Malbec who? And the New Mendoza

By Sarah Fineman


Sarah Fineman

We all know and love it, that Argentinian grape giving us deep, plummy, chocolate-y reds. It’s a crowd-pleaser, it’s a best-seller, but in the Mendoza of 2018, it’s no longer the varietal on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Wineries there have been speaking the names Torrontés, Bonarda, plus Cabernet, Chardonnay, and more for years, pushing into new territory with their creations. But only now are international markets wising up to the fact that the most exhilarating Argentinian grapes have been hiding right under their noses.

This past April, chefs from around the United States competed for the opportunity to visit Argentina and explore the country’s diverse and stunning wine regions from within the mountains and deserts themselves. Jason Bond, Greg Biggers, Fernanda White, and Carlo Lamagna, winners of the “Breaking New Ground” wine-pairing competition, flew south, courtesy of Wines of Argentina. Unsurprisingly, they spent most of their time in Mendoza, the wine mecca of Argentina and arguably the entire continent, bopping around from winery to winery. In the end they tasted more than 300 of Argentina’s classic and up-and-coming varietals, with traditional food and staggering scenery to match.

Mendoza’s natural climate and geography—desert air to support healthy grapes and low levels of rainfall to extend the growing season—almost seem too perfect for wine-growing, as if the region was willed to existence by some higher vino-loving power. Valle de Uco and its surrounding areas are full of wineries, forming a loose but united community of growers and vintners deeply proud of their place and product. Mendoza’s crisp air and arid, healthy soil sustain the grapes; the supportive atmosphere of Mendoza’s wine community helps producers sustain each other. 

A shining example of an Argentinean wine world superstar with a proud commitment to supporting other growers is Susana Balbo of Susana Balbo Wines, three-time president of Wines from Argentina and the country’s first female oenologist. Her son Jose, who followed in Susana’s footsteps, receiving his enology degree from UC Davis before taking on roles as both winemaker and export manager, hosted the four American chefs for a dinner at her winery’s accompanying restaurant, OsadÍa de Crear. Boldly confident in the strength of Argentina’s variety, Balbo served only white wines, extending invitations to wineries in the region to come share their best offerings with the visitors as well. Balbo featured Signature Rosé, a beautiful pale salmon blend with a flavor reminiscent of a young June strawberry, restrained yet full of crisply acidic notes of fruit, as well as a Barrel-Fermented Torrontés, made from Mendoza’s iconic white grape. Nieto Senetiner and Cadus Wines also shared the pairing table, serving respectively a Blend Collection White and a Vista Flores Chardonnay.

A visit to Finca Decero winery, just a few kilometers down the road, brought the four chefs into exciting contact with more beautiful and unexpected pairings, as well as another key part of Argentina’s wine community -- the high-up decision-makers. Sitting down for a lunch in the company of snow-capped mountains and Juan E. Marcó, Finca Decero’s CEO, the four chefs continued their pairing journeys with a number of outstanding pours from Finca Decero and other Argentinian wineries such as Luigi Bosca and Ruca Malen. The in-house featured pour was a Petit Verdot limited edition, with prominent, balanced acidity from a cooler harvest, along with the darkly fruity flavors typical to the grape. Other varietals at play included Pinot Gris and Syrah, which Luigi Bosca blended into A Rosé is A Rosé is A Rosé, an expressive floral wine whose taste aligned with its light, charming name.

Visiting Familia Zuccardi requires traveling to the other side of the rocky, wooded Mendoza River, but the ground-breaking—literally—advances of this esteemed winery are well worth it. Zuccardi prides themselves on their “aluvional” wines, a Spanish word referring to sand, silt, or clay deposited by flowing water. Rocks tumble down from the mountains surrounding Valle de Uco, made round and soft from their trip, eventually depositing aluvional matter into soil destined for wine production. Visitors to the Zuccardi vineyards may be instructed to lick a rock; later, they will be reminded of that taste in the mineral stoniness of the wine they sip beneath the signature dome of their Piedra Infinita winery, built from the same stones found in the surrounding vineyard. Argentina’s natural diversity is entangled in every drop of a Mendozan wine. Zuccardi pays special attention to the environment surrounding their grapes, using electromagnetic induction (EMI) technology to create soil maps. The winery can then customize planting conditions according to the specific mineral properties of each section of land, creating a precisely beautiful product in true harmony with the earth from which it grew.

A sense of calm, precise excellence pervades all of Mendoza’s wine production these days. It may seem surprising, given the region’s creative, technical, and fast-paced drive forward into unexplored wine-making territory. Yet, the air breathes collaboration and the climate nurtures innovation and respect for tradition. Argentinian wineries like Susana Balbo, Finca Decero, and Familia Zuccardi know their country’s producers have established themselves as global forerunners of rich, deep, reds—that beloved classic we shall not name—and so they’ve gained the confidence to push beyond. Under-recognized local Argentinian grapes and new techniques of farming and fermenting showcase Mendoza’s potential and allow each sipper to imagine themselves there, amid the lush vineyards and aluvional soil of the Valle de Uco.

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