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In Deepest Patagonia

Pioneering vintners explore the frontier of grapegrowing in southern Argentina
James Molesworth
Posted: November 15, 2008

Argentina's Patagonia region defines remoteness. Windswept and sparsely populated, it exists far, far off the beaten path. A boundless tract of undeveloped land punctuated by gauchos riding along dusty trails is probably the most popular image of this vast region. But that picture may change in the near future, at least for wine lovers.

The new Patagonian Express is being powered by a surge of vineyard plantings and wineries. Native Argentines are leading the way, with help from outside vintners such as California's Paul Hobbs and Piero Incisa della Rocchetta of Tuscany.

Patagonia looks nothing like a wine country postcard. Low-lying, arid and treeless plains filled with scrub dominate the area. To the distant west are the Andes, creating a formidable rain shadow. The stark terrain is broken intermittently by shallow, gravel-lined rivers that carry water from the mountains. Irrigation is a necessity, and the vineyards mainly lie within a few miles of these precious water sources.

The vast majority of Patagonia's vineyards are located in two adjacent provinces, Neuquén and Río Negro, though one producer that gets grouped with the other Patagonian wineries operates in the southwest corner of La Pampa. Sitting astride the 38th parallel, this vineyard land is more than 400 miles south of Mendoza, the heart of Argentina's wine industry.

As in Mendoza, the red grape Malbec is in the driver's seat, though international blue-chip varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay are being planted as well. Pinot Noir, though accounting for just a small percentage of total plantings, has also shown some outstanding potential.

Much of Patagonia has never been cultivated. The air is fresh and dry, sunlight is plentiful and there is a wide swing between daytime and nighttime temperatures. These factors, combined with the nutrient-poor virgin soils, are proving ideal for grapevines. But there are also challenges. Strong winds result in tangled canopies; wild parrots enjoy eating grapes. Finding experienced labor and even getting connections to power lines are among the other hurdles new wineries face.

Neuquén, whose western boundary is defined by the Andes, is the most recent area to be developed, with more than 3,500 acres of vines planted in the past few years. The first winery founded in Neuquén, in 1999, was Bodegas del Fin del Mundo (literally, "the winery at the end of the world"), and it is now the largest with more than 1,900 acres under vine. Globetrotting Bordeaux-based consultant Michel Rolland has been employed here, but so far the project seems aimed at volume rather than quality.

To the east of Neuquén lies Río Negro, which holds just 6,200 acres of vines. Many of the plantings are a few generations old, the remains of a once-thriving wine industry that totaled 44,000 acres and 400 wineries back in the 1970s, before Argentina's political and economic crises took their toll.

Below are profiles of five wineries I visited earlier this year. It proved a fascinating journey to the far end of the winemaking and grapegrowing world, a place that is striving for high quality on its own terms. The wineries are presented in the order I visited them; each has a unique story and all are helping to define the nascent wine industry of Patagonia. They range from small, boutique-style producers to well-financed, larger-scale operations.

Bodega del Desierto is located in the southwest corner of the La Pampa province. While most of La Pampa is known for its verdant grasslands on which Argentina's cattle herds graze, this part has more in common with the neighboring province of Río Negro—namely, flat, windswept, semi-arid land dominated by poor, gravelly soils.

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

Though the area is underdeveloped, there is some infrastructure that the Losons are accessing, including irrigation channels and an airstrip built by the military in the 1970s. It was during that time that Argentina's government hoped the allure of land and water would draw development to the region. But only one winery took the bait at the time, and it soon failed. The irrigation system, designed for almost 150,000 acres of vines, currently brings water to only 4,000 acres, most of which are alfalfa fields.

Bodega del Desierto now totals 345 acres of vines, planted in 2001 and 2003. The 2004 vintage was the first commercial release, made in a rented warehouse. The wines are now produced 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 to the site, among other improvements. There were 16,000 cases produced in the 2007 vintage, with plans to grow to 75,000 within the next several years.

Despite the hurdles created by the isolation of this barren area, the Losons are inspired by the project. "It's so easy to do things here," says Maria. "Because there is so much that hasn't been done."

That Hobbs has worked with the label since its founding, in 2001, is unusual for the consultant, who usually deals with already established wineries. At first, he said no to 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," says 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, which were originally planted by Mario Toso (formerly of Pascual Toso in Mendoza), contain 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 enemy.

The persistent Patagonian winds blow over the area, resulting in twisted shoots and a tangled canopy that requires constant maintenance. Poplar trees have been planted around the vineyards as a windbreak, but it's still a struggle. The wind also results in thick-skinned grapes, making tannin management in the winery critical; power and personality in the wines is not an issue here. But at what point does Desierto decide to let terroir takes its course, compared with the mediating human factor?

"That's a great question," remarks Hobbs. "And we don't know yet."

As if the problems caused by wind and isolation weren't enough (labor is tough to find, too), a severe spring frost in 2007 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. 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's been fermented in stainless steel.

The reds are more interesting, with a Merlot that's smoky but fresh, offering plum and fig notes. The Syrah, which delivers racy violet and raspberry flavors with a gutsy undertow, is a touch firm now—those thick grape skins can be tasted in the wine—but has the flesh to settle into itself. Both the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc show solid varietal character, the Franc with admirable muscle.

The top wine is the Malbec, which is very dark, with lots of currant paste, fig and black licorice notes, while also showing a racy underpinning and a long graphite edge. It's that graphite note that makes the Malbecs from Patagonia (and the region's reds in general) stand apart from their Mendoza cousins.

The wines are currently marketed under the 25/5 label, in homage to the local town named for the date of Argentina's independence from Spain. At $15 a bottle they provide terrific value. As the vineyard matures and quality is presumably increased, a new tier called Desierto Pampa is planned.

Travel west from Desierto for 90 miles on a two-lane road that seems to extend endlessly into the flat horizon and you reach the strip of wineries in the Neuquén province.

Here, unlike in La Pampa, there's a palpable sense of life surrounding the wineries. A few small towns pop up along the road. Billboards advertise the local labels. It's an amazing sight considering that in 1999 there were no wines made in the area. Now there are already a few showpiece wineries, complete with restaurants and guided tours, and a hotel is on the way. Flocks of parrots and the wild mara (a very large harelike rodent) can be found in the vineyards, adding to the unique feel of the area.

The Neuquén valley is undergoing a modern-day gold rush, the result of government subsidies. The initial plan was to plant fruit orchards, but grapes came to the fore after a few people, including former Bodega y Cavas de Weinert winemaker Raul de la Mota (a legend in the industry) became intrigued by the district's potential. De la Mota was drawn by the region's gravelly, well-drained alluvial fans, high thermal amplitude (the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures) and brilliant sunlight.

NQN Viñedos de la Patagonia has 300 acres of vines. The first vintage made here was 2003, which produced 4,165 cases. Current production stands at 83,000 cases, all from estate fruit. Owner Lucas Nemesio, 38, plans to top out at 125,000.

The vines in Neuquén were planted on virgin soils, as in La Pampa. Yet the soils here feature more clay content, shifting to sandier, stonier parts as you move away from the river and toward the barda, or plateau, on the north side of the valley. Sergio Pomar, 28, is in-house winemaker at NQN, with Roberto de la Mota (Raul's son) of Bodega Mendel consulting. Nemesio has planted a range of varieties on the estate, aiming to see which performs best. Malbec has been in the lead all along.

"Malbec is so easy to work with here," says Nemesio. "But I think Pinot is going to do well, too."

There's potential here, though the label's portfolio of wines is very broad. The Malbec Neuquén Malma Reserve delivers macerated raspberry fruit and the racy graphite edge typical of the area. A vertical of four vintages (2003 through 2006) shows the rapid improvement of the winery, with the two most recent bottlings showing more polish, density and refinement. The top wine, the Colección Patagonia Universe, is made from a blend of Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and the '05 and '06 bottlings offer fleshier fruit and a better-knit texture than the debut '04.

"We make a lot of mistakes, but we are learning fast," says Nemesio.

Hands-on job-training can also be seen at Familia Schroeder, just a few miles down the road from NQN. Owner Roberto Schroeder, 43, built the winery in 2004. Though he comes from the medical business, wine isn't totally foreign to his family—his grandfather worked at the Humberto Canale winery in Río Negro in the 1920s.

Familia Schroeder is very similar to NQN—there are 345 acres of vines planted on the 7,400-acre property and production stands at 83,000 cases, with plans to go to 125,000. The gravity-flow winery was designed by winemaker Leonardo Pappato, 37, who has been with the project from the beginning, following a stint at Chandon's sparkling-wine facility in Mendoza. Considering Pappato's background, it's no surprise that one-third of the production at Schroeder is sparkling wine, made in a forward, fruit-focused style and aimed primarily for Argentina's domestic market.

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

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

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

Pappato also produces a two-grape blend labeled simply as Patagonia. He explains that he wanted to produce a Pinot Noir with a longer élevage that didn't result in losing the grape's charms. So he uses Malbec to "shield" the Pinot and maintain its subtleties during the 12 months of aging in 100 percent new oak. The wine is juicy, with some freshness, but also shows a raisined streak that lingers on the finish. Though the wine seems forced in its varietal composition, it also represents the sense of experimentation and learning that defines this nascent and rapidly growing region.

Nearly two hours' drive east from the strip of wineries in Neuquén, you come to Bodega Chacra—if you know where to look. There's no sign here, just a wooden gate that leads to a dirt road.

Bodega Chacra is owned by Piero Incisa della Rocchetta, 40, whose family's Bolgheri estate of Tenuta San Guido produces Sassicaia. The winery, which debuted with the 2004 vintage, aims to produce silky, elegantly styled Pinot Noirs. The grapes are fermented in small cement vats using semi-carbonic maceration, and only the top two bottlings are aged in barrel, with just one-third new oak. Lovers of high-octane Pinots need to look elsewhere.

The Río Negro river, from which the province takes its name, dominates the local geography. It runs through a 15-mile-wide bed of glacial soils that are heavier than those in the western end of Neuquén. There's more clay, along with limestone, and plenty of small, rounded pebbles left over from an ancient riverbed.

In this part of the valley there's also far more wine history than in Neuquén. The Humberto Canale winery has been making wines here since the early 20th century, though the label is struggling today for consistency and quality. Old-vine vineyards abound in the area, yet many are now either cropped at high yields or simply abandoned all together (not unlike the viticultural situation in Mendoza a decade ago). Though it represents just a small percentage of the overall plantings, Pinot Noir joins the dominant Malbec grape to form the region's lead duo of quality grape varieties.

The top wine of Bodega Chacra, the Pinot Noir Río Negro Treinta y Dos (named for the year in which the vines were planted, 1932), clocks in at just 12.5 percent alcohol and shows beautiful length and balance, with dark cherry, licorice, floral and mineral notes that drive through the finish. The newest release, the 2007, comes from a markedly cool vintage in the area. "And old vines are more affected by heat and cold," notes della Rocchetta.

Despite its light-bodied texture, the wine feels complete and shows plenty of complexity. It's the result of an ongoing and painstaking rehabilitation process in the vineyards, which had been abandoned until della Rocchetta took over the property.

"When you plant a new vineyard, everything is happy from the get go. Working with an old vineyard is totally different," says della Rocchetta, who has had to rehabilitate his parcels vine by vine, replacing dead vines and getting the canopy into balance.

Bodega Chacra (chacra is a square plot of land surrounded by poplar trees) is made up of the 6-acre parcel that goes into the aforementioned Treinta y Dos bottling and a 21-acre parcel planted in 1955 that goes into the Pinot Noir Río Negro Cincuenta y Cinco. The Cincuenta y Cinco (2006 was the wine's debut version) is heftier than the Treinta y Dos bottling, though still modest at just 13 percent alcohol. It shows a fresher and more forward briar, spice and red cherry profile. For the '07 vintage, della Rocchetta used nitrogen during the bottling for the first time, so he expects the wines to take a little longer to evolve in the bottle.

The property also has 37 acres of new plantings that, combined with some additional leased vineyards, are used for the winery's Barda bottling. The wine is perfumy and focused, with rose petal and dried cherry notes that linger on the elegant finish.

Chacra represents the boutique of the boutique, turning out handcrafted, delicately styled Pinot Noirs that are worth the effort to find.

On the Chacra property is a plot of Malbec vines also planted in 1932. Since della Rocchetta is focusing on Pinot, he sold the plot to his friend Hans Vinding-Diers, a native of South Africa who works as winemaker at Tuscany's Argiano estate. Vinding-Diers uses these grapes for the top wine at his Bodega Noemía de Patagonia, which he co-owns with Noemi Cinzano, owner of Argiano.

Vinding-Diers, like della Rocchetta, has been nursing the old vineyard back to health while also removing the non-Malbec vines, which are a carryover from the common field-blend plantings that were done generations ago. He is replacing them with cuttings from the old Malbec plants that he has identified as the best in the parcel.

There are just 250 cases produced of the top wine, a function of the small size of the vineyard and of its low-yielding, old vines. The Río Negro Valley bottling debuted with the 2001 vintage and has rated at least 93 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale every year since. (No 2005 was produced due to a severe frost in March, just before harvesttime.) Earlier vintages were made in a rented facility without a temperature-controlled environment and vinified in an old fiberglass tank. "It was difficult," says Vinding-Diers, matter-of-factly.

Since the 2004 vintage, however, Vinding-Diers and Cinzano have worked in a new facility that they built 40 kilometers from the vineyard in the Valle de Azul, on the south bank of the Río Negro. Benefiting from the new winery's refrigerated, grape-cooling room and pristine barrel-room, which has ideal temperature and humidity control, both the '04 and '06 bottlings are superfresh and racy, with great red fruit, licorice and graphite notes. And while the '06 spent just 18 months in barrel, the shortest élevage yet, it is easily the best vintage for this young but impressive Malbec.

"It's all an evolution in the vineyards and expertise, and in age too," says Vinding-Diers. "Experience counts for a lot."

There are two other wines produced here as well. The J. Alberto Río Negro Valley is a blend of mostly Malbec, with a drop of Merlot, made from vines planted in 1955. Since, like the flagship wine, it's a single-vineyard bottling, production tops out at around 800 cases annually. At $55 per bottle, it provides a mini-Noemía experience without the triple-digit price tag.

Value hunters should look for the A Lisa Río Negro Valley, which costs just $25. Production currently stands at 2,500 cases annually, but plans are to double the number, since the wine is made from younger vines and sourced fruit. Also a blend of Malbec and Merlot, A Lisa is typically fresh and forward, with juicy red fruit, floral and mineral notes.

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