Picture this: It’s 11 a.m. and the sun is already high in the cloudless sky, but you’re nice and cool, sitting in the shade of a mature Acacia tree, and there’s a hint of a breeze gently ruffling your hair. It’s quiet; just the sound of running water from the Californian poppy-fringed fountain and some birds singing nearby. You are surrounded by cottage gardens with roses interspersed by marigolds, just going-over irises and drifts of purple and pink statice. This could almost be England on a warm day in late May. However, the line of young olive trees, the huge centennial cactus and the Chilean native trees give it away: this peaceful oasis is, in fact, in Chile, a mere hour and a half away from Santiago.
This is the setting of Casona, the 10-room boutique hotel belonging to biodynamic wine producer Viña Matetic. When I visited, I found everything just so: from the deliciously soft superking bed with its smooth cotton sheets to the ultra-clean swimming pool and, of course, those lovely gardens.
Breakfast and dinner is served in a hotel guests-only dining area with attentive waiters. The menu was interesting and varied, including vegetarian and healthy options. We were entertained by a handsome bird called a rufous-tailed plantcutter (known locally as “rara”), which kept head-butting the windows, seemingly without coming to any harm.
All in all, we found it really quite hard to tear ourselves away for the winery tour, but it was well worth the effort. When you visit the winery, situated at the top of a hill a full nine kilometres away from the hotel, you truly appreciate the scale of this operation, which spreads out as far as the eye can see. Viña Matetic is, in fact, part of a very large, family-owned estate which has herds of cattle and blueberry and eucalyptus plantations as well as its 160 hectares of biodynamically-farmed vineyards.
In fact, the vineyards are sufficiently spread out to fall into two appellations: San Antonio and Casablanca. Here they grow Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and a little Gewürztraminer and Riesling. They also bring Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère grapes from a warmer region to round out their range.
The winery building design is very interesting, using gravitational design to reduce the need for electric pumps and local stone and maximum airflows to keep the barrel room cool and humid. As in the hotel, everything is well thought-through and very orderly.
Of course no winery visit is complete without a tasting. The winery lived up to its reputation for well-made, clean, fresh, mostly single variety wines and we enjoyed a crisp and aromatic Sauvignon Blanc, a well-balanced and seductive Chardonnay, a red fruit and herbal Pinot Noir and a rich and complex cool-climate Syrah, all from their EQ range.
I also checked out Matetic’s Coastal Brut, a traditional-method sparkling wine made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which has almost two years of lees-ageing prior to disgorgement (rather longer than many sparkling wines). Deliciously complex and refreshing, this sparkler was definitely my favourite from their range.
So, imagine this: you’ve swum a couple of laps in the swimming pool, done the winery tour and tasting. You’ve enjoyed dinner with a glass or two of wine and feel pleasantly tired and replete. You stroll by the light of the moon through the quiet gardens back to your room, close the door and the shutters on the windows. All is peaceful; there’s not a sound to disturb your sleep in that big, soft bed. What a pleasant way to round off your stay in this oasis of calm.
Our trip to Maule had as much to do with tradition, people and sustainability as it did with wine. So it’s fitting that our first stop on the way there was at Miguel Torres Chile, a winery that champions Fair Trade and sustainable winemaking, where technical director Fernando Almeda was able to give us his take on organic viticulture and the need to pay grape producers a fair rate for their grapes. It was the start of a three-day trip to Maule by Amanda Barnes’ Around the World in 80 Harvests project to find out about the Vigno project to rescue traditionally farmed old vineyards there. As the 80 Harvests’ editor and occasional contributor, I was delighted to be invited along too.
And so, as we fortified ourselves over a superb lunch and winetasting in Miguel Torres’ restaurant, Fernando gave us some first insights into Maule, one of Chile’s oldest and most traditional wine regions, and the Vigno project. Then we piled into his car and headed south into the dry landscapes of Maule for the first of many vineyard visits: Miguel Torres’ vineyard in Huerta de Maule (shown in the photo below).
Our journey was into the area known as Maule Secano (dry Maule), where there are still many small family-owned and run vineyards that continue to grow the varieties of vines that were planted there long ago, using traditional techniques. The vines are trained in a free-standing bush shape and have no irrigation other than the rain that comes in winter. These vines – mainly País (the variety brought by the Jesuit priests to countries across the Americas and known by a different name in each country), Carignan and Moscatel – are tough and able to withstand the heat and drought that other varieties cannot and so are well-suited to this arid land where water is scarce and summer temperatures can easily reach 37°C.
Over the three days we visited several different vineyards in the company of different winemakers and were struck by how peaceful they all were. There is little mechanisation here – much of the land is still worked by horses – and the landscape is a far cry from the neat rows of vines trained along wires that you find in many of Chile’s wine regions.
The bush-trained vines and gentle farming techniques mean that there is space here too for wild flowers and animals – check out the photo below of a nest of quail’s eggs we found hidden in the shade of one vine.
On our second day, we explored vineyards in the Truquilemu, Sauzal and Melozal areas with De Martino winemaker Eduardo Jordán and doctorate student Gastón Gutierrez, who has been involved in a Universidad de Talca project to map the different terroirs of old-vine Carignan in this area.
Eduardo explained that the traditional grape varieties planted in this area fell out of favour some decades ago, as the big wineries further north began to focus their efforts on producing internationally popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. This left the Maulino grape producers with a problem: what to do with grapes that the wineries would only buy at such low prices, the producers couldn’t make ends meet? “Rip them out”, you might suggest, “plant something else”, but actually the only crops that really cope there are these tough old vines and olives.
Some families have struggled on anyway, some have indeed ripped out their vines and taken government subsidies to plant eucalyptus and pine trees for the cellulose industry and others have simply had to abandon their land and go and find work in the city to support their families. By the start of the new Millennium, the prospects for Maule Secano really weren’t looking good.
A few wineries whose commercial acumen is accompanied by a social conscience began to look for innovative ways to use the much maligned grapes of this part of Chile to produce interesting wines, while also boosting the local economy and enabling growers to earn enough to live on. There are a number of interesting projects – Miguel Torres seems to be involved in all of them – but perhaps the most interesting of all has been the Vigno project.
Vigno came about after a couple of winemakers realised that the old Carignan vines could actually made some pretty decent wine and began to appreciate that the old, traditional ways of farming vines might have something to recommend them after all. They experimented with these concentrated grapes and the results were so interesting, more wineries joined in. But it took Andrés Sánchez of Gillmore to propose something radically new – an association of wineries under the joint banner of Vigno. To get the full picture about this fascinating project, check out these articles: What is VIGNO? and VIGNO: Coming of Age.
We spent the third day in Cauquenes, in the southernmost part of the region with Odfjell winemaker Arnaud Hereu and viticulturist Sebastián Bustamante. Odfjell has a large vineyard in this area, which it is cultivating using biodynamic techniques. In addition to their plots of Carignan vines, they grafted international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat and Merlot onto old País vines some 11 years ago and, now they are established, are gradually converting them back to dry-farming.
Throughout our stay, we experienced the warm hospitality of Daniella Gillmore and Andrés Sánchez at the Gillmore Winery, staying in their comfortable hotel and eating with the family. And on the last night, Don Francisco Gillmore, the founder of Gillmore, selected some very special wines from his cellar to share with us.
A very peaceful oasis of green, this site has a natural spring with waters that are thought to have curative powers. The spring feeds into a pond which is visited by a range of different animals and birds, including the ducks in the photo below, black-necked swans, and a Chilean ostrich known as ñandu.
Every evening during our trip to Maule, we tasted different Vigno wines, with vertical tastings introduced by the winemaker with whom we had spent that day. What was really notable during our visit is that each of the people we met was passionate about Maule, old-vine Carignan and Vigno and this transcended any rivalry that could have existed between competing wineries.
Together we opened and tasted wines from almost all the 16 Vigno producers (to read the tasting notes, check out this post). The winemakers discussed all the wines objectively without any bias in favour of their own wines. One of the things they all said they appreciated about Vigno is the chance to share knowledge and ideas and get feedback from their peers.
Given that Vigno is largely or wholly old-vine Carignan, the range of different wine styles is actually quite extraordinary and, if you can track them down, I do recommend giving them a try.
Beside a real appreciation of the Vigno wines, I came away from our trip to Maule with a sense of the warm hospitality of the people and of the gentle way of life, which is far more in harmony with nature and the world around it than that in many other places in the world. The old farming methods passed down from one generation to the next and for long viewed with scorn by modern viticulturists and winemakers have indeed passed the test of time.
It’s often said that it’s your second or even your third business that is the winner; the one that you get right, because you can apply all you’ve learned along the way. So when Stolichnaya vodka owners SPI Group bought the renowned Mendoza winery Achával-Ferrer, the question was what were the men who had founded and built this winery going to do next? Two of them, Santiago Achával, who also owns a small winery in California, and Italian-born Roberto Cipresso, who has a number of ventures in his home country, decided to invest all that experience in starting up a new winery together: Matervini. And they chose to locate it within spitting distance of their former venture in Luján de Cuyo. But they didn’t just set out to replicate their former business; instead they took three very significant strategic decisions.
The first was to make the new winery as environmentally-friendly as possible. Matervini is self-sufficient in hot water from photovoltaic panels and in solar electricity – in fact it even injects electricity into the national grid. The winery recycles its grey water for irrigating the gardens and also composts its organic waste, taking care to get a good mix that can enrich the soil. They use intervine planting during winter – grass where they want to reduce vine vigour or barley or rye where they want to add nutrients to the soil. These crops are ploughed back into the soil around the time the vines begin to flower.
Meanwhile, some thought has gone into the winery building design. Close to the building are wire panels, which in spring and summer are covered with deciduous or annual climbing plants to give shade, reducing the need for air conditioning. In autumn, the leaves fall or the annual plants die back, leaving the panels bare and revealing the murals on the walls behind. The weaker sunshine of autumn and winter reaches the building, helping raise temperatures inside.
The second decision was to take a business model that is far more common in the United States than in South America: the wine club. Instead of looking to market their wines to retailers or through distributors, Matervini sells them directly to the public, offering worldwide shipping and deals for members. The winery – like Kingston Family Vineyards in Chile’s Casablanca Valley – ships wine to its base in the United States, facilitating onward shipment to its base of customers there.
Matervini and Malbec, Malbec and more Malbec
The third decision was to make Matervini a Malbec project. We had the good fortune to taste the wines with Santiago himself and hear first-hand how each was made. Exuding calm self-confidence and genial good humour, he told us that Matervini’s strategy is to make great Malbec wines, each one unique because it expresses the place it comes from.
“I get tired of journalists asking me the same question: ‘What’s next after Malbec?’ I always reply ‘More Malbec!’
His argument, teemed with the wines we tasted, was pretty compelling. We tasted 6 different Matervini Malbec wines, all but one from 2014. Each had been made in the same way and, according to Santiago, the only differentiating factor was that each was from a different place. And he was right, as you can see from the tasting notes below, each of them was quite different.
Santiago became especially enthusiastic when talking about planting in the Precordillera area, a mountain chain parallel to but lower than the Andes. He explained that this is especially interesting because of the benefits of growing at altitude and also because the soils come predominantly from one type of stone rather than being a broad mix of different types of rock. He feels this gives each wine a greater chance of expressing its origin.
His latest project has been to plant three plots totalling 20 hectares in the Precordillera. One has east-facing slopes of fractured basalt with 2mm of limestone on top and the first wines have been produced from these vines. The other two plots, which are not yet producing wine, are an east-west-facing hillside with friable limestone that is 40-50 million years old in thin vertical layers with oxidation on one side oxidising; and a north-facing slope of hard grey limestone encrusted with silica magnesium from the deep seabed 450 million years ago, when the continents were still joined up.
“I believe that the wines from these plots are going to be the ones that really make the winery,” he concluded. He may well be right.
Tinto, Chacayes 2014.
This wine comes from a high altitude area of the Uco Valley in Mendoza.
This wine was medium ruby in colour with a pleasant nose of fresh black plums and floral notes. The wine was dry and well-balanced with medium levels of tannins, body, acidity and alcohol and a medium finish. Very pleasant.
AntesAndes Valle de Canota 2014.
This wine comes from Las Heras, the foot of Villavicencio in the Pre-cordillera,
This wine had a particularly floral nose, very pleasant. The tannins were finer and better integrated than in the Tinto from Chacayes. The wine had fresh acidity, some mineral notes in the mouth and medium body. A very elegant style of Malbec.
AntesAndes Valles Calchaquíes 2014
This is another wine from the Pre-cordillera range, beetween Cafayate and Molinos in Salta in northern Argentina. The vines are planted at an altitude of 2400 metres.
The nose of this wine was different again, with forest floor and mineral notes. The wine had more body and acidity and chewy tannins. Lots of fresh fruit flavours in the mouth and a long finish.
Alteza 2013 (the only wine in the tasting not from 2014).
This wine is also from the Pre-cordillera area in northern Argentina at a place called Yacochuya in the Cafayate area of Salta. The vineyards is planted at 2200 metres above sea level and so, as is the case with Calchaquíes, the cooler temperatures at altitude compensate for the northerly latitude, which might otherwise make the climate too warm for producing quality wines.
There is an unusual aspect to the winemaking for Alteza. In a bid to control the spread of pests and diseases, there are strict controls over moving fruit from one province to another in Argentina and so it is not possible to transport grapes from Salta to Mendoza. However, Matervini doesn’t have winemaking facilities in Salta, so they needed to find a way around the problem. The solution they came up with is novel. It is fine for the winery to transport grape must. So, the grapes are put into small, 1000-litre stainless steel tanks, which are put into a refrigerated truck and transported at a low temperature. And the driver and winemaker make the journey slowly from Salta, stopping every three hours to manually punch down the cap of grape skins that have floated to the top of each tank. This is a novel type of cold soak, allowing the colour and tannins to seep from the skins into the must prior to fermentation at the winery.
This wine was deeper in colour. The nose was more subtle but particularly floral with notes of violets, as well as the characteristic black plum aromas of Malbec. This was a bigger wine, with more body and higher acidity than the previous examples. The tannins were medium and fine. Pleasant plum fruit and mineral flavours and a fairly long finish.
This wine comes from the Perdriel área of Luján de Cuyo in Mendoza where the winery is based. It is made from grapes from very old vines (80 or more years), sometimes with a small batch of wine from newer vines blended in.
This wine was medium ruby in colour. A fairly pronounced nose featuring notes from the oak ageing, like vanilla and cinnamon, as well as black plums. This medium-bodied wine had medium acidity and medium, velvety tannins. It featured black and red fruit and some spicy flavours from the oak.
Viñas Viejas 2014
Very limited edition – 200 bottles produced. This wine was made from grapes in Matervini’s new Precordillera plot.
A beautiful wine with a mineral nose teemed with the biscuity, toasty notes from the barrel-ageing. In the mouth, it was medium-bodied, with fresh acidity, tooth-coating tannins and a long finish.
Responsible for 70% of the wine made in the world’s 6th biggest wine-producing country, Mendoza is unsurprisingly Argentina’s most emblematic wine region. What’s all the more remarkable is that this is an area in a semi-desert with insufficient rainfall to keep vines alive. So why is Mendoza such a powerhouse of wine production?
Like most historical wine regions, Mendoza’s wine story began with the arrival of the Catholic church and its success hinged on its strategic location.
History and strategic location
It seems that vine material was brought via different routes into Argentina during the 16th century and, as elsewhere in South America, it was missionaries and monks who were responsible for planting the first vineyards and sowing the seeds of Argentina’s wine industry. And it was the Jesuit missionaries who discovered that the grapevines prospered most in the foothills of the Andes, in regions that included Mendoza.
Before the arrival of the Spanish colonists, the native population had built a network of irrigation canals to bring meltwater from the Andes and the new settlers made use of these canals to irrigate the vines and other crops, making them viable in an area that would otherwise have been too dry.
Thanks to its strategic location, just across the Andes mountains from Chile’s capital city, Santiago, Mendoza was ideally placed for trade with the neighbouring country. And so its wine industry began to flourish and soon became an important economic activity. Both secular families and the church produced wine, which was transported east to Buenos Aires and other Argentine cities, north to Bolivia and west to Chile.
However, the real boom for Mendoza’s wine industry came with the building of the railway connecting it to Buenos Aires in 1885, together with the arrival of new waves of immigrants, many from wine-producing areas in Europe, who brought their own vines and winemaking expertise. It is thanks to their contribution that Argentina produces such a diverse range of wines today.
The climate is continental with four defined seasons. Summers are warm with temperatures in some areas even reaching 40°C, while in winter they can plummet below freezing. I was there in early autumn and, as you can see from the photo, the vines were turning beautiful shades of yellow.
All sunshine and warmth
In warm, sunny areas like much of Mendoza province, grapes tend to ripen quickly. They accumulate lots of sugar in a relatively short time and, if not picked soon enough, begin to lose acidity. What does this mean? Well, there are two knock-on effects.
Firstly, it is the acidity that makes a wine fresh and gives it zing. A wine with low acidity can seem flabby and boring.
Secondly, it is the sugar in the grape juice that is converted into alcohol during the alcoholic fermentation. So the more sugar that has accumulated in the grapes, the higher the level of alcohol the wine will have. This is why wines from warm regions like Barossa in Australia or Mendoza in Argentina often have high levels of alcohol – they were made from very ripe grapes with high levels of sugar.
It’s quite hard for producers in such warm areas to obtain grapes that have just the right levels of sugar and acidity, while ensuring that the flavours and aromas have developed.
“Most of the vineyards planted in our country are located between the warm and hot categories (Winkler IV and V). In warm weather conditions the temperatures never become a limiting factor for the grapes to reach a good level of maturity. This means that our wines are characterized for presenting a great fruity expression, being generally soft in mouth, with sweet tannins and very low average acidity levels.”
So, in recent years, producers in Mendoza- and elsewhere in Argentina – have been experimenting with altitude. Why? Because it’s cooler higher up. In fact, some of the higher areas in Mendoza fall into Winkler category III or even II. And at altitude, there is often a big difference between the temperatures in the day and those at night (known as thermal amplitude). All in all, if you plant your grapevines at a higher altitude, the grapes will ripen more slowly, enabling their aromas and flavours to develop fully, while ensuring that the sugar accumulation and acidity loss happen slowly. The result is fresher wines with higher acidity, potentially lower alcohol, and lots of ripe fruit and herbal aromas and flavours instead of jammy ones.
Whether on the plain or in the mountains, water is an issue. As in most of Argentina, Mendoza’s vineyards are located in the rain shadow of the Andes mountains – most of the prevailing winds come from the west and lose their moisture in Chile or crossing the mountains. So rainfall in the Mendoza area averages 200mm per year, not enough for a vine.
Traditionally, plenty of meltwater came down from the Andes mountains every spring to enable flood irrigation via canals. Argentine grape growers long supported flood irrigation as they believed that it helped stop the spread of the devastating vine-killing grub phylloxera. However, recent research has shown that this is not the case, as is detailed in this article by Julia Harding.
As in Chile, in the face of the harsh reality of receding glaciers, lower snowfall in winter and increased demand for water for industrial, agricultural and residential use, growers are having to consider reducing their water use. It was clear during my visit that many producers are switching over to drip irrigation, as shown in this photo from the Mendel winery.
The Mendoza wine region is often affected by tremendous hailstorms, which can decimate a crop. The seriousness of this problem was more than evident in the widescale use of netting, as shown in the photo. As I understand it, putting netting on growing vines is an awkward, expensive and time-consuming business, so you have to be really worried about potential damage to go to the trouble.
The Zonda wind that blows hot and strong in late spring and early summer can also affect flowering. Together with spring frosts, it can seriously affect the amount of grapes harvested, because if flowers are lost to frost or wind, there are fewer left to be transformed into grapes.
To give you an idea of how great an impact the weather can have on yields, in 2014, Argentina produced 15.2 million hectolitres (hl or 100 litres), while in the cool, wet conditions of 2016, production was down to just 9.4 million hl. In 2017, spring frosts did a fair amount of damage and yields this year are also expected to be down on the average level. Otherwise this has been a hotter than normal year on both sides of the Andes, resulting in earlier harvesting.
Getting down to earth
The soils are mainly alluvial, ie carried there by river flows a long, long time ago. They tend to be poor and free-draining, with stones, sand, lime, silt and some clay but not very much organic matter. Vines the world over thrive in such poor, well-drained soils. However, producers in Mendoza are no longer satisfied with just planting anywhere and are getting into the minutae of geology in search of soils that might bring an extra dimension to their wines. This is leading them to dig soil pits and do extensive surveys of the soil profiles in different areas, particularly in search of calcareous (limestone) soils formed millennia ago when the Andes mountains of today were actually part of the seabed.
Check out this excellent article by Martin Kaiser at Doña Paula, explaining what calcareous soils are, how they are formed and why they are of such interest to wine producers.
I’ll be coming back soon to the topic of geology, climate and terroir and how they influence wine style in a post about the Matervini winery.
Most vines are still planted on their own roots in Argentina. However, this is gradually changing, mainly because of the problems with nematodes – nasty, fast-reproducing roundworms in the soil that damage vines by eating their roots and can also spread other diseases. To combat this problem, many new vineyards are being planted with vines grafted onto nematode-resistant rootstocks.
The old-style pergola plantings are rapidly giving way to vines trained along wire systems, mainly vsp (vertical shoot positioning) as you can see in the photo.
This style of training makes it easy to control the amount of leaves in the canopy and thus create the best conditions for the clusters of grapes to ripen correctly, without fungal problems, uneven ripening or sunburn.
The warm, dry weather that is normal in Mendoza reduces the risk of fungal diseases.
Black varieties: Black varieties account for around 50% of the winegrapes grown in Argentina. Malbec is, of course, the star and I will be coverering this in a post soon. Mendoza also produces some excellent Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Bonarda and Tempranillo.
White varieties: Around 25% of all the vines grown in Argentina are white varieties. Mendoza particularly produces Chardonnay, Pedro Giménez, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chenin Blanc.
Pink varieties: Pink varieties are in decline but still account for some 25% of Argentina’s plantings. They consist of Criolla chica (that ubiquitous grape that is known as País in Chile, Mission in California and Listón Prieto in Spain) and Cereza (a cross between Criolla chica and Muscat of Alexandria).
Recent decades have seen significant change and modernization in Argentine wineries. This is partly because domestic wine consumption has fallen, meaning that producers have had to become more competitive in order to enter overseas markets and, as a result, 25% of Argentina’s wine production now goes to export.
Also companies and individuals from overseas have spotted the potential of Argentina’s wine industry and invested time, money and expertise in the country. Salentein in the Uco Valley is Dutch-owned, for instance.
Many wineries are now emphasizing quality over quantity in their quest for competitive edge.
This means lower yields in the vineyards, care over the timing of harvest, rigorous selection of the grapes and a more meticulous and controlled winemaking process.
Many wineries have switched to stainless steel – though epoxy-lined concrete tanks remain common – and some have invested in the ultra trendy concrete eggs in the quest to produce wines that offer something different.
Wine producers have traditionally protected themselves against weather-related losses by having different plots of lands in different areas and blending their wines, but more single-vineyard wines are now being made.
Where a bottle label states the variety, the wine must consist of at least 85% of that variety. For blends, any variety listed on the label must account for at least 20% of the blend.
A Reserva white or rosé wine must have at least six months ageing and a red Reserva 12 months, while Gran Reserva wines have twice as much ageing. Traditionally winemakers have used a lot of oak when ageing their wines – especially new French oak barrels, which gives the wines lots of aromas and flavours of toast and spices like cinnamon. This is still apparent, but there is also a move to produce fresher, more fruit-forward wines, with much less or even no oak influence.
Mendoza wine sub regions
Upper Mendoza River, including Luján de Cuyo and Maipú.
These areas are a little higher up (800 – 1100 masl) and have a cooler mean temperature. There are many vineyards here with a long tradition of quality winemaking, though the Uco Valley has taken over the limelight recently. I will be reporting on visits to three wineries in Luján de Cuyo: Mendel, Matervini and ReNacer.
So what IS so special about Uco? Well, the vineyards are located at altitude – 1,000m to 1600m above sea level – and, as discussed earlier, this makes for slower ripening. In fact, some areas in Uco are cool enough to be classed as II on the Winkler Scale. The combination of cooler weather, constant breezes, thermal amplitude, and very poor soils is making for some very exciting wines with plenty of body but high acidity. In a forthcoming post, I’ll write about my visit to the Salentein winery, a rather surreal site in the midst of a vast, open plain.
North and East Mendoza
These are low-lying, warm regions that produce lots of high-volume, entry-level wines, as well as some of superior quality.
South Mendoza, including San Rafael and General Alvear
This is a large area with a range of different terroirs and wines.
You hear inspiring stories all the time about young people in their late teens, twenties and thirties going travelling the world, starting up businesses and having amazing adventures. In fact, once upon a time I was one of them. But now I’ve just turned 50. Half a century old. And I’m thinking “what next?”
I’m not ready to slide into a comfortable middle age where I dream about what I’ll do when I retire. Maybe I never will be. In fact, let’s be honest, like a lot of people who have spent their lives having adventures and not paying attention to pensions, I might not even be able to afford to retire.
So this, my 50th year, is a bit of an Odyssey, a pause to experience the here and now and then take a deep breath and move forward with some new adventures.
My trip to Mendoza in April was a key moment in this period of exploration. A chance to have fun and experience a new wine region with an expert – wine journalist Amanda Barnes, who knows Mendoza like the back of her hand. The opportunity to try to get a handle on Malbec wine. And the chance to drink great wines with some cool and interesting people, like winemaker Alex Morozov, who brought a fantastic sparkling wine all the way from Benjamin Bridge – the winery where he works in Nova Scotia, Canada – and sommelier Dana Fernandez who, by means of a Tannat from Bouza in Uruguay, taught me not to jump to conclusions when blind tasting.
Also, as I’m in the market for inspiring stories about people – particularly mature ones – doing cool and exciting things, I had the added bonus of hearing renowned Argentine winemaker Santiago Achával explain how, aged 50, after he and his partners sold the famed Achával-Ferrer winery, he wondered “what next?” He decided he still had the energy and enthusiasm to start something new. And so he founded a brand new winery: Matervini. If he could do that, perhaps I too could start something new?
It was short, action-packed and included enough Malbec wine to sink a battleship. It was an awesome visit and my heartfelt thanks go to Amanda Barnes for her hospitality and organization and taking time out of her very busy schedule. Thanks also to Emiliano Valazquez for being a complete knight in shining armour.
Porto charmed me from the moment I landed in the modern airport and took the very smooth, modern metro to the city centre. It’s a matter-of-fact city that receives tourists with an urbane, friendly attitude, without being cloying, and goes calmly about its daily business.
This is a place that seems comfortable with itself. Grocers’ shops are Aladdin’s caves crammed with long, spicy sausages, sacks of dried beans, whole sheep’s cheeses and shelves lined with bottles of Port and wine. Old-fashioned underwear shops, fine bed linen emporia, elegant granite buildings and blue-and-white tiled churches line the roads along which trundle little old trams and ultra-modern, gas-powered buses.
One could almost be seduced into thinking about living here – if it weren’t for the rain, of course. It rains a lot here – in fact, with 1,200mm of rainfall each year, Porto gets more rainfall than Manchester.
But no matter, there are plenty of great places to retreat to from the rain and enjoy a bite to eat, washed down by a glass of local wine or Port, of course.
I started my visit as I meant to go on: in style. The Majestic Café is one of the iconic landmarks of Porto and it featured high on my list of things to do. I was clearly not alone in my ambition, as I had to queue to get in and the place was packed. But the service was slick and efficient, despite the number of customers.
Ornate mirrors framed in dark wood and gold-painted cherubs with garlands of plaster flowers cover the walls and high ceilings. I sat on a dark leather bench mid-café, leaning on the small, marble-covered tables and gave myself over to people-watching: here a couple of tourists sipping coffee, there a group of well-dressed middle aged local ladies having afternoon tea.
I got my visit off to a good start with a glass of Ex Libris Super Reserva Brut 2008, a traditional method sparkling wine made with Arinto, Bical and Chardonnay grapes from the Bairrada DOC in Portugal. It was a beautiful, deep golden colour and had lots of fresh citrus fruit, toast and yeast aromas. It was very refreshing and fruity in the mouth with zesty acidity and delicate bubbles. It went very well with the traditional egg custard pastry known as pasteis de nata.
Two days later, at the very delicious, high-end The DOC, Rui Paula’s restaurant in the Douro Valley, I sampled another excellent sparkling wine, this one from the Távora Varosa area, which borders the Douro region. Terras do Demo was made from 100% Malvasia fina and was a medium lemon-green colour. The nose revealed aromas of citrus fruit and green apples, as well as the characteristic yeast and sponge cake notes from the in-bottle fermentation. Very pleasant, fruity, dry sparkling wine with moderate alcohol (12.5%) and the notes of fruit and sponge cake coming through again in the mouth.
The delicious three-course lunch at The DOC ended with one of the best Port wines I tasted on my trip. Rozes 10 year old Tawny was medium garnet in colour. The nose was pronounced with notes of red fruit, together with hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, toffee and chocolate. In the mouth, the sweetness was well-balanced by the high acidity and the tannins were ripe and well-integrated. This full-bodied Port was packed with flavour, including notes of chocolate, marzipan and red fruit (raspberries and cherries).
My sister and I liked the restaurant Douro Sentido so much we went back twice, dining on tapas, such as marinated octopus, creamy sheep’s cheese, spicy sausages and fresh bread, washed down, of course, by still wines.
Herdade das Albernoas, a simple, non-aromatic white from Alentejo made from 80% Antāo Vaz and 20% Arinto grapes. This wine was pale lemon in colour with high acidity and medium body. Subtle in the mouth with notes of citrus (lemon zest) and green apple, this is an easy-drinking wine.
Casa Ferreirinha Esteva 2014, a red wine from the Douro region made with traditional Douro grapes: 35% Tinta Roriz, 30% Tinta Barroca, 20% Touriga Franca and 15% Touriga Nacional. Medium ruby in colour, this wine had a medium nose with notes of violets, red fruit (raspberries) and black fruit (plums, blackcurrant). In the mouth, it was dry with moderate acidity, tannins and alcohol. Medium-bodied with lots of fruit flavours and a floral touch, this is another easy-to-drink, food-friendly wine
During my short visit to Porto, I enjoyed the traditional local fare, including lots of bacalhau (salt cod). I heard it said that there are 365 different recipes for bacalhau in Porto. I can’t vouch for that, but the two or three different dishes I tried were excellent. My overall impression was of simple, wholesome and delicious cuisine without excessive use of cowsmilk – a real plus for people like myself who are intolerant to this ubiquitous ingredient. All in all, charming Porto is a city I would definitely come back to. Next time, I’ll come with oversized clothes, a suitcase large enough for a good stock of wines and, of course, an umbrella. Nothing like being prepared!
If you follow the Douro River downstream, eventually it passes between the twin cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia and reaches the Atlantic Ocean. And it is to Vila Nova de Gaia that Port has traditionally been brought to mature.
If you look across the river at the city, you’ll see that it is peppered with signs bearing the names of famous Port companies, like Graham’s, Dow’s, Offley and Sandeman. These are the shippers’ lodges; cool, dark cellars filled with vats of ageing Port. The lodges often also serve as the shipping companies’ headquarters. There is a good reason for the cellars being here, rather than upriver. Situated by the sea, Vila Nova de Gaia gets the full force of the moist winds blowing off the Atlantic. And it is the moderate coastal temperatures and humidity that make it so perfect for the long, slow process of maturing Port.
There are lots of port lodges you can visit in the city. Sadly I only had time to visit one and I opted for Sandeman’s because of its interesting history and because they are one of the few lodges to offer premium tastings, so I was able to taste four Tawnies of different ages, a real privilege.
Tawny Port tasting at Sandeman’s lodge
Sandeman’s lodge is one of those places that is much bigger on the inside than its front façade suggests. After a quick tour of the small museum, we entered the dark, cool and cavernous storeroom, which seemed to go on forever and was lined with great wooden vats and casks of different sizes, generally of old, neutral oak.
This is the place where the magic happens to the young, recently fortified wines that arrive each spring from the Douro region.
Depending on the type of Port being made, the fortified wine is stored in large wooden vats or smaller wooden casks for a period of between three and five years, although some are matured for much longer. They are also blends of wines of different ages. For instance the 10-year-old Aged Tawny I tried contained wines of between 9 and 12 years of age, while the 40-year old was a blend of wines of between 30 and 55 years of age.
Tawny Port is so named because of its brown colouring (the older it is, the browner it gets), which comes about because of contact with oxygen. With most types of wine, the winemaker tries to limit the wine’s contact with oxygen, precisely because it makes wine go brown (just like a cut apple exposed to air) and it can make the wine’s fruity aromas and flavours fade away. Too much oxygen contact for a regular wine can also cause the development of unpleasant smells because of bacteria.
However, the higher alcohol level of fortified wines stops such bacteria from developing and, in the case of certain fortified wines, the winemaker’s goal is the exact opposite. He/she wants to achieve this brown colour and the amazing Christmas pudding aromas and flavours that come as a result of years of ageing with oxygen. So, for the Port wines that are to become tawnies, a space is left at the top of the wooden casks so that the oxygen can gradually work its magic.
Over the years, the port wines are racked off their sediment and put into clean casks or vats and most Ports are clarified and filtered prior to bottling. With only a few exceptions, such as vintage and unfiltered Late Bottled Vintage, most Ports are ready to drink when bottled and are best enjoyed right away rather than stored away.
Four Tawny Tasting notes
Sandeman’s 10-year old Tawny
Deep ruby colour with orange hues and a pronounced nose of jammy red fruit, like cherries, raspberries and plums, together with notes of prunes, figs and sultanas from the contact with oxygen. This Tawny was beginning to evolve complex aromas of chocolate, liquorice, vanilla and walnuts. In the mouth, the sweetness was nicely balanced by the acidity, the tannins were smooth and tooth-coating and the full body was rich with red fruit, a whole array of dried fruit and chocolate flavours. Delicious.
Sandeman’s 20-year old Tawny
Medium amber colour with tawny hues. This wine no longer had those jammy fruit aromas and instead the pronounced nose featured a delicious mixture of chocolate, dried fruit such as figs, prunes, sultanas and walnuts, together with sweet spices (vanilla, cloves and nutmeg) and hints of toffee and caramel. In the mouth, the sweet, rich body was balanced by high acidity and medium, smooth tannins. The flavours resembled a Christmas pudding with a little chocolate thrown in for good measure. Long, pleasurable finish.
Sandeman’s 30-year old Tawny
Medium tawny colour with olive brown hues. The first note on the nose was alcohol, followed by the full range of nuts, especially walnuts and Brazil nuts, together with dried fruit, like sultanas and figs, honey and vanilla. This too was a sweet, full-bodied wine with high acidity giving it the necessary balance. In the mouth, walnuts, almonds, alcohol-soaked prunes and sultanas and figs.
Sandeman’s 40-year old Tawny
Deep tawny in colour with brown hues. Again the nose first revealed alcohol, followed by Brazil nuts, almonds and walnuts, then a layer of sultanas, figs, vanilla and honey. Like the 30-year old, this Port was big, full-bodied, with well-integrated tannins and high acidity. Flavours of walnuts, Brazil nuts, figs, sultanas, prunes, honey and vanilla.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to try some Douro still wines from Quinta de Tourais in Cambres in the Baixo Corgo, the westernmost part of the Douro region. The winery has an 8-hectare vineyard densely packed with 37,000 vines, a field blend of around 30 different black and white varieties, most of them more than 60 years old. Traditionally the winery sold on all its production to Port producers. Winemaker Fernando Coelho still sells port grapes to one of the shippers, but he also retains some grapes to make around 15-20,000 bottles of unfortified still wines of his own each year.
As with Port, the red wine process begins with destemmed black grapes being foot-pressed in open granite lagares. However, as the grapes are fermented to dryness, without the addition of distilled alcohol, the process takes longer – a week or so, the fermentation taking place with the ambient yeasts.
The red wines are matured in oak and have the potential to age for 10-15 years.
The whites are pressed and then fermented in stainless steel.
The rosés are directly pressed and fermented in oak vats.
Touronio 2015 Rosé
Made with Touriga Nacional, 12.5% ABV
A nice, fresh and fruity rosé, medium salmon in colour with zesty acidity in the mouth. Notes of citrus fruit (grapefruit and lime) and green fruit (apple, pear) were apparent on the nose and again in the mouth. This was a dry wine with medium (+) acidity, medium body and medium finish.
Touronio 2015 White
Field blend of over 10 varieties, many of them old vines. Fermented in stainless steel.
This was a pleasant, easy-drinking wine, pale lemon-green in colour, with notes of tropical and citrus fruit (pineapple and lemons), a floral hint (orange blossom) and red apple apparent. This was a dry wine, with medium acidity, fairly light-bodied and very quaffable.
This was a pleasant fruity red wine, intense ruby in colour and packed with aromas and flavours of oak (cedar and sweet spices such as cinnamon and cloves), red fruit (cherries, raspberries) and black fruit (blackberries, plums). In the mouth it was dry with medium (+) tannins, barely ripe and a little coarse. Medium acidity, medium (+) body. I think this wine needs longer for the aromas and flavours to become better integrated.
This is the winery’s iconic wine and is a field blend of 20 varieties. 14% ABV. This wine was aged in oak, 30% of it in new barrels.
As with the Touronio red, I felt that this wine really needs more time to become fully integrated. It was medium ruby in colour with a medium (+) intensity nose revealing aromas of red fruit (cherries, raspberries, strawberries), black fruit (bramble), herbal notes (mint, liquorice) and oak (touch of sweet spice). It was a dry wine with medium (+) acidity, medium (+) body and high tannins, which were still a little bit astringent but riper than the previous wine. Long finish.
Vino Generoso (20 year old tawny-style for own consumption)
Like many small-scale growers and producers in the Douro, Fernando makes his own port-style wine for personal consumption and he shared a glass with us.
This was medium (+) tawny in colour with a pronounced nose. The first note was alcohol, followed by rich oxidative aromas (coconut, hazelnut, coffee, toffee, Brazil nuts). On the palate, this wine was sweet with medium (+) acidity, high alcohol, full body, pronounced flavour intensity with notes of hazelnuts, brazil nuts, toffee, coconut, coffee, toffee and caramel. The wine was very good quality, marred slightly by that initial note of alcohol on the nose. Otherwise it showed excellent concentration and complexity.
It alternated torrential rain and sunshine the day I travelled into this, the world’s biggest mountainous vineyard area, totalling 45,000 hectares. The landscape was lush and green and it was hard to imagine the scorching temperatures that can sear the earth in summer, leaving the unwatered vines no option but to root a long way down to find whatever water they can.
Rising 1,400 metres above sea level, the imposing Serra do Marāo and sister mountain chains protect the Douro region from the Atlantic winds and rain that lash against the twin coastal cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia downriver, so I was unlucky with the rain. It seems that, as elsewhere in Europe, summer 2016 has been wetter than usual in this area. Winemaker Fernando José Sampaio at the Quinta de Tourais winery told me it was too soon to tell whether the damp conditions would have an adverse effect on this year’s crops.
This is an area marked by quite extreme temperatures – up to 45°C in summer and below freezing in winter. It’s a tough life for a grapevine, especially with the ban on irrigation.
Half of the vineyards are on slopes of 30% or more and every one of the terraces hugging these hillsides has been built with great effort. The people who originally worked this land first had to manually break up the schist (friable, slate-like rock) and hew out the terraces before they could plant the vines.
There have been a number of different terrace systems over the years. The oldest was the socalco, narrow terraces with stone retaining walls. The newer type of socalco is wider, with 10 or more rows of vines between each wall.
In the 1980s, many socalcos were destroyed in favour of patamares, terraces with earth banks. Hailed initially as a huge success, they proved to have a number of drawbacks. Some suffered from erosion and collapsed. But the biggest problem was lower vine density, which led to excess vigour.
Nowadays there are a number of solutions in use. Narrow patamares on very steep slopes; the newer style socalcos, some with little patamares in between the retaining walls. And vinha ao alto is being used a lot, where the planting is vertical rather than horizontal.
The soil is very poor and acidic, so yields are low, averaging just 4,000kg a hectare. And, because the slopes are so steep, most of the work has to be done by hand. What with low yields and manual labour, the average production costs are €0.77 per kilo in the Douro, making these among the most expensive grapes in the world.
You could be forgiven for wondering why the growers persist under such adverse conditions. The answer is clear: this is the only place in the world that produces the fortified wine known as Port. What is less well-known is that it is also home to some very interesting still and sparkling wines, as I discovered during my trip.
How Port wine is made
The process begins with the harvesting of the grapes. Over 100 black and white varieties are permitted for use in Port but in 1981 a team of experts identified the top five black varieties: Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo) and Tinto Câo. Nowadays, when growers renew their plantations, they tend to plant these varieties.
Mostly hand-picked from small plots of land, the grapes arrive at the winery, where they are usually destemmed.
Traditionally the grapes were poured into lagares, open, square-shaped granite pools with knee-high walls and foot-trodden for hours by teams of workers. As the temperature increased, the fermentation would start naturally, using the yeasts present in the grapes and the atmosphere.
Nowadays, some Ports are still foot-trodden but there are a number of other techniques available, such as robotic lagares, where rubber plungers imitate the action of human treading or autovinifiers.
Whatever the method used, the objective is to extract colour and tannins from the grapes as quickly as possible. This is because, whereas the normal process in winemaking is to ferment the must until the yeasts have converted all the sugar into alcohol and CO2, a process which can take a week to ten days, in the case of Port, the idea is to stop the fermentation whilst there is still a certain level of sugar left – often after just a few days of fermentation. The sugar level and time varies from one producer to another and also depends on the style of Port.
So once the sugar level is right and the wine has an alcohol level of around 5-6% ABV, it is removed from its skins and mixed with distilled grape spirit to bring the alcohol level up to around 19-22% ABV. The yeasts cannot survive at this level of alcohol, so the fermentation stops.
All Ports spend their first winter maturing in large stainless steel or concrete vats or wooden barrels in the Douro region. Traditionally, in the spring, the Port was put in 550-litre wooden barrels called pipes and carried by boat down to the port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia to mature in the more moderate, humid conditions on the coast. Nowadays, it is more often transported by road in tanker trucks. And some Port shippers have invested in air-conditioned wineries in the Douro valley and mature the wine right there.
Bibliography: Mayson, Richard, 2016, Port and the Douro. Oxford: Infinite Ideas Limited. This book was a tremendous help in terms of research and information when I was preparing for my trip.
Tasting at Fonseca’s Quinta do Panascal
Fonseca Extra Dry White Siroco
2 year-old – bottled unfiltered
Deep lemon with a nose of almonds and savoury notes. Off-dry with high acidity, medium (+) body, medium (+) intensity and notes of almonds.
Bin 27 Ruby Reserve
Medium (-) ruby with a medium (+) nose revealing notes of raisins, sultanas, prunes and tea. Sweet with high levels of tannins, which were a little astringent but well-rounded. High acidity, notes of dried fruit (sultanas, raisins, prunes) and a long finish.
Recently I had the good fortune to spend 48 hours on the road with wine journalist Amanda Barnes during the Chilean leg of her journey Around the World in 80 Harvests. Our schedule took in three wineries in the San Antonio and Casablanca regions right at the time they were harvesting grapes.
Casa Marín winery is situated so close to the Pacific Ocean you can almost taste the sea air. This part of the San Antonio Valley is famous for its cool, cloudy mornings and the morning we arrived was no different. That, after all, is part of the secret behind Casa Marín’s award-winning white wines. No chance of grapes rushing headlong into maturity here as can happen in warmer, sunnier places.
Winemaker Felipe Marín talked us through this exceptional terroir as we walked across the cracked clay earth where a team of workers was rhythmically snipping bunches of Gewurztraminer grapes off the neat rows of vines and dropping them gently into plastic boxes. It was very quiet: just the gentle snipping of the grapes and some distant birdsong.
Felipe sighed when we asked about the birds. It seems nobody has as yet found an effective way of keeping a determined flock of birds off a vineyard full of juicy grapes and he said that they always lose a percentage of the crop to the thrushes. I noted that the vines had another, less common predator too: one of the winery dogs kept sloping off to steal grapes from the vines whenever Felipe wasn’t looking.
We spent a couple of hours with Felipe, while Amanda asked detailed questions about the region, climate, the vineyard and its soils, viticultural practices and the resulting wines, a detailed interview she repeated with the winemakers at each of the three wineries.
Amanda says that she’s developing a comprehensive database of information about soils, climate, grape varieties, pests and diseases, pruning, training and irrigation systems and so on for each of the 80 regions around the world that she plans to visit.
“Believe it or not, there is no one place where you can find all this information at the moment,” Amanda explains. “I looked everywhere when I started planning my journey and it’s amazingly hard work to find out information like the harvest dates in different regions. So my idea is to develop a tool which will be useful to people in the industry, wine students and anyone with an interest in the world of wine.”
The sun came out as we reached our next stop: the immaculate biodynamic estate of Matetic, so large it falls into both the San Antonio and Casablanca regions. Here we got the full red carpet treatment – clearly they were aware that Amanda is a rising star in wine journalism, and they were certainly enthusiastic about her 80 harvests project. We were met by Constanza Moya, the winery’s Tourism Commercial Director, who took us to see the team harvesting Sauvignon Blanc grapes nearby. Then we talked about wine tourism – something Matetic takes very seriously – over a delicious salad on the terrace.
We had twenty minutes to check into our perfectly appointed rooms in the winery’s luxury hotel, the Casona, before heading out for the 15-minute drive to the winery’s cellar. Amanda did an extra speedy interview with the busy head winemaker, Julio Bastías, and then he took us on a whistle-stop tour of the winery. Julio showed us some grapes that had just arrived in perfect condition. Then we were able to try some of this year’s wines straight from the tank prior to jumping in his truck for the drive back to the hotel. A few minutes into the journey, he stopped the car and ran across the road to hack at a section of exposed rock with a small hammer. He wanted to show us some of the rocks that form part of the soils in this area: feldspar, tuff and granite.
We had a scant hour and a half in which to type up our notes from the day and freshen up, then it was a private dinner in the company of Matetic’s chef and head waiter, who served up a series of exquisite dishes, each accompanied by one of Matetic’s wines. Amanda somehow summoned the energy to record a video interview with our chef in between the main course and the dessert.
We were both up early next morning – I needed to kick-start my day with a few litres of strong, black coffee – and Amanda, of course, wanted to snap some photos of the vineyards shrouded in the characteristic morning mist for which this cool climate region is famous.
We hit the road again around 10 am and the sun had already burned through the fog by the time we reached Bodegas Re, the small, innovative Casablanca Valley winery owned by Pablo Morandé and his family. We were met by Pablo Morandé junior, who fortunately brought some more coffee. Amanda may have been still fresh as a daisy, but I was feeling the effects of this fast-paced trip, the heavy meal and late night.
After the formal interview, we spent a while tasting two of the winery’s most interesting wines – their brand new, highly aromatic orange wine Enredo and the very easy-drinking limited edition Recolección – and chatting to Pablo about Chile’s wine industry and the future of the Casablanca Valley.
Then it was time for me to head home, while Amanda drove southward to experience the harvest at Cono Sur. It had been a pleasant break from the routine and a privileged opportunity to see the grapes being harvested and talk with the winemakers. I look forward to reading about Amanda’s further travels on her website.
Amanda Barnes is a wine journalist who has been based in South America for the last seven years, writing for the likes of Decanter, The Drinks Business, The Telegraph, The Guardian, Fodor’s Travel Guides, and Wines of Chile. She has been on the road with 80 harvests since February, visiting wineries across South America and recording their harvests in photos, on video and in words. To find out more about the places she has been visiting, check out her website.