01 March 2007

Foster's Malbecs and Carmelo's Cab

Some more reviews posted across at Argentine Wine Guide: a pretty reasonable Chardonnay from Salentein's shining light Callia; a good value cheapie Malbec from Salentein's other workhorse Finca El Portillo; an unusual fume Sauvignon Blanc from Chakana which is nice idea but doesn't really come off; and a Valle de Uco Torrontes from Lurton that unfortunately just reinforces that you need to look further afield, i.e. to Salta, for a decent representation of this variety.
But the big movers are the Malbec range from New York based Spanish investor Enrique Foster. Foster was a California Zinfandel fan until he discovered how big and round Mendoza Malbec could get. Now he's a convert, having opened his own Bodega here with 100-year-old vines and talented and experienced (ex-Finca La Celia) Mendocino winemaker Mauricio Lorca. Foster's only interested in doing Malbec, and Mauricio is producing a signature style from the entry level Ique right through to the Limited Edition that scales very well to price. If big, sweet, juicy, spicy and complex is your thing then you need look no further.
If, on the other hand, you want to taste Cabernet Sauvignon in all its tannic and herbaceous complexity, you owe it to yourself to hunt down Carmelo Patti's Cabernet varietal. It's a classy wine from a quite remarkable local winemaker who deserves to be much more widely recognised and celebrated. Carmelo's 2002 does more than enough to earn a Top Drop rating.

The other side ...

I was at the Vines of Mendoza last night when someone asked Bodega Enrique Foster's winemaker Mauricio Lorca what he thought the difference was between Argentine and Chilean wine. Naturally he struggled to find a simple answer to such a broad and nearly impossible question. Eventually his circuitous effort focussed in on climatic factors - and in my opinion, that leads to the only single-word answer that could be given to the original question: consistency.
Chile is on the 'wet', oceanic side of the Andes. The vineyards are generally at considerably lower altitude. While there isn't a lot of ambient moisture during summer, there is cloud cover for at least part of most days, reducing sunlight hours. Rainfall is considerably higher during the year, so despite the long dry summers there is a lot of ground water. This means that many vines don't need any irrigation whatsoever - sucking all the water they need (and more) from the subterranean water tables.
That means Chilean vines, and thus wines, are much more susceptible to climate effects from year to year. Vine management in Argentina is much more straightforward - you give them as much water as you want to. You can water stress them to force the roots deeper, to extract more minerals. You can starve them to keep the fruit small and concentrated. In Chile, vines with deep roots may find the water to bloat their grapes regardless of what you do. This has implications for the target yield and how much fruit to drop during the green harvest. The best growers in Chile know this, of course, and are now planting on hillsides where they are much better able to control the water uptake, albeit for the cost of more physically difficult management.
So, there are unquestionable some excellent wines coming out of Chile but from year to year and harvest to harvest, winemakers in Argentina working closely with their agronomists are better able to ensure consistency in their product. Hailstorms notwithstanding, of course.
Last week I managed to get across to a couple of Chilean vineyards down in the Colchagua valley, a couple of hours south of Santiago. It's roughly the same latitude as San Rafael, in Mendoza terms. This is where Montes has their home base, and they're doing some great work (the Feb-March edition of the Grapevine magazine has an excellent feature on Montes penned by local expert Charles Pestridge, although you need to pick up the print version to read it just for the moment). One of the first to plant to a hillside, their "Folly" Syrah really highlighted the quality gains that could be made through the additional investment of labour in clearing and planting on a slope. It's floral, spicy, crisp, with all the varietal hallmarks of pepper, smoke and chocolate. But the rest of their range is impressive too, and well priced. The Alpha Chardonnay is fresh and subtle with good citric notes to balance the tropical characters. The Alpha Syrah is a beautiful deep ruby red with a rich and intense smokey nose with biscuity oak.
Before you accuse me of getting too far off topic, Montes also make wine in Argentina under the Kaiken label. And the Kaiken Ultra Malbec, in particular, is a real cracker - packed with plums, cherries, and dried currants, smoke, caramel and floral notes as well as that spicy biscuit edge that the Alpha range displays.
Oh - one last bit of trivia. If the ink-blotted caricatures on the Montes labels look oddly familiar, that's because they're drawn by Ralph Steadman, well known for his cover illustrations of Hunter S Thompson's books including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Enough reason in itself to collect the set.

05 February 2007

New reviews

Plenty more reviews posted over at Argentina Wine Guide.  Latest include Serrera's 2005 Syrah - a bit thin, in my opinion; a Carcassone Malbec which is a decent quaffer for 10 pesos; another great value Syrah-based bivarietal from Callia (although, in an interesting marketing move they're now calling it 'Shiraz').  Finally, a good solid if somewhat atypical Cabernet Sauvignon from huge bodega Trapiche.  Happy drinking!

21 December 2006

Wet dog in a damp wool jersey

Huh?  Well, that's about the best way I can describe the smell of 'corked' wine.  On the palate, it's perhaps slightly more moldy cardboard, but either way, it's not what you want to discover in a bottle of Very Expensive Wine.
The reason I raise the issue, is that there is a certain Very Expensive Wine here from which I have had some very disturbing encounters with the aroma of wet dog recently.  I won't name the wine because when it's good, it's breathtakingly good.
But of 5 bottles I have opened, numbers 1 and 5 were excellent.  Numbers 2 and 3 where noticeably flat in the fruit and showing some signs of TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) taint, and number 4 was a total disaster area.  That record is seriously unacceptable.
There's a lot of nonsense talked about corks, not to mention an enormous amount of irrational emotion and plain superstition.  So at the risk of upsetting those who believe tree-bark has mythical powers, I feel the need following my recent experience with nearly US$150-worth of ruined wine to address a few issues head-on.
Fact number one, the sole purpose of a cork is to keep your wine sealed from the outside world so that the polyphenols can go about their business of polymerising into longer chemical chains in peace and quiet.  The only thing a cork is likely to do to change your wine is to ruin it, either through failing to form a decent seal and letting the wine oxidise (cork failure), or through introducing TCA from the surface of the cork into the wine (cork taint).
The results of cork failure can range from totally flat fruit through to disappearance of good acids and creation of vinegary smells when bacteria come into contact with trace acetic acid in the wine.  You can usually tell a failed cork because there will be a thin wine stain in a line down the side all the way to the top when you remove the capsule or pull the cork out for inspection.  A cork that has done what it was meant to, on the other hand, will only have the stain on the surface that was facing the wine.
TCA is more insidious.  The cork may have sealed well (although it may also feel unusually dry and hard), but an imperfection was introduced to the wine the second the cork was inserted into the bottle.  TCA forms on and in cork through the action of naturally occurring fungal spores and polychlorophenols, which are chemical contaminants.  They get onto or into the cork either while the tree is growing, or (more commonly) through cork processing, unwise winery cleaning practices or even from treated wood used in construction of winery buildings or wooden pallets or crates.  TCA-affected wines range from flat and lifeless, with all the fruit character erased, through to musty and moldy as described above.  They can be very, very hard to spot unless you have a 'good' sample to compare alongside, and since many people don't have that luxury, often results in the consumer simply concluding that they are drinking bad (not spoilt) wine.
Fact number two, the idea that micro-oxygenation through a cork is a critical part of bottle-aging is a myth.  The only significant oxygenation that is likely to occur through a cork is through a failed cork, and ruins wine.  Those who believe in bottle micro-oxygenation are likely clinging to a popular myth revived as a theory to explain bottle aging in a way that would head off uptake of the screw-cap, which had just been invented in France, in the 1950s. The theory was thoroughly debunked by science in 1976 (and had in fact been debunked as early as 1898, after the idea was first suggested, which goes to show some myths are hard to kill).
While I accept that worshippers of cork mysticism are seldom impressed by science and logic, that science supports the notion that aging of wine primarily involves chemical redox reactions of acids and polyphenols (tannins and other flavonoids extracted from skin and seeds) from short-chain polyphenols into longer-chain polyphenolic compounds.  This process accounts for the reduction in harshness (which is a characteristic of shorter-chain tannins, particularly wood tannins) and also the development of more complex aromatic polyphenols which give 'bouquet' and complexity of flavours.  Oxygen obviously plays a chemically important role in these reactions - but to the extent that oxygen is present during this process, it is oxygen that has been picked up the wine before or during bottling at levels of 0.2 to 1 gram per litre (1 gram per litre, for example, has been associated with development of undesirably high levels of 'toasty' aromas).  This level varies greatly from bottle to bottle even on the same bottling run.  Cork 'leakage' has been shown to allow around 0.018 grams per litre - an insignificant variation on oxygen already in the wine at the time the cork is inserted - though corks also absorb air during the pressure of insertion and release it into the wine afterwards, boosting the overall oxygen content of the liquid.
It may be a useful side-note here to think about the role of oak in making wine to keep: oak tannins imparted to wine are hydrolysable, which means (among other things) they oxidise first - effectively soaking up the oxygen content of the wine over time and thus protecting the more complex 'condensed' long-chain fruit tannins.  The better your seal, the slower oxygen needs to be mopped up, and the longer your wine will keep before the fruit flavonoids are all dead and gone.
That is not to say that corks may not add something to the character of fine wine that has been bottle-aged for a long time, other than a little more oxygen primarily at cork insertion.  That effect is understood to occur through the solvent effects of alcohol and acids on the cork itself, which leach trace molecular compounds into the wine, leading to subtle differences in the chemical evolution of the acidic and polyphenolic compounds in the wine over time.  The extent of the difference is impossible to predict and varies from bottle to bottle of the same vintage, making it, like the oxygen boost of cork insertion, a unique wild card that no winemaker can design for and the quality or 'benefit' of which no consumer can anticipate.
So what does all this mean?  Simple: cork taint and/or failure rates like that described in the opening, or even at the the rate generally shown in studies of about 5%, are unacceptable.  Such failure is not in the industry's interests, because it drives consumers away from their product - especially those who do not recognise the failure and take the obvious remedial action, which is to demand a replacement bottle.  The myths about the wondrous benefits of cork are nothing but myths, and any affect on a wine's character over a very long time is minuscule, random, of debatable value, and certainly does not make up for the very real and quantifiable costs to consumer and industry alike of bad corks.
Sure, I enjoy the romance of pulling a cork out of a bottle as much as the next guy.  But I also enjoy tasting superb wine the way it's meant to taste.  So as far as I'm concerned, the sooner the Argentine industry and the consumers who currently seem to prefer to suffer bad wine embrace screw-cap technology, the better.

14 December 2006

A trans-Pacific digression ...

Yes, I know this is an Argentine wine blog, but quite frankly the Pinot Noirs grown in the shadow of the Andes are (as a rule) shocking.  Sad, but true.
To really get a decent Pinot (outside of Burgundy, of course) you need to head to the United States - or to New Zealand.  NZ Pinot Noirs are world class - from the classic barnyard and mushroom aromas of Martinborough and Central Otago Pinot, to the light, lively strawberry characters of Marlborough Pinot.  In fact, Pinot Noir is just about in danger of eclipsing Sauvignon Blanc as the premier grape of the New Zealand wine industry.
So, since I know a lot of you are travellers, and bearing in mind the unmissable quality of NZ Pinot Noir, I felt obligated to draw to your attention Pinot Noir 2007.  It's a big wine industry event in Wellington from 29 January to 1 February which includes a public tasting where, basically, you can taste more top-class Pinot Noir than you ever thought possible.  Sadly I can't make it as I will be in Mendoza, but if any of you are lucky enough to be in the harbour capital that week, let me know what your favourite was!

28 November 2006

Mixed company

Believe it or not, I am slowly clearing my backlog of wine reviews.  I've just posted nine more reviews: four from El Galgo, which are made out at Carinae but is not a Carinae wine.  Long story - it's a family thing.  Speaking of family things, another tasty Sauvignon Blanc from Pulenta Estate and a ripping red blend from brother Carlos Pulenta's Vistalba vineyard.  A pair from Escorihuela, one a solid Syrah and the other a pleasant, if obscure, fruity Tocai Friulano.  Finally, an archetypal Mendoza Malbec from Luigi Bosca, in the very affordable Finca La Linda range.
Recommendations?  Skip a couple of the El Galgos, buy the other seven, take one per day, and I'll see you this time next week.

14 November 2006

Argentina Wine Guide turns fifty!

Over at Argentina Wine Guide I've just posted six new reviews: two very different Sauvignon Blancs from Doña Paula and Pulenta Estate, a Syrah from Serrera, two Malbecs from Prodigo and another from new-comers Melipal.
The Pulenta Sauvignon is worth a look, the Doña Paula is best avoided (although, I hope I was unlucky enough to have sampled a dud bottle), the Serrera tastes like a shadow of its (probable) former self, and the Prodigos are close but no cigar. Phew.
After that intro you know there's a but, and here it is: but, the Melipal is an absolute stunner and earns top marks - pricey at AR$150, but you will savour every centavo.
And so it's a day of milestones at Argentina Wine Guide! Our first Sauvignon Blanc reviews posted, Melipal's cracking Malbec earns our first five-star rating, and somewhere in that bunch we racked up our 50th review! I think I'd better crack open a bottle of something good to celebrate.

10 November 2006

Alta Vista reviews

Just a quick note to point you all over to Argentina Wine Guide for reviews of 3 Alta Vista wines: a Malbec and a Torrontes from their Premium range, and a Malbec Grande Reserva. The Malbec Premium is really very good value at AR$22.
I've also posted a review of the Nieto Senetiner Bonarda 2003. It matches the 2004 in quality, and perhaps gives a pleasing indication of how that excellent value big-style wine will develop. If so, you should snap up a case now!
Plenty to come in the next few days as we creep closer to notching a milestone of 50 reviews!

08 November 2006

Heavy research

Golly, how time flies. It's been three weeks since my last update - but you'll be pleased to hear I haven't been idle.
On the one hand, I was busy with the "other" job, being the one that pays, but you don't want to hear about that. More importantly, I took advantage of the excuse some visiting friends provided to have a few what-the-hell, you-only-live-once kind of days. So, a remise (car and driver) was hired to take us down to Septima, then along to Catena Zapata - both really very impressive operations, with stunning settings, interesting architecture, and (of course) some equally classy wines.
My pick - the D.V Catena Cabernet-Cabernet (no, that's not a typo ...) 2001. A dense, candied fruit cab sav with interesting herbal notes, intense but not overly aggressive mouth feel, and impressive length. AR$105 a bottle, mind you, so it better be good.
Also managed to dine at La Bourgogne, highly-rated restaurant at Carlos Pulenta's Vistalba vineyard. Very good it was too, lovely setting, fantastic service, good food and a couple of brilliant blends: Carlos's own Vistalba Corte B, which is a Malbec/Cab Sav with a touch of Merlot and Bonarda for good measure - and a cracker it is too - and, since we didn't want to play favourites, a bottle of his brothers' Hugo and Eduardo's excellent Pulenta Estate VII Gran Corte. A stunning blend of Malbec, Merlot, Cab Sav, with some Petit Verdot and Tannat to add a little something different. Well integrated French oak adding some wonderful clove notes, and it was certainly worth writing home (or blogging) about.
Anyways - mostly I just added to my backlog of reviews for posting at Argentina Wine Guide - they'll get there, though, don't worry about that!

18 October 2006

Down in the valley

I was lucky enough to get down to the Valle de Uco last weekend.  It was a long weekend, although as is normally the case here nobody was quite clear on what the holiday was meant to celebrate.  So we decided to celebrate Uco wines!

Valle de Uco is about an hour and a half south of Mendoza city.  It's a broad, flat river valley with a gentle uphill slope towards the Andes (well, actually a baby mountain range flanking the 'real' Andes, but they were tall and jagged enough to be covered in a mighty impressive blanket of snow).  Anyway this valley, with its higher altitudes (1100m +), alluvial soils, and various microclimates, makes outstanding grape growing territory and as a consequence it's where most of the big new plantings are happening.  A lot of the development is happening at the southern end of the valley, near a little town called La Consulta.  That's where O.Fournier and others are currently working their magic.  We didn't get down that far, heading instead east of Tunuyan, close to the mountain pass where General Jose San Martin mustered and led his army across the Andes to fight the Spanish army in Chile.  Enjoying the sun, watching the trout in the bubbling brooks, and gazing upwards at the jagged, icy mountain peaks you have to admire his determination.  I probably would have stayed right where I was.  Of course, at the time the General didn't have bodegas like Salentein, J&F Lurton, Michel Rolland's Clos de los Seite and the little boutique gem of La Azul just down the road.  Just as well or Chile may never have slipped the imperial yoke.  The less historic achievement of my weekend was a little sunburn, a little more asado beef, and a lot of wine tasting.  Reviews to be posted over at Argentina Wine Guide soon!