Down to Patagonia: La Pampa and Neuquén

Mar 31, 2008

My schedule in Mendoza resulted in more than a few missed meals, so the refueling on ojo de bife in Buenos Aires was critical, as it was soon time to gear up again. I was heading down to Patagonia, a region that in recent years has produced some tantalizing wines.

My first stop was in the province of La Pampa, which extends from the border of Buenos Aires all the way down to the Rio Negro. The first half of La Pampa are the flat grasslands where the country’s beef is raised, but the terrain eventually changes to semi-arid conditions, with scrub brush as far as the eye can see. Here, in the southwest corner of the province is Bodega del Desierto, the only winery in the entire province. Located 1,000 kilometers from Buenos Aires, it’s the same distance from the capital as is Mendoza, just in a different direction.

Bodega del Desierto is owned by the sibling team of Armando Loson, 33, and his sister, Maria, 36. To run the day-to-day operations they had to bring in expertise from Mendoza in the form of winemaker Sebastian Cavagnaro, 31, and vineyard manager Adrián Barrios, 32. California-based winemaker Paul Hobbs is also consulting on the project.

In the 1970s, the government wanted to inject development into the region, so they used the military to build a canal and irrigation system. But only one winery took the bait at the time, and it soon failed. There is no rail system in the area, and just a lone airstrip in the nearby town of 25 de Mayo. Without the additional infrastructure, the allure of land and water was not enough to bring serious investment in. The irrigation system is designed for 60,000 hectares of vines, but only 4,000 are in use, and that’s mostly alfalfa fields. The Losons are all alone.

Bodega del Desierto has carved 140 hectares of vines out of the desert scrub brush of the La Pampa region. Desierto is the only winery in the province.

Located just across the border from Rio Negro province (the Rio Colorado separates the two), Desierto now totals 140 hectares of vines, planted in 2001 and 2003. 2004 was the first commercial release of wines, made in a rented warehouse. The wines are now made in a converted tomato canning facility (another remnant of government-backed investment that didn’t take), and the Losons will be adding a barrel facility and more to the site, which resembles a military barracks and stands adjacent to a working lumber mill. There were 16,000 cases produced in 2007, with plans to grow to 75,000.

Despite the hurdles created by the isolation of this barren area, the Losons are invigorated by the project.

“It’s so easy to do things here,” said Maria. “Because there is so much that hasn’t been done.”

Hobbs’ work with the project from its beginning is unusual for the consultant, who usually comes in and deals with established wineries. At first he refused the Losons.

“But we told him that if we contacted him again in a few years, he’d be telling us all the things we had done wrong,” said Armando. “We’re developing a new viticultural area, so we have to go slow and get it right, but at the same time, time is money.”

The vineyards were initially planted by Mario Toso (formerly of Pascual Toso in Mendoza), and they are planted to Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Planted on virgin soils, the vines face no disease pressures in the dry climate. Wind is the biggest obstacle.

The constant Patagonia wind blows over the area, resulting in twisted shoots and a tangled canopy that requires detailed maintenance. Alamos trees have been planted around the vineyards as a windbreak, but it’s still a struggle, one that Hobbs admits to not having to deal with before.

The wind also results in grapes that develop thick skins, so tannin management in the winery is critical. Power and personality in the wines is not an issue here. But when does the team at Desierto decide to let terroir takes its course, versus employing a strong human factor?

“That’s a great question,” said Hobbs. “And we don’t know yet.”

As if the struggles of the wind and isolation (labor is tough to find) weren’t enough, in November 2007, a severe frost cut production by more than half. It was the first frost in the area in 93 years. Some of the young vines are now struggling to recover.

As for the wines, they show excellent results already, with consistently very good quality. The Sauvignon Blanc is made in a more generous style, with ripe, focused lemon and grapefruit notes. The Chardonnay is round, fresh and clean. A portion is barrel-fermented in used barrels and then combined with juice that is fermented in stainless steel. The reds are the more interesting wines here. The Merlot is smoky but fresh, with plum and fig notes, while the Syrah shows racy violet and raspberry flavors with a gutsy undertow. It’s a touch firm—those thick skins can be seen in the wine—but it has the flesh to settle into itself. Both the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc show solid varietal character, the Franc with admirable muscle.

The top wine is, not surprisingly, the Malbec, which is very dark, with lots of currant paste, fig and black licorice notes, but also shows a racy underpinning and a long graphite edge. It’s that graphite note that makes the Malbecs (and reds in general) from Patagonia stand apart from their Mendoza cousins.

The wines are currently produced under the 25/5 label, in homage to the local town named for the date that commemorates the first Junta, or emergency
government, that was installed by the locals after Napoleon invaded Spain and imprisoned King Ferdinand VII (Argentina was a Spanish colony at the time). Priced at $15, they provide for some terrific value. As the vineyard matures and quality is (presumably) increased, a new tier called Desierto Pampa is planned. I doubt this winery will go the way of La Pampa’s previous one (or the tomato company).

After leaving Desierto, I got a first hand look at the flat expanse of Patagonia, a 150 kilometer drive to my next appointment on the same road, a two-lane strip that seemed to extend forever. Flat on the left, flat on the right. Don’t run out of gas here.
The soils of Patagonia's Neuquén province might not look hospitable for vines, but thanks to irrigation, these glacial and alluvial deposits allow grape vines to produce dark, racy, graphite-tinged reds.

As I eventually entered the Neuquén valley, things started to change. Towns popped up, with rows of identical white brick houses (mostly built by the government and used by oil company employees). And then the billboards started for the wineries. Neuquén is new to wine—in 1999 there were no vines here. But it’s moving fast and aiming for the wine tourist market. Today there are 2,400 hectares of vines and a half-dozen wineries all lining the Rio Neuquén. Some already have restaurants in place. A hotel is on the way.

While La Pampa started and failed to lure investments in the 1970s, the Neuquén valley is undergoing a modern-day gold rush. It’s the result of government subsidies that were snapped up by a few quick-acting entrepreneurs. The initial plan was to plant fruit farms—pears and apples do well in the area. But after researching it, a few people, including former Bodega y Cavas de Weinert winemaker Raul de la Mota (a legend in the industry), recommended grapegrowing instead, as the alluvial fans, high thermal amplitude (difference between day and night temperatures) and extra sunlight are all ideal factors. Flocks of parrots and the wild mara (a very large hare) can be found in the vineyards, adding to the unique feel of the area.

The first winery in the area was Bodegas del Fin del Mundo, and they are now the largest, with over 800 hectares of vines. Michel Rolland has been employed here (with an unconfirmed contract of 10 years at $100,000 a year) but so far the project seems aimed at volumes rather than quality.

Just past Fin del Mundo is NQN Viñedos de la Patagonia, smaller in scale with just 127 hectares of vines. The first vintage here was in 2003 and it produced 50,000 bottles. The winery now makes several lines of wine and production stands at 1 million bottles, all from estate fruit. Owner Lucas Nemesio, 38, plans to top out at 1.5 million bottles.

As in La Pampa, the vines here were planted on virgin soils. The soils feature more clay content, shifting to sandier, stonier parts as you move away from the river and toward the barda, or ridge on the north side of the valley. Sergio Pomar, 28, is the in-house winemaker, with Roberto de la Mota (Raul’s son) of Bodega Mendel consulting.

As at Desierto, Nemesio planted a range of varieties on the estate, with the aim to see which wound up performing best. Malbec has been in the lead all along.

“Malbec is so easy to work with here,” said Nemesio. “But I think Pinot is going to do well too. I think we can get to Chacra-level quality with Pinot,” he added, invoking the project owned by Piero Incisa della Rochetta at the other end of the valley.

There’s potential here, though as with some wineries, I think the lineup is too broad and tends to lack focus. The Malbec Neuquén Malma Reserve shows macerated raspberry fruit and the racy graphite edge typical of the area. A vertical of four vintages shows the rapid improvement of the winery, with the ’05 and ’06 vintages showing more polish, density and refinement. The top wine, the Colección Universe Patagonia, is made from a blend of Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with the ’06 and ’05 bottlings showing fleshier fruit and a better-knit texture than the debut ’04.

“We make a lot of mistakes, but we are learning fast,” said Nemesio, who is always armed with graphs, charts and maps as he showers you with information, including picking dates that now run three to four weeks later now than they did in just their first vintage.

The in-progress on-the-job training can also be seen at Familia Schroeder, just a few kilometers down the road. Owner Roberto Schroeder, 43, built the winery in 2004. Though he comes from the medical business, wine isn’t totally foreign to him—his grandfather worked at the Humberto Canale winery in Rio Negro in the 1920s.
NQN Viñedos de la Patagonia has seized the opportunity in the Neuquén province.

The project is very similar to NQN: There are just 140 hectares of vines planted on the 3,000-hectare property and production stands at 1 million bottles, with plans to go to 1.5 million. The gravity-flow winery was designed by winemaker Leonardo Puppato, 37, who has been with the project from the beginning, following a stint at Chandon’s sparkling-wine facility in Mendoza. And considering Pappato’s background, it’s no surprise that one-third of the production at Schroeder is sparkling wine.

Schroeder, which is starting to plant on the hillsides at the back of the property, also has a wide mix of varieties, including Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

“This region is unique,” said Pappato. “Where else can you grow everything from Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon, all at a certain quality level?”

At Schroeder, Pinot Noir and Malbec are the lead grapes, with bottlings of both showing ripe raspberry and cherry flavors and bright acidity. The wines are produced under the Saurus label in homage to the dinosaur bone found on the property while digging the winery’s foundation (the bone is now on display in the cellar).

Pappato also produces a blend of the two grapes, labeled simply Patagonia. Pappato explained the wine, noting that he wanted to produce a Pinot Noir with a longer élevage that didn’t result in a loss of the grape’s charms. So he used the Malbec to “shield” the Pinot while still maintaining its subtleties during the 12-month, 100 percent new oak aging. The wine is juicy, with some freshness, but also shows a raisined streak that lingers on the finish. On the surface, I don’t get the blend —why not just stick to bottling single varieties that work best in the region, rather than forcing them together? But at the same time, the wine represents the sense of experimentation and learning that defines this nascent and rapidly growing wine region.

Argentina Red Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah / Shiraz

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