wiped out all his vineyards), Mussi is planning to steadily grow production from its current 10,000 case level to his target of 25,000.

As for the wines, they are typically superfresh and racy, with unadorned raspberry and floral notes and long, finely tuned finishes. The entry level wine is the Año Cero Malbec bottling, which at $15 offers a lot of bang for the buck. It's fermented in cement vat, then partially aged in used barrels, resulting in a fresh, open-knit wine with very good complexity. It also contains 15 percent Tempranillo. The Reserve bottling is a serious step up however. It’s also fermented in vat, but then moved to barrel for its malo and 12 to 15 months of aging. The 2006 version, to be bottled next week, is intense, juicy and pure, with a licorice, floral and mineral-filled finish. The wine shows clearly outstanding potential.

In the 2007 vintage, Mussi is expanding the Malbec lineup with a Grand Reserve bottling, sourced from that 100-year-old parcel. Aged for 18 months in barrel, the wine drips with melted licorice, blueberry compote and violet notes followed by a long, sappy, intense finish, all brightened by mouthwatering minerality. It’s a beauty in the making.

A fourth cuvée, called Desnudos, is fashioned from a blend of Malbec and Tempranillo, and it’s vastly different from the straight Malbec bottlings. The wine is aged in new oak for the first six months of its life, and is then racked into second-use barrels, where it stays for another two years. Mussi uses the technique to minimize the extraction of oak tannins into the wine while maximizing the oxygenation benefits of barrel aging. After aging, the two varietals are then blended just prior to the bottling; the 2004 Desnudos shows lilting perfume, with bluebell, incense, shaved vanilla, anise and black tea notes and a supple, elegant frame. Like the Grand Reserve Malbec it is also outstanding, though in a clearly different vein.

“With just one winemaker and all the grapes from the same area I can’t have different-styled wines,” explained Mussi about the Desnudos. “I can only make wines that differ in their élevage.”

Altocedro represents real artisanal winemaking, a boutique operation with some serious talent behind the wheel. Mussi is looking for someone interested in being a minority partner by the way...

Chris Nunez
Houston, TX —  September 9, 2008 1:40am ET
What about Dolium Winery or Pulenta Estate Winery in Argentina? And, how about Viva Casas Del Bosque from Chile? I do not hear much about them through Wine Spectator which i think they produce absolute superb wines. I love to see some scores which I know the results would be good.thanks
James Molesworth
September 9, 2008 9:11am ET
Chris: I wrote about Dolium here:

http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Archives/Show_Article/0,1275,4867,00.html

Unfortunately, after Mario Giadarou passed away, things have been very inconsistent at the estate. They have only submitted a few wines for review since then, and nothing this past year.

As for Carlos Pulenta, his wines have been reviewed and have earned very good to outstanding marks (use our web site wine search to reference them). However, like Dolium, Pulenta did not submit any wines for review this past year.

My tastings are always-ongoing, and wineries are free to submit their wines at any time (we ask that they do so as they release new vintages). The sample submissions are voluntary, and while I feel my coverage is comprehensive (there will be well over 500 wines in upcoming annual report on Argentina for example) there are always some wineries that choose not to submit their wines.

As for Casas del Bosque, their wines failed to rate in the 'good' range (above 80 points) with me when they did send samples, and since then they have not submitted anything else.
Chris Nunez
Houston, TX —  September 27, 2008 3:12am ET
I'm sorry, but I wanted to know about Pulenta Estate Winery which is owned by Carlos's brother Hugo & Eduardo Pulenta. thanks
James Molesworth
September 27, 2008 8:32am ET
Chris: Sorry for the confusion. The 'other' Pulenta winery is known technically as Pulenta Estate. It was founded in 2002, with vineyards in Lujan de Cuyo. It's a large property (over 130 hectares I believe), and they have yet to submit any wines for review...
Chris Nunez
Houston, TX —  September 27, 2008 11:43pm ET
Thank You

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