When Andrés Vignoni was growing up near San Martín, Argentina, in Mendoza, he would spend long hours overhearing his parents and grandparents talking about making wine. He was raised surrounded by bulk wineries, in a world that hadn't yet fallen head-over-heels for Malbec. But as a sixth-generation winemaker with a fast-moving mind, Vignoni vowed to make a grand wine that would put Malbec among the world's best.
At 33, Vignoni is young, but he already heads the wine programs at Viña Cobos in Mendoza's Luján de Cuyo region and Crocus in Cahors, France, both projects started by renowned vintner Paul Hobbs. Vignoni met Hobbs in 2015 and underwent two years of training before getting a nod of approval and taking charge at both Cobos and Crocus in 2017.
Vignoni recently spoke with Wine Spectator assistant editor Shawn Zylberberg about being raised by a family of winemakers, working with Hobbs and finding the next frontier for Argentine wine.
Wine Spectator: What's it like to be raised by a family of winemakers?
Andrés Vignoni: My great-grandparents arrived in Mendoza in the late 1800s and made their first wines in 1906. They used concrete pools and had no roof, and pump-overs were done by hand. It was crazy! By the time I was born, my paternal grandfather's winery was roofed and had temperature controls, but the family wine business started from ashes, from zero.
After six generations of making wine, you don't have to go very far to understand it. While your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents can be making wine for a long time, the passion for it must be generated internally, and I fell in love with it from a young age. The big advantage of having come from multiple generations is that everything you know about wine, you know without knowing that you know it. It all stems from conversations on Sunday afternoons and accompanying my parents in the vineyard. But my family never said I had to become a winemaker.
WS: How did you become a winemaker?
AV: I always wanted to make a grand wine. I started my career at [age] 17 in local Mendoza bodegas, doing whatever the winery let me do. The path took me to New Zealand in 2011 and 2012, where I had my first winemaking experiences in Marlborough at Giesen Winery. My first year was oriented to making Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, and my second year to Pinot Noir and Merlot.
In the fall of 2012, I went to Tuscany to work the harvest at Jackson Family's Tenuta di Arceno. It was my first experience in the Old World, and my great-grandparents were originally from Piedmont, so I had a special place in my heart for Italy. While visiting the region, I found out that part of my family still has vines in Barolo. My family is related to the Vajras of G.D. Vajra, and now I understand entirely where I come from by closing that circle. While in Tuscany, I made Chianti Classico and super Tuscans, but seeing Montalcino was the highlight. I remember with my first salary at Arceno, I bought a 2007 Biondi Santi Brunello di Montalcino and I still have it. It resembles the fruits of my labor in Europe.
I came back to Argentina in December 2015. I've always been a person in a hurry. I always wanted to go faster than I could. I said, "I've done enough, now I have to get to work and grow." I became assistant winemaker at Los Haroldos, a high-volume bodega in eastern Mendoza where we produced 18.5 million gallons of wine in one facility in two months. I finally had to make winemaking decisions, and it was a slap in the face because I realized I didn't know anything.
It was a huge experience in wine because it made me learn about everything: the good, the bad, the risks, what to worry and not worry about. But I got tired after three years. I wasn't living a good life and I started having stomach problems from always being nervous. I stopped one day and said, "I don't want to dedicate myself to this. I want to make fine wine. Why aren't I doing that?" That's when I met Paul Hobbs.
WS: How was your first meeting with him?
AV: I was connected to Paul by his associate at Viña Cobos, Luis Barraud. I was thinking of going to France to study wine, but Barraud advised me not to study more, but to start working. He recommended I talk to Paul, who was coming to Cobos later that month. Paul Hobbs was like Maradona to me! He practically reinvented Malbec in Argentina.
We chatted one afternoon and he looked at my CV and asked, '"You speak French?" I said, "Yes, a little." He said, "Let's see." I said one or two words and he was satisfied. He then threw the curriculum to the side and we spoke about life and wine for hours. We finished the chat and he said, "You have one question to ask me, choose it wisely." I asked him, "Why do you think we're sitting here today?" Hobbs sat there and said, "It's a very good question and I won't answer it yet." I got a call that afternoon and was told Paul wanted me to start working for him.
WS: What was it like learning from him?
AV: I spent the next two years visiting his properties in the U.S. and Argentina. I spent many hours with him in the car and looking at vineyards during that time. He's not one of those teachers that teaches you directly. He doesn't tell you, "This is what we look for; this is what you have to do." He asks for your opinion and tests you, and the responses always come from yourself, but he helps you along the path he feels is best. Those first two years I was in charge of his clients and the microvinifications, and by the second year I was much more free to do my thing.
Now we've passed to a different situation where he is an enological reference for me, but I am also a winemaker with my ideas and forms and approaches to wine. The nice part is that we are aligned in 90 percent of what we do. The remaining 10 percent is what we chat about. For example, today we talk about how to bring more refinement to the wine.
WS: What are some of your favorite wines?
AV: There have been wines in distinct moments that opened up paths for me. The first one was Cobos Malbec. It was my preferred wine before I got here, with a mix of concentration and elegance that I never had tried before. After that came Montalcino wines that showed me the path to elegance and ageworthiness. A few years ago I tried a traditional producer of Côte-Rôtie called Domaine Jamet, which was another call to my attention. I've tried Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and other cult Cabernet producers, but Pinot Noir has become the main obsession for me. My favorite is Chambolle-Musigny. I recently drank a Méo-Camuzet Chambolle Musigny premier cru. I love Oregon Pinots as well.
WS: What is the future you want to see for Cobos?
AV: My sensation about the future is very connected to what's happening with our soils due to global warming. It makes me think that the future of Cobos is very aligned with traditional spots of Mendoza with old vines, but continuing with elegance and finesse and telling the world that Argentina didn't start making wine 15 years ago, but 450 years ago and specifically Malbec 170 years ago. We are also looking at cool-climate places and doing microvinifications in places like San Pablo and Gualtallary. Cooler places and old vines are the north star for Viña Cobos and they will open doors to higher tiers in the market.
Many producers are looking for the bone of the wines. I am convinced Argentina has to leave meat on the bone. The texture and the body of these wines have to express the place made of mountains, a dry climate and hot weather. We can pursue floral notes and high acidity, but should always stay in touch with a part of Mendoza that resembles black fruit, texture and high-quality oak. For me, texture is the answer to all the questions. The wines can make you fall in love in the nose, but will only convince you in the mouth.
WS: You recently went on a trip to Patagonia in search of potential Pinot Noir vineyards. What did you learn?
AV: We are looking for a cool-climate Pinot, and Patagonia is one of the places that speaks to that. Permanent humidity, wind, constant sunshine and slopes allow us to go against frost. It's a cold place but not cold enough to stop Pinot Noir from growing successfully. We have one of the best sources of snow water too. Patagonia is very particular. It reminded me of Oregon. It's a great opportunity, but very difficult to cultivate. It's an exploration for now.