I sat down yesterday to chat with Luis Barraud and Paul Hobbs of Argentina’s Viña Cobos, tasting through a vertical of the winery’s top, single-vineyard Malbec bottling in the process. (For additional background, read more about Paul Hobbs in my March 2008 and September 2009 blog entries, as well as my Winemaker Talk.)
The Malbec Mendoza Marchiori Vineyard has become one of the country’s top bottlings since it debuted in the 1999 vintage. The wine is sourced from a single 2.3-hectare parcel of 80-year-old vines in the Perdriel area of Luján de Cuyo, just south of the town of Mendoza. The vineyard was bought by Barraud’s father-in-law, Nico Marchiori, in 1972, and the wine typically displays lush, ripe blue, black and purple fruits with creamy mouthfeel and a long, floral and spice-filled finish (the current 2007 version earned a classic 95-point rating).
The wine has hit some serious highs in its short tenure, but the vertical tasting showed it’s also on an upward trajectory. The two most recent vintages we tasted (’07 and ’08) are the strongest yet, and a testament to the fine-tuning that Barraud, his wife, Andrea Marchiori, and Hobbs have made as they’ve established a track record with the wine. (This is one reason why I prefer tasting blind when officially reviewing wines, and why I also try to be conservative when I do review wines—things change and there’s always room for improvement.)
“The biggest change was a shift from open-top to close-top fermentors,” said Hobbs of a change in the vinification that started with the 2002 vintage. “Previously the wines were a bit more dilute in open-top fermentors. We tried combinations of pumpovers and punch downs, but they always seemed more diffuse in the end.”
There was a big step up in quality with the 2002, the first vintage to earn a classic rating when I reviewed it on release. It showed more density and power, without sacrificing purity or range, particularly over the debut ’99 and ’00 (which was not commercially released). Tasted today, the ’99 was clearly past its prime, with drying fruit and a slightly oxidized nose; it was reviewed at 92 points on release back in 2001, with a drink recommendation at the time of "now through 2004."
Another tweak has also been to give the wine 100 percent new oak aging since ’05, up from about 90 percent in the previous vintages. Not a huge difference on the surface, but as the wine has gained density thanks to the change in fermentation, it’s been able to absorb more oak élevage while maintaining balance. The Cobos team also moved into its own winery facility with the 2006 vintage, leaving behind a rented space that had complications from TBA that marred some wines (both samples of the ’04 and ’02 tasted today showed traces of TBA taint).
It was great to get a sneak peak of the not-yet-released ’08, particularly in the context of the vertical. The wine, set for release in early 2011, offers potentially classic quality despite a difficult growing season, marred by a late frost on April 14. (For a complete report, watch for my annual tastng report on Argentina in the upcoming Dec. 15 issue.)
“We harvested two days after the frost,” said Barraud. “But it stayed cool after the frost, instead of heating back up, so the grapes did not deteriorate right away. If you picked in two or three days, it was OK. If you waited any longer, quality really suffered.”
In addition, the Marchiori parcel is hail-netted with a butterfly net that stretches over from one row to the next, dipping down in the space between rows as it tents the canopies.
“That had a little warm air trapped underneath it,” said Hobbs. “And having that 1 or 2 degree difference as a buffer was huge.”
It may have been a bit of luck that saved the 2008 vintage for Viña Cobos, but making such a stellar wine in a difficult year is also testament to the knowledge Barraud, Marchiori and Hobbs have gained over the years. Starting a winery with an old-vine vineyard and good technical knowledge is one thing. But there’s no substitute for adapting and experimenting over time as winemakers develop a relationship with their vineyards.
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