Malbec anyone? Winemaker thoughts after visiting Mendoza, Argentina in the Spring of 2016.
This was my first trip to Argentina, let alone the other side of the Equator. As a graduate Geographer by training, I was excited to go, even if it included 15 hours of flight time. As a Washington State winemaker for now moving into 25 vintages, and one that has been making Malbec for some years now, I was interested in how they did things.
While winemaking in Argentina goes all the way back to the late 1500’s, its more recent history is not unlike that in Washington State. Things really started to kick into gear in the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s. Quality was improved to international standards with outside consulting and an emphasis was placed on varieties that really grow well.
The variety that began to outshine the rest was Malbec. Now, however, there are many other varieties being successfully grown and the wines taste terrific, especially with the national food, beef on the BBQ!
Terrior, that term that attempts to capture the viticultural “genius” of a place from soil, to microclimate, to underlying geology, to sun orientation, is on full display in Mendoza. The vineyards are among the highest in elevation in the world at 3,000 to 5,000 feet. The “soils” are more cobbles than dirt, and their location on the east side of the Andes makes for very dry growing conditions.
All of these factors affect the taste of the wines we sampled. The high elevation makes for grapes that get more ultraviolet rays than at lower elevations and even with aggressive “canopy” management, grape skins toughen for protection. The results are wines with a fair dose of tannins that require care to tame. This usually takes the form of oak aging, though I was surprised that many of the wines we tasted were only in barrel about a year. Top wines were barrel aged, mostly in French oak, for 22-24 months, similar to what we do here at Camaraderie Cellars.
Those cobbles? Mendoza wines are strong to the “mineral” side of things. Fruit notes were of cherry and berry, but aromas were subdued in the 100% varietal wines we tasted. An exception was a wine I was unfamiliar with until my visit called Bonarda. Originally from Italy’s Piedmont, it had been a workhorse “blender,” but is really showing well now on its own. I’m reminded of our own Cabernet Franc and Merlot that have a similar world-wide reputation, but are wonderful here in Washington State.
How is a Malbec from Camaraderie different from one from Mendoza? First, our fruit comes from the Crawford Vineyard near Prosser. It is a cool site and the fruit is harvested almost at the end of the season. Fruit character is more present at every level and is not so tannic. This may be from our extra time in barrel compared to the majority of wines we tasted in Mendoza. Also, our grapes don’t get the UV impact of being 3,000 feet higher in elevation. Also our latitude is 15 degrees further from the equator than Mendoza. I think that our growing year and variable seasonal “insolation” has an effect. Our harvest time is much longer and that “hang time” is really good for full flavor development of the grapes and the wines.
- “Don’t cry for me Argentina…” Mendoza is a major player and their wines are among the best values around. Like WA state, some of the best wines never leave the state/country.
- “If it grows together, it goes together,” the food and wine pairing saying goes. WA state is the largest producer of cherries in the US and a major producer of peaches, apricots and apples. Our wines have more expressed fruit in the total palate than Mendoza’s do. Not a criticism, just a fact. Mendoza grows rocks and nut trees; WA state grows fruit.
- Both of our areas have significant “diurnal” temperature shifts that help maintain acidity that makes for good food wines and longevity.
- We both employ drip irrigation to manage vine vigor and that fosters intense flavors.
I don’t think I will ever taste the wines I make in the same way after my trip to Argentina. I make wines from Washington State grapes, and even if I wanted to make a clone of a Mendoza Malbec, I’d never be able to. And, why would I want to do that anyway? I have huge respect for the wines of Argentina and now have many in my personal cellar and think you should too.
Terroir means everything in winemaking and that is expressed perfectly with the unique wines of Argentina.
Don Corson, Winemaker