Monday, January 24, 2011

A few more from Mendoza: Bodegas Chandon, Catena Zapata, and O. Fournier.

There is no need for appointments if you want to visit the following wineries. We had a free day with no plans, so we wandered down Acceso Sur from Mendoza to Uco Valley stopping at the must-see wineries of Mendoza. And here they are...

Bodegas Chandon.

Mendoza’s Chandon traces its heritage to the Champagne giant Moёt and Chandon. In the 1800s the company began producing its famous house wine. By the 1950s demand had skyrocketed for sparkling wines; there was simply not enough available grapes in the Champagne region to offer the volumes required for the market. The French oenologist Renaud Poirier was sent to South America by then-president Count Robert Jean de Vogue to seek out land suitable for sparkling wine production.

After two years of observations and experiments, Pourier found Agrelo (in Lújan de Cuyo). He felt it had excellent potential for sparkling wines: its well-drained clay soils and large day-to-night temperature differentials would be perfect for high acidity base wines. In 1959 the winery was built here. This was the first area of international expansion for Moёt and Chandon. Napa Valley’s Domaine Chandon followed in 1973, then Australia’s in the 1980s (this decade also saw the creation of the colossal LVMH).

Each Chandon winery produces a similar line of wines, but with its own signature. Argentina’s Chandon Extra Brut, for example, will differ in constitution and aroma/flavor profiles from California’s Extra Brut. This is dependent upon the terroir of the region and the varietals best grown there. Here in Malbec country you can be sure to find hints of the regional bestselling grape in the sparkling wines.

Chandon grows some of its own grapes, but 70% of its production comes from other growers with whom Chandon has long-term contracts. All grapes are hand-picked in 20-kilogram crates. All wine is given a dosage for which only Chardonnay is used.

Bodegas Chandon is an easy 5-minute drive off the highway. The tasting room is open to the public, making it a nice midday stop. Here are the wines we tried with our hostesses Lucia and Carolina:


This is a base wine available for tasting to show visitors how a sparkling wine evolves. A blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and 5% Semillon (to contribute a roundness to the wine), this extremely high acid wine is reminiscent of apple cider and has very little finish. Some tannins are present due to the touch of Pinot Noir. When it becomes a sparkling wine, however, you will see a deliciously different animal…

Extra Brut

This wine is produced via the Charmat Method from the base wine mentioned above. The goal is a fresh, young product that is easy to drink and refreshing. 4-6 months after the base wine is fermented, a dosage with residual sugar of 10 grams per liter is added. The wine is then aged 8 months in the bottle. It is very floral, with soft rounded notes of peach and citrus.

Brut Fresco

This wine is only available in the Chandon winery. It is produced via the Methode Champenoise with 60% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, and 20% Semillon. The dosage used has a slightly higher residual sugar content (14 grams per liter). It has a deeper gold color than the Extra Brut due to a higher percentage of Pinot Noir in the blend. 12 months of lees contact and 2 years in the bottle make this wine quite the production. White and red cherries, rich floral aromas, and a long creamy finish… an astounding wine.

Chandon Rosé

50% Chardonnay, 50% Malbec (of this, 45% is blanc de noirs and 5% is red wine). There is an earthiness present in the rosé, likely from the Malbec. Red fruit shines through. This would make a great accompaniment to salads and appetizers.

For more information, visit Bodegas Chandon’s website.

Catena Zapata.

No visit to Mendoza would be complete without at least a brief stop at the remarkable Catena Zapata tasting room. The story of the Catena family is already written beautifully here, so I find no need to repeat too much.

The Catena family has been extremely influential in turning Argentina into a producer of fine wines recognized worldwide. The family estate had been producing bulk wines since 1902. But in the 1980’s, after Nicolás Catena, son of the Italian immigrant Nicola, taught at UC Berkeley as a visiting professor, he developed the desire to pursue wines that could hold their own against the Bordeauxs and Napa Valley Cabernets of the world. He sought out land on which to grow grapes for high-quality wines, and found it 5000 feet above sea level in Gualtallary in the province of Mendoza. An excellent quote from him says it all: “I felt that the only way we would make a leap in quality would be by pushing the limits of vine cultivation, by taking risks.”

The land he chose proved to be perfect for wine grapes. Poor in nutrients, stony and well-drained, with desert conditions, this land offered just the right qualities for ripe grapes with high skin-to-juice ratios. The rich, concentrated wines produced aged nicely and offered true competition throughout the world of wine. Malbec in particular ripened beautifully here. Clone and soil experiments continued in the area until, in 1994, Nicolás felt reasonably assured that the best plots had been identified. In fact, a Catena Zapata Cabernet/Merlot blend from 1997 was compared to Latour, Solaia, and Opus One.

Catena Zapata was instrumental in laying the foundation for the Argentine fine wine industry. Through the continued work of this family, from Nicola to Nicolás to his daughter Laura Catena, the world’s attention has been brought to this once bulk wine producing country. And some excellent wines now come from this winery, though not all are to my liking… here are the wines we tasted at the tasting room:

2004 Angélica Zapata Malbec Alta

This is a 100% Malbec with grapes from 4 vineyards: the Angélica Vineyard in Lunlunta, the La Pirámide Vineyard in Agrelo, the Adrianna Vineyard in Gualtallary, and the La Consulta Vineyard in La Consulta. Altitudes range from 2850 feet to 4850 feet. 18 months in half new, half used French oak finish it off nicely. Black fruit and flowery notes are spiced up with black pepper and cinnamon. A long silky finish.

2004 Angélica Zapata Cabernet Sauvignon Alta

This is a 100% Cabernet with grapes from 3 vineyards: the La Pirámide Vineyard in Agrelo, the Domingo Vineyard in Villa Bastías, and the La Consulta Vineyard in La Consulta. Aged 16 months in 85% French oak (30% new) and 15% American oak (for a bit more oak spice). Ripe red cherries and strawberries pack quite a punch, and a round, long finish leaves hints of leathery spice. This was one of my favorites.

2004 Angélica Zapata Chardonnay Alta

All the grapes for this single vineyard Chardonnay are sourced from the Adrianna Vineyard in Gualtallary at 4830 feet altitude. Lots of (not so subtle) oak comes from a 1-year rest in new French oak barrels. Peaches and citrus aromas with buttery vanilla are present, but the oak kind of dominates… for those who love the big oaky Chards, this would be a winner. Not my cup of tea though.

2005 D.V. Catena Malbec Malbec

Malbec for this wine is sourced from the Angélica Vineyard and the La Pirámide Vineyard. The former provides ripe black fruit, and the latter gives a characteristic peppery spice. I preferred this to the previous Malbec.

2003 D.V. Catena Cabernet Cabernet

Cabernet from the La Pirámide and Domingo Vineyards. 2 years in 80% new French oak. Eucalyptus, rich eart, leather, and cassis mingle deliciously with red cherries and plums, and a bit of chocolate notes finish it off… and this was, by far, my favorite of the visit. Very complex and mouthfilling.

2005 D.V. Catena Cabernet Malbec

Cabernet from La Pirámide and Malbec from Angélica. Full of berries and vanilla, with spicy oak at the end. A nice blend, but overpowered by the Cabernet Cabernet.

For more information visit Catena Zapata’s website. For my review of Laura Catena’s recent book, Vino Argentino, click here.

O. Fournier.
Head down Acceso Sur from Mendoza toward San Carlos about an hour and a half, make your way along various stone and dirt roads, and you with luck may arrive at Bodegas y Viñedos O. Fournier. This winery was founded by the Spanish family Ortega Gil-Fournier in 2000 with the mission of making internationally recognized boutique-style fine wines. Now the estate comprises 286 hectares of Tempranillo, Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, and Syrah.

The ostrich character used as O. Fournier's symbol represents a joining of earth and sky. It is a stylized representation of a Mocovi Indian cave painting from the area. The bird is endangered in the Uco area.
O. Fournier uses grapes from 12 producers under long-term contract. The estate’s own grapes are not deemed quite ready to use (they would prefer 10-15 year old vines), so while the vines are maturing, grapes have been carefully externally sourced. Yields are kept low, and basically organic practices are encouraged though O. Fournier is not currently organically certified. It can get quite cold in Uco Valley, but the large stones in the vineyards provide not only good drainage, but warmth at night too. 

Staying true to tradition, the Tempranillo vines are grown in the “vaso” style (small bushes) typical of Spanish vineyards. Thus far Tempranillo has shown great promise in here Uco Valley. All grapes are hand harvested and treated gently throughout vinification. The winery is designed for gravity processing, and all fermentation is done with whole berries. Underground cellars store the French (80%) and American (20%) barriques used to age the wines.

The family also has a beautiful restaurant on the estate run by Executive Chef Nadia Haron de Ortega.

Here are the wines we tried before our (overpriced) prix fixe lunch in the restaurant:

2009 Urban Uco Torrontes

For more about the Argentine Torrontes grape, click here. This wine was a quite popular seller at the retail shops where I worked in New York and San Francisco. An excellent value! Pear syrup, white peaches, and a ginger ale spice remind me a bit of a simple Gewürztraminer. Great acidity, and a medium finish with some minerality.

2009 β Crux Sauvignon Blanc

This wine had a hint of petillance when we tried it, but I do not remember having detected this in other bottles of it. Round grapefruit, tropical fruits, and a little hay. Very low pyrazine levels.

A note: The β and α Crux wines derive their names from the stars of the Southern Cross, only visible here in the Austral Hemisphere. β Crux wines spend 1 year in 50% new, 50% used oak, while the α Crux wines are aged for 18 months in 100% new oak. Each will spend time in the bottle afterward before its release.

2009 Urban Uco Tempranillo

Blackberry syrup and notes of fruit leather. Very jammy, but with good tannins. I think this will be better in another year or two, but it is a great value once again.

2007 β Crux Vino Tinto

60% Tempranillo, 15% Cabernet, 15% Syrah, and 10% Malbec. A VERY intense nose of blueberries, strawberries, and leather. Some floral notes as well. This wine is great but very big and rich. Pair it with anything with cheese or bacon!

2003 α Crux Vino Tinto

50% Temoranillo, 40% Malbec, and 10% Merlot. There is absolutely no age showing on this 2003. Dark cherry, strawberry, herbs, and a distinct dustiness make this a very complex wine. The complexity is matched on the palate. The tannins here are still dominant enough to age quite a while. This was my favorite by far.

2007 α Crux Malbec

Sweet rich fruit and floral notes burst out of the glass. Some cinnamon spice and leather plays in the background. This wine is worth every penny of its $44 price tag.

For more information, visit O. Fournier’s website.

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