Some New Argentine Faces with an Italian Connection

Mar 26, 2008

I’ve written about Alberto Antonini before—he’s one of the quiet consultants, who goes about his work with numerous wineries, all without any pomp and circumstance. He’s a partner in Altos Las Hormigas, one of Mendoza’s outstanding producers, and also works with a number of clients in the region. Antonini has been coming to Argentina since the late 1990s and is as knowledgeable on the area as anyone—he’s particularly taken with some of the old, tightly spaced vineyards that still dot the landscape here. When he works with clients, he prefers working with these low-yielding vineyards, many of which need to be nursed back into balance (more on that later).

One of his clients is Bodega Renacer, which is owned by Chilean Patricio Reich, 61. Reich counts Italian importer Leonardo Locascio and Veneto producer Marilisa Allegrini among his partners in the venture. (Reich noted that they are looking to expand the venture into Chile in the near future.) The winery, which began in 2003, currently produces 40,000 cases annually and plans to grow to 100,000.

“But you have to be careful,” said Reich during my visit to Renacer. “When you go from boutique to factory you lose something.” Reich would know—he was a former shareholder at Viña San Pedro, the large Chilean winery that has struggled to find consistent quality in recent years.

A new facility was built in time for the 2004 vintage, and Antonini, along with in-house winemaker Hector Durigutti, 37, are using both stainless steel and cement vats—a growing trend in Mendoza. Cement vats, with their square or rectangular shape, offer a better ratio of skins to liquid during fermentation, as the cap is wider and thinner than in a column shaped vessel of equal volume. This produces better tannin extraction, according to Antonini. In addition, temperature control is more consistent in cement (there’s less variation from the juice along the walls to the juice in the center of the vat) while using less energy—there’s a growing need to conserve in Argentina.

The Renacer property totals 20 hectares, with 15 under vine. Additional fruit is sourced from rented vineyards. The combination of estate and purchased fruit is a typical one here, as wineries look to diversify their risk against hail. For the purchased fruit, Reich pays more than the going market rate to ensure both quality and consistency, though dealing with small growers in the region isn’t without its potential pratfalls.

“You can talk to a grower for 12 months, have a hand-shake deal, and the day harvest arrives, if someone else shows up and offers 20 percent more [for the grapes], your fruit is gone,” said Antonini.

At Bodega Renacer, owner Patricio Reich focuses on Malbec, as well as an Amarone-style red made from air-dried Malbec, Syrah, Bonarda and Cabernet Franc, in partnership with Marilisa Allegrini of Italy’s Veneto region.

“Outsourcing makes economic sense in many ways, but it is also very unreliable. So it’s still important to always have your own vineyards,” said Reich.

“It’s difficult enough to make premium wine,” chimed in Antonini. “You don’t want extra problems.”

There are three Bodega Renacer Malbec bottlings; an entry level cuvée called Punto Final, a Punto Final Reserva, and the top bottling labeled simply Renacer.

We tasted the 2006 Bodega Renacer Malbec Mendoza Punto Final, which I’ve already rated at 86 points. Fermented in stainless steel and then aged for 12 months in cement vats, it’s a solid value, showing juicy and fresh raspberry and blackberry fruit. The Bodega Renacer Malbec Mendoza Punto Final Reserva 2006, about to be released, is produced from the estate’s best vineyards in Perdriel as well as with fruit purchased from La Consulta. The wine is aged for 12 months in a mix of new and used barrels, and it shows more structure, along with plum, raisin, blackberry and fruitcake notes followed by a grippy finish. The top Renacer wine is sourced only from La Consulta fruit and is aged for two years in 100 percent new oak. It’s predominantly Malbec along with a little Cabernet Franc and Syrah and is made only in vintages where quality warrants it—’03, ’04 and ’06, though neither the ’04 nor ’06 were presented for tasting (the 2003 has already been reviewed).

Taking a cue from his Italian partners, Reich is also producing an Amarone-style wine called Enamore, made from a varying blend of grapes. The 2006, made from air-dried Malbec, Syrah, Bonarda and Cabernet Franc grapes offers outstanding quality, but needs time in the glass to show its smooth texture and dried plum, incense and cocoa powder notes.

Reich notes that it only takes 10 to 12 days for the grapes to lose 30 percent of their weight through the drying process, as opposed to the several months it takes in Veneto, due to the extra arid conditions in Mendoza.

“Right now, at the end of the day, everyone is making Malbec,” said Reich. “So for diversity, we wanted to try Enamore.”

After Renacer, I stopped in on another client of the Antonini-Durigutti team, Bodega Melipal. Owned by the Aristi family, Melipal is another new face that started with the 2003 vintage. While Renacer uses estate and purchased fruit, Melipal is going all-estate. Ignacio Aristi, 60, purchased a 25-hectare parcel of Malbec vines planted in 1923 and, using a sélection massale from that vineyard, he’s propagated another 62 hectares of vines that will start coming on line in the coming years.

Aristi, a successful soy and corn farmer, entered into the wine business along with his daughter Clarisa, 30, and her husband Santiago Santamaria, 35, because he liked the idea of growing grapes. Following a chance meeting with Antonini, Aristi decided to take it one step further and produce his own wine.

Mendoza is rapidly becoming more wine-tourist friendly. At Bodega Melipal, the recently completed winery is now open for visits and tastings, an increasing trend in the region.

“I’m used to farming crops where you see a return right away,” joked Aristi. “Unfortunately, I met Alberto and that’s when all the trouble began.”

On the surface, Mendoza is a gold mine of old-vine vineyards waiting to be rescued. Winemakers like Roberto Cipresso at Achával-Ferrer, Laura Catena with her Luca line and Daniel Pi at Trapiche with his single-vineyard program are doing just that. But it’s not an easy process. Many of these vineyards have been neglected or overcropped for high yields for many years, and they need to be retrained. That’s where Antonini comes in. Watch the accompanying video as we look at two parcels, a before and after if you will, in Melipal’s old-vine vineyard.

It’s not uncommon for an old-vine vineyard to give great results in just its first year of rehabilitation, but then show inconsistent results for a few years thereafter until eventually it comes fully back into balance. That’s why projects like Bodega Mendel and Melipal can sometimes start off with a bang, but then retreat in quality for a year or two until things stabilize in the vineyards. Increasing production, and the distractions of building a winery can also lead to some hiccups in a winery’s first few years—but Bodega Melipal is committed to quality, and it shows in the wines they have waiting in the wings.

Melipal produced just 15,000 cases of wine in the 2007 vintage, nearly half of which went to the U.S. market. As the new plantings come on line, the ultimate production target is 50,000 cases. The Ikella Malbec is the winery’s entry-level wine, which delivers good varietal character—raspberry and boysenberry fruit—as this is where the young vine grapes go until they’re ready for one of the two upper cuvées.

The Melipal Malbec is typically very juicy, with lots of raspberry ganache and fig flavors and a round, lush texture. The top bottling is the Reserve Malbec, which comes entirely from the old-vine parcel—both the ’05 and ’06 offer an outstanding range of alluring purple, blue and black fruit flavors along with lots of enticing spice and sweet toast. I preferred the 2006 Reserve for its brighter acidity and more intense, sappy finish. Like Renacer, Melipal is another new face that’s overdelivering quality at its price point (the regular Malbec is $20; the reserve around $40).

Heading south to Ugarteche, 10 kilometers south of the Catena Zapata winery, I meet up with Stefano Gandolini, 41, a Chilean native of Italian descent who has been the winemaker at Viña Doña Paula since its beginning in 1997. The winery is owned by the Chilean Viña Santa Rita winery and the project began with a purchase of 60 hectares of old vines. An additional 130 hectares of vines were planted in 1998, and then more plantings in ’03, ’05 and ’06 brought the estate’s total to 450 hectares of vines. There are also an additional 270 hectares of vineyards further south in the Uco Valley.

Production currently stands at 250,000 cases, nearly half of which goes to the U.S.—plans are to ramp up production to 500,000 cases as the new vineyards come on line.

This winery is one of the most consistent sources for value in Mendoza—the $10 Los Cardos line (and the Malbec in particular) offers silky, sweet, ripe fruit and uncomplicated finishes. For Malbec or just Mendoza 101, this is a line to try. Gandolini prefers a long, cold maceration and then long, slow, natural fermentations to highlight primary flavors and fresh aromas. Gandolini is also a fan of cement vats, particularly for large volume wines such as the Los Cardos line.

The facility here is really two wineries in one—a large-volume production facility alongside a more boutique operation, with massive tanks alongside rows of small vats for handling individual parcels and lots aimed for the winery’s upper-tier wines. I’ve been impressed by the consistency and quality control here considering the size of the operation.

Kudos are also warranted for Doña Paula's viticultural team. The vineyards are in a particularly dry and windy spot of Luján de Cuyo, so management is critical.

“It’s warm and dry here, so the vine is always in stress,” said Gandolini. “The key is to keep the stress low and consistent.”

The Malbec Luján de Cuyo 2007 is plush, fleshy and dark but fresh and integrated, with a round, enticing finish. The top cuvée, the Malbec Luján de Cuyo Selección de Bodega, has earned consistently outstanding marks since the debut ’99. The ’05 version, about to be released, offers tiers of fruitcake, red and black licorice and a long, driven finish. It’s dense but not at all tiring to drink.

“The Old World has too much tension in their wines; the New World too much generosity. I’m looking for balance and expressiveness,” said Gandolini.

A barrel sample of the ’06 Malbec Luján de Cuyo Selección de Bodega offers lots of primal kirsch, plum and licorice notes along with ample structure and an already-focused finish.

As the Uco Valley vineyards come into production—both the ’06 and ’07 vintages here now contain 40 percent fruit from Uco—look for the wines to take on even more elegance and floral notes, despite their plush textures.

Gandolini is also working on a new lineup, to be priced in the $25 range. The trio of new wines offers very good quality, led by a Shiraz-Viognier that shows supersoft texture with enticing peach, cherry and anise notes. The Tannat-Malbec is burly, with molasses, blackberry and charcoal notes that while good, seem a bit out of character for the portfolio. The Cabernet Franc bottling shows good varietal character—black cherry, tobacco—but is still a bit tight and grippy and will need some more time in bottle to stretch out.

Argentina Red Wines Cabernet Sauvignon

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