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This is my 15th trip to the country, and my 5th visit to Mendoza.
It began with an overnight at my favorite place in the world to relax after a ten-hour flight, the Palacio Duhau-Park Hyatt in Buenos Aires.
That legendary terrace is hard to beat for a relaxed breakfast or glass of wine.
This trip is a little more laizzez-faire than usual. Kind of winging it. (Don’t follow my example: you really do need to schedule and reserve visits at the wineries you really want to see.)
But I’ve visited many of the major places so now I’m just seeing where my friends and connections lead me.
Catena’s Appellation Series brings interesting new options to the $23 range
I came across this wine as I was searching for promising 2018 bottles. Renowned sommelier Andres Rosberg had advised me that 2018 was an incredible year in Mendoza – that if you couldn’t make great wine in 2018 you weren’t really trying.
By now, you’re familiar with Catena’s Appellation Series, which has been mentioned on these pages before. Among Catena’s regional varietals, the one from the Altamira area has soaked up the most praise and the highest scores – because of the minerality and the real sense of terroir you can enjoy at a relatively low price. I tried the 2018 (rated 93+ by Luis Gutierrez of RobertParker.com) and was fairly blown away. So much so that I split a case with my dinner partners who were enjoying the bottle with me.
Here’s what Gutierrez had to say: “The star of the appellation range is usually the Malbec from Altamira, and the 2018 Appellation Paraje Altamira Malbec does not disappoint. One of the plots was harvested quite early, and the rest fermented with full clusters and finished fermentation without skins, which seems to have added to the elegance/ethereal character of the wine. It’s expressive and floral, varietal, and with the full chalky texture that is a distinct characteristic of Altamira. It’s tasty, the tannins are polished and there is an almost salty sensation in the finish. 36,000 bottles produced.”
So when I went looking for more, the retailer was out of the 2018 but had the 2019, also very highly rated by Gutierrez at 93.
He said: “Following the path of the 2018, the 2019 Appellation Paraje Altamira Malbec is phenomenal. It shows freshness, elegance, balance, complexity and nuance as well. It’s seamless, precise and ethereal with lots of inner energy and light. As the 2018 was, it’s expressive and floral, varietal and with the full chalky texture that is a distinct characteristic of Altamira. It’s tasty, the tannins are polished and there is an almost salty sensation in the finish. It was bottled in April 2020, and volume has now grown to 54,000 bottles.”
So judging from the reviews, I was expecting much the same thing.
I bought a bottle of the 2019 to share with my new friends at El Viñedo Local, a South American restaurant in Atlanta.
Dude. These two wines are so different.
The 2018 was love at first taste, straight out of the bottle. You sensed the minerality and complexity, but it was accessible and enjoyable right away. The 2019 was a completely different wine. It was so, austere. Almost off-putting at first taste. It took a full 15 minutes in glass to open up and turn into a really enjoyable wine.
What’s the difference? The extra year of age? Normally you would expect an older wine to need more oxygen and time, but not in this case.
I firmly prefer the 2018, but the later year is definitely interesting, and want to see what another year or two of age brings to this promising bottle.
For lovers of Argentine wine, it’s the happiest day of the year. While “World Malbec Day” would make more sense to the American ear, we’ll leave it in the form created by our South American friends.
Argentine wine is the best it has ever been. With more diverse, high-quality options than at any point in history.
By now the story has been well-told of how the original Malbec grapes in France were all destroyed by phylloxera in the mid 1800s. But the few vines that had been exported to the Mendoza area of Argentina not only survived, but thrived, taking on a life of their own.
What makes Argentine wine so compelling? First, some of the highest altitude vineyards in the world create powerful patterns of very warm days and very cool nights.
A desert setting that requires drip irrigation and delivers very limited water to the grapes, stresses the grapes and causes them to grow highly concentrated in flavor.
Calcareous soils, especially in areas of the Uco Valley, which are allowing winemakers to focus less on oak and more on terroir.
And the multiple cycles of financial crisis have left Argentina with a currency exchange rate which makes the wines favorably priced in other parts of the world.
Whether you are a first-time sipper or a long-time enthusiast, here are five wines to consider for your enjoyment on this occasion.
Zuccardi Serie “A“- Sebastian Zuccardi and his family are taking on a new importance in Argentine winemaking, at their winery in the far south of the Uco Valley that would be inspiring architecture for the 1st space base on Mars. They are pushing the boundaries, constantly experimenting, and never settling for what was good enough last year. A wine distributor tells me confidentially that as far as Quality-Price-Ratio, this affordable bottle is the best thing in his inventory. $13, at Total Wine, Local Vine and most larger liquor stores.
Susana Balbo Crios Malbec – Women are making a powerful mark on Argentine winemaking, with Laura Catena known as a pioneer and Susana Balbo having a powerful influence in multiple arenas. Balbo was the first woman in Argentina to earn a university degree in Enology, and ever since that time has been blazing trails in what was a males-only industry. She also ran for Argentina’s national Congress and won – representing the province of Mendoza. Try her Crios line of wines for an affordable taste of quality, around $15.
Trapiche Terroir Series and Trapiche Iscay – We’ve raved before about Daniel Pi, the chief winemaker at Trapiche. His Tres14 and Imperfecto personal family projects are among our favorite wines ever. But for today, let’s focus on his day job, leading production at one of the largest winemakers on the planet, owned by Grupo Penaflor. How do you deliver on quality while making 133 million cases a year? With the right wine at the right price in a variety of ranges. Today, look for a bottle of Trapiche’s Malbec Terroir Series, sourced from individual unique vineyards in 2012 – Coletto, Finca Ambrosia, or Orellana. Or, look for the Trapiche Iscay Malbec-Cabernet Franc blend, one of the highest-rated wines in the country. All of them are special and exceptional wines in the $50 range.
I visited Trapiche almost completely by chance, sending out a last-minute Twitter DM as I was flying into Mendoza, thinking it was madness to try, but too compelling not to ask. Daniel Pi and his colleague Sergio Case not only were welcoming and generous with their time, but invited me to come back on Sunday night to an unbelievable dinner by two chefs who were born in Mendoza but now have a renowned restaurant in Spain, Fierro. It was one of the happiest and most memorable dinners of my life. And befits the spirit of hospitality that I have always found in this country.
Wherever and however you are celebrating, I hope it is in the spirit of that dinner, and I wish you a happy Malbec World Day!
Happy Holidays! You may be asking yourself, what are some good, relatively affordable wines I can give as gifts? Here are a few suggestions that won’t break the bank, as well as one that will.
For this season, we’re trying to keep the focus on wines you can actually find and buy. All of these are well-distributed in the United States, so you should be able to find them all via Wine-Searcher.
Black Tears – This is a big boy. Grown at 4400 feet at the San Pablo estate in the Uco Valley, and aged for 24 months in oak barrels, Black Tears from the Tapiz winery has a reputation as a dense, intense red wine that deserves food to match; that’s why it’s a steakhouse favorite. The good news is that in recent years, it’s being made with considerably more finesse, and integrating the oak really well into a more interesting, complex flavor profile. It is almost always available at Costco locations, at around $40.
Catena Appellation Series – Originally sold in restaurants, these bottles from Argentina’s best known winery, led by Nicolas and Laura Catena, let your recipient explore the soil and weather conditions of a specific region of Mendoza. And, they’re relatively affordable, – around $20. Visit Catena’s info page here.
Cocodrilo – this relatively new red blend from Paul Hobbs’ Vina Cobos is about $25. I find it more interesting than the $20 Felino series. It’s in stock at Beer Girl in Atlanta.
Cuvelier los Andes Grand Vin – It’s nearly impossible to let a list go by without mentioning my favorite go-to winery, and this venture by a celebrated French winemaking family in Argentina’s Uco Valley continues to be a price/quality favorite. A red blend, made in the Bordeaux tradition, with impressive quality for only around $32. You’ll find it at Tower Wine and Spirits in Atlanta.
El Enemigo Malbec – Priced in the mid $20s, this well-crafted Malbec grown at nearly 5,000 feet is a great introduction to the talents of Catena chief winemaker Alejandro Vigil, at this personal project co-owned by Vigil and his wife Adrianna Catena. Good information from distributor Winebow here.
Gran Enemigo Cabernet Franc Single Vineyard Gualtallary – Or if you really, really like someone (or want them to be impressed with you) get them a bottle of his unbelievable Cab Franc, of which the 2013 vintage earned an astonishing 100 points from RobertParker.com, and the 2016 was awarded 99 points. To the question, “is that wine worth $100?” I’d reply, “Is your friend?” Find a retailer here.
Trapiche Terroir Series – Trapiche, one of Argentina’s largest wineries, thinks small with these beautifully made premier wines from individual small farms in Mendoza. These are around $50, and well worth it. I’m partial to the Finca Ambrosia. Visit Trapiche’s information page here.
It has taken far too long for me to share the story of my amazing visit to the Trapiche winery last year. There is so much to tell that I am going to break it up into segments!
One of the deals made with Trapiche when Daniel Pi set out to create his Tres14 line: they agreed to let Pi set out with his own family label – on condition that other up-and-coming winemakers at Trapiche were also allowed to do it.
Sergio Case is one of those winemakers, and he joined Daniel Pi and I for a tasting of his new line, Pajarito Amichu.
I was fully prepared to smile and nod and say, when can we get to the fancy Trapiche labels thank you very much, but Sergio Case’s wines are a story in their own right. Fresh, approachable, and delicious. And an outstanding value for the dollar.
My own wine tastes have diversified since I began exploring Argentine wine. I was drawn in by the highly-oaked, concentrated red wines favored by international consultants, but I have come to enjoy fresher wines with more minerality that don’t have to be stored in a cellar for ten years to unlock their best potential.
Sergio is animated as he describes his vision for the wines.
It speaks well of Trapiche that they allow this level of freedom and innovation among its winemakers. It keeps their thinking fresh and open to new possibilities. I can’t wait to see where this freedom takes them next.
“Since you were here last, nothing has changed.”
That might just be the best news of my trip.
You see, after four years, I didn’t really need to make another visit to Cuvelier los Andes. I just wanted to.
So when another booking didn’t work out, I was secretly thrilled.
Because to me, in a way I can’t fully explain, entering the gates of the Clos de los Siete vineyards feels like coming home.
By now the story has been well told: renowned wine consultant Michel Rolland was looking for the perfect piece of property in the Uco Valley. He brought together five renowned French families with the goal of developing a world-class source of grapes. Each winery could make the wines it pleases, and each would contribute grapes to a wine called, Clos de los Siete.
Today, Cuvelier los Andes, Monteviejo, Bodega Rolland, and Bodega Diamandes continue to participate in the Clos de los Siete project, while neighbor Flechas de los Andes (another favorite of mine) has chosen to go independent.
But for me it is Cuvelier that is consistently the price/value champion. At every price point, they deliver deep, complex yet appealing wines that will be welcome to Americans who enjoy Napa Valley reds.
After all, when you have a good thing going, why change?
So while other winemakers experiment with concrete eggs and other trends of the moment, the Cuveliers are just fine cultivating their wines on their property using the techniques they perfected in France, thank you very much.
That is not to say they are standing still.
Adrián Manchon tells me there is much to learn each year. After years of working with their vineyard, they have identified specific plots that work best for each label. He says, “We have these micro-terroirs on our property. There are 55 hectares of property, and each hectare has its own distinct terroir that we have identified through laboratory testing.”
My sommelier friends tell me that the quality of the wines coming out of Cuvelier los Andes is getting better every year.
The winemakers are increasingly excited about their Malbec Rosé, a crisp, drinkable summer wine made in the French fashion. It is among my favorite Rosés from any grape in this price range. They are also at work on a new wine, Cuvee Natur, a natural malbec / merlot / syrah / cabernet sauvignon blend that is 100% free of sulfites, that should be in the market around 2020.
Something else to look forward to: Cuvelier los Andes bottled Petit Verdot for the first time 2017, in a very limited edition, with only 500 bottles made. Adrián tells me it will be very good quality due to their approach to micro-vinification – it should be in the market in 2020.
He says that the 2019 harvest is extremely promising. The quantity of the crop was not large, but the quality is very good.
After a few minutes of chatting at the entrance, the chief winemaker is ready to show off his product.
“We have the good wine. I’ve prepared it for tasting,” says Adrián.
Oh okay. if you insist.
We tasted the entire range, from entry level-reds to the Rosé to the superb Grand Vin and Grand Malbec. My hosts were more than generous with their collection, but as much as I love the wines, what I enjoyed the most was the conversation and getting to know the team better.
The big surprise in the entry-level wines for our group was the Merlot. We agreed it had more elegance and complexity than the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Malbec. I’m not a big Merlot drinker, but after tasting Cuvelier’s offering, I’m reconsidering.
We progressed to the Colección blend, in the $20 range, which I’ve said on these pages may be South America’s best value in the price range. Happily, it’s readily available Stateside at a variety of retail outlets, including Atlanta’s Ansley Park Kroger.
We had a taste of the Rosé 2018, and it was every bit as good as promised.
Then it was on to the Grand Vin and Grand Malbec, the winery’s premium offerings. They age beautifully, and my own cellar is as full of them as my budget allows.
The winery shop also features a really interesting wine that we did not taste, called Grand Colección. When hail destroyed the vast majority of the crop in November 2010, they opted not to make the Grand Vin or Grand Malbec, and to put the best remaining grapes into a blend available only at the winery. (For my money the regular 2010 Colección sold at retail is still a great bottle if you can find it Stateside.)
Adrián Manchon says that the United States is one of their biggest markets, because the quality/price ratio is embraced by American wine buyers.
In a world of change, there is something to be said for sticking with the plan. Cuvelier los Andes continues to impress, and I can’t wait to see where their wines go from here.
One of the biggest challenges facing Argentine winemakers in the domestic market is the rise of craft beer, which is being embraced by the younger generation.
Historically, Argentina had one of the largest per capita wine consumptions in the world, but that is rapidly changing. Craft brewers are opening around the country by the dozens.
In my conversations with winemakers like Daniel Pi of Trapiche and Adrián Manchon of Cuvelier Los Andes, I hear a concern that the industry may have made enjoying wine too complicated.
They wonder if newcomers to wine feel like they’re “getting it wrong” if they don’t taste the notes of plum and leather and the scent of black fruit that the reviews described.
It’s all gotten just a bit precious.
So I found both of them encouraging an approach to wine that is a little bit more playful and less serious.
As Adrián Manchon put it, “there are the wines you Think, and there are the wines you just Drink.”
And there is a place for each.
We’ll drink to that.
Chances are, you won’t find a bottle of 1977 Malbec on your supermarket shelf. But we were fortunate enough to come across one at Palacio Duhau – the Park Hyatt in Buenos Aires. It was an off-list bottle that the (wonderful) sommelier, Valentina Litman, mentioned that she had in the cellar. You would think that a Malbec from this early era would be an oak bomb – but it was surprisingly supple and complex. This 1977 Cavas de Weinert had notes of plum and leather and a softness almost like a Pinot Noir. A great treat for our first bottle of this Argentinian trip.
Here are the wines we’re drinking right now that are an exceptional value for their price range, vintage after vintage.
Cuvelier Los Andes Colección – The renowned Cuvelier Family is best known in France for their Château Léoville Poyferré, one of the most consistent providers of high-quality Bordeaux in France. Their vintage wines sell for $200 and beyond and have been known to age beautifully for decades. The Cuvelier brought their talents to Argentina’s Uco Valley in conjunction with Michel Rolland’s Clos de los Siete project, determined to prove they could create wines of similar quality. Their Grand Vin ($35) and Grand Malbec ($60) are terrific, but the champion for value is their Coleccion, arguably the best $20 bottle of Argentine red you cay buy.
Tres14 – Trapiche’s chief winemaker Daniel Pi has his own “garage winery” for his personal projects, and the brand is an amusing riff on his last name, as in 3.14. Clever, yes?This bottle is usually in the $50 range, and it’s available at Total Wine.
Tres14 “Imperfecto” – Another Daniel Pi garagista wine, the name Imperfecto is coined from the “contamination” of the Malbec with 3% Cabernet Franc. This absolutely delicious $60 bottle is available in the US at Total Wine.
Catena Appellation Series – Vista Flores and Lunlunta – We hear that these $20 bottles were originally intended to be exclusive to restaurants, but somewhere along the way the plan changed and they’re now available in select retail stores. Bodega Catena Zapata does a beautiful job in every price range – perhaps no one has invested more in science and research to understand the Argentine terroir. We’re particular fans of the Lunlunta version, if you can find it in your store.
Cheval des Andes – You won’t find a more worthy splurge than this $90 wine, a joint venture between Argentine wine giant Terrazas de los Andes and France’s Château Cheval Blanc. This is as serious as winemaking gets in South America, and spends 15 to 18 months in oak barrels. Cheval des Andes has been getting added finesse in the last few years. If you prefer a big wine for steak, look for the 2010 and 2011 bottles and if you want something more balanced and elegant, look into the later vintages. We’ve seen 2011 bottles at Green’s in Atlanta for as little as $55.