Written for the Drinks Business, February 2015
Argentina has long been known for its lush, ripe Malbec, and there’s no doubt that those wines are still in full swing. However there is a tide of change in the style of not just Malbec, and the new generation of winemakers are at the helm of this emerging direction. Moving away from the continental climate of the flat lands, winemakers and agronomists are seeking higher altitude micro climates in the Andes and new varieties are surfacing (including a new wave of whites). Here are some of the winemakers that are blazing a new trail in Argentina:
Perhaps the most radical of Argentina’s winemakers, Matias Michelini was fondly known as ‘the green Michelini’ for many years and his colourful winemaking still makes him the compelling anti-hero of the Argentine wine scene. Pioneering a lean style of wine with often electric acidity, Michelini has been at the forefront of Uco Valley winemaking and in particular Gualtallary’s development over the last decade.
Although still consulting to larger projects including Sophenia and Zorzal, it is in his own experimental passion project – Passionate Wines – where he is making waves. A firm believer in biodynamic viticulture, Passionate Wines very much start in the vineyard and almost invariably end in concrete. The ever-growing collection includes an exuberantly aromatic, bone-dry orange wine (Torrontes Brutal), a 40-day co-ferment of Malbec and Cabernet Franc from 8 harvests (Demente), and a Pinot Noir fermented in a large, refurbished oak vat that in a previous life was a dog house. “I take lots of risks when I make wine, and I lose all the time, but it is all part of the game – it is an exquisite exercise. I want to make wines without rules, and without limits.”
Perhaps the only winemaker in the country that has a problem with Argentina’s regulatory board for having too little alcohol in his wines (whereas his neighbours struggle to keep below 15%), Michelini’s belief is that the best balance and expression of the Uco Valley’s mountain wines is through earlier harvests and zero correction in the winery. With minimal intervention and non-mechanised, artisan techniques (his young children are often deployed to crush grapes), Michelini strips away all the smoke from the winemaking process and shows us that the true magic is in the vineyard. Rule-breaking, opinion-splitting and making some of the most original wines to come out of Argentina, Michelini is one to keep your eye on.
A leading winemaker of the new generation, Sebastian Zuccardi is the tireless Head Winemaker for his winery Bodega Zuccardi and sister winery Santa Julia. Despite managing a team of 7 winemakers and producing over 16 million litres between brands, Zuccardi Jnr has his eye firmly on the details. As one of the forerunners of the micro terroir studies in the Uco Valley and pushing through the GI regions, the new family winery in Altamira has been specially designed to vinify small vineyard lots with 17 amphorae and 62 concrete vats custom designed for the purpose.
One of the most important features in the winery for Zuccardi is the experimentation and research lab where his young team of winemakers and international interns test out new concepts. “It is the kindergarten of the winery,” says Zuccardi, who started the lab over 7 years ago. “It is here where we came up with all of the ideas for the new winery.” Zuccardi’s experiments have led to a sparkling red Bonarda (a variety he champions for Argentina), and unusual varieties such as Ancellota and Caladoc. While he dabbles in different varieties, Zuccardi’s vision for the future is not about variety, but place. “The challenge of my generation is to work in geographic identification. To talk about the Uco Valley is too big, the future of Argentina is in the villages… Malbec is not the important thing, the most important thing is the place, and Malbec is the vehicle to express our region. Burgundy took 800 years, but maybe we will take less.”
Zuccardi is indeed well on his way, and his top wines show an elegant and stylish interpretation of Mendoza’s future. With Zuccardi’s visionary winery opening in less than 6 months, and a new Finca range about to be launched, there is plenty more to see from Sebastian Zuccardi yet. At only 34 years old, he is at the top of his game and not slowing down.
David Bonomi (Norton, Per Se)
“My story is all made of these small circles,” Bonomi says humbly about his return to one of Argentina’s biggest producers, Bodega Norton, after an 8 year gap in Dona Paula winery. But the circles Bonomi has been making are not small. During his time at Dona Paula he planted, experimented with and brought to market one of the highest quality (and still one of the few) Rieslings in Argentina. He also did significant research in Sauvignon Blanc with excellent results that has made Dona Paula one of the most prized producers of the variety, and made the first Argentine sparkling Sauvignon Blanc.
Whites – although a personal favourite – are not his only forte. Bonomi has pushed a new style of red wines, working on a more lineal, lean and drinkable style with a site-specific focus. “I am looking at places where the wine expresses itself, with an aromatic potential that pleases people but it remains the place that marks it.” His affinity with place and the vineyard comes from experience with his father and Uncle who worked in vineyard, and his own great friendship with renowned viniculturist Edgardo del Popolo. With Del Popolo as a partner, he launched a garage wine label Per Se last year specialising in Cabernet Franc and Malbec, two varieties which he believes are part of the growing identity of Gualtallary. Bonomi has been making his own garage wines for over a decade, and this is where you see his playful side and fascination for the extremities of the Uco Valley.
Whether it is through his own idiosyncratic Per Se project, or as he begins to take the reigns of Argentina’s market leader Norton, Bonomi is steadily changing the course of Argentine wine.
If you followed our Top 10 Chilean Winemakers series, than Erazu might be a familiar face. The Chilean winemaker certainly merits being on the Argentine list too for the excellent work he is doing with the ambitious Altos Las Hormigas project in Mendoza. With 6 international owners including world-renowned Italian winemakers Attilio Pagli and Alberto Antonini, and Chilean terroir specialist Pedro Parra, the project is not shy of expertise; however Erazu has been an important addition to the team since 2012 helping Altos’ transition into a more modern style as well as a dedicated research program.
In 2014 Erazu made 85 experimental microvinifications, which is no mean feat for a winery that only makes 100,000 cases annually. Many of his experiments have already come to light in the commercial wines of Altos Las Hormigas: a no-dosage sparkling Bonarda Rosé 2013 in Colonia Las Liebres, and the release of the long-anticipated Appellation series now topping the Altos Las Hormigas Malbec collection.
Later this year Erazu will release three of his own wines under a new Revolver brand which are a result of this research: a grippy and mineral Chardonnay and a fresh, gunflint Pinot Noir both from Gualtallary, and a low alcohol Torrontes from Tupungato. “Basically this is an experimental playground on limestone,” he comments. “After what we did with Malbec, now we want to see what limestone does to other varieties that typically do well on limestone, like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.” Erazu’s productions may be very limited in size, but his thirst for experimentation and changing the concept of premium Argentine wine has no limit.
Born in the Uco Valley, Reginato is a multi-talented winemaker who has been producing solid wines under the premium Catena Zapata brands (Luca, Tikal) since the early 2000s, as well as producing a large proportion of Argentina’s top sparkling wines with his family’s champagnerie. In 2013 he launched his own small-production private label, Chaman, where his style veers towards fresh and spicy with excellent Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and blends. While his work as a winemaker continues to produce some of the top wines in Argentina, it is his work on the ground that makes him one to watch.
As Head Viticulturist of Catena, Reginato has spearheaded the Catena team, working in conjunction with Zuccardi and Chandon among others, in the creation of the Pareja Altamira GI (Geographical Indication) and has been working with another team to push through the new Gualtallary GI. The result of the last decade of his work in soil studies are notable wines like the White Bones Chardonnay and White Stones Chardonnay, which set a new benchmark for super premium white wines in Argentina, and, of course, Malbec. The new variety Reginato is working on – and which surprisingly few other producers are currently focused on – is Cabernet Sauvignon. “Together with Laura Catena and Alejandro Vigil, we have been investigating, through experimental studies, what is the best management for this variety at high altitude,” he says. “It is a job that takes many years, but we believe that we are going to find very particular wines that are very related with the terroir.” We might have to wait patiently to taste the results, but no doubt it will be good.
Gualtallary is one of the most promising new regions to emerge from the Uco Valley, and while Juan Pablo was not the first to make wine here (he was introduced to Gualtallary by older brother and winemaker Matias Michelini), as Head Winemaker of Zorzal he is certainly one of the most dedicated producers whose style is defining the region. Wines with tension, high acidity, minimal oak and a sense of place is the enological focus of Zorzal. “The first objective is making wines with personality, and the soil is where the personality of the wine is,” says the 33-year-old. “We use concrete eggs because there’s more potential for the character and personality of the wine. The wine moves inside the egg by itself, all the time it has lots of contact with the lees. The lees give it more character of the soil and I want to show the purest texture of Gualtallary.”
It is perhaps the four Pinot Noirs he makes that are most surprising, offering none of the lush, over-ripe fruit or toasty oak one might have associated with Argentine Pinot from years gone by, but instead crisp wines with gunflint and mineral qualities, and in one case using 100% carbonic maceration. While there are single varieties in the Zorzal portfolio, Michelini is more interested in blends or not listing the variety. “People won’t talk about the variety in the future, they will talk about Gualtallary.” And when they talk about Gualtallary, they will talk about Michelini.
In 2013, 33-year-old winemaker Santiago Mayorga moved from boutique Mendel producing 180,000 bottles a year to Nieto Senetiner producing 18 million bottles a year. “For me this was like moving to a big city, to Manhattan!” says Mayorga about the change. “Although there’s always bureaucracy in a big company, I decided I needed to relax and start marking the details.” Since then Moyorga has already introduced a shift in style and some attractive details: reducing the oak impact (from 24 months to 18 months in the Cadus lines), harvesting a bit earlier and focusing on a new appellation series.
While red remains the strong point of the winery, Mayorga is introducing a new emphasis on the whites, bringing in a top level Chardonnay in their Cadus range and introducing a bright Sauvignon Blanc in their entry-level Emilia line. His speciality though is Semillon, a grape he worked with for many years in Mendel and one of the oldest varieties in Argentina. Semillon has moved into obscurity in Argentina with a bare handful of producers working with the variety, however Mayorga saw the potential of one of Nieto Senetiner’s 50-year-old Semillon vineyards and has just launched the very first white DOC wine in Argentina, which sells at just £6.
Mayorga is steering one of the most traditional Argentine producers in a new direction, and navigating such a large boat will create a ripple effect in the near future.
Mulet has been making some of Argentina’s top sparkling wines for over a decade, and there is still more to look forward to. At only 35, she is the right hand of South America’s most experienced sparkling wine producer Pedro Rosell at Bodega Cruzat. Having studied under Rosell at University, Mulet went on to Luigi Bosca where she specialised in their sparkling wine and fine wines, while also consulting for other sparkling wine producers. Five years ago, Rosell selected his former pupil Mulet to help run the production of Cruzat by his side and she hasn’t looked back.
While Rosell, aged 78, is still very much part of Cruzat, Mulet has a promising future as one of Argentina’s future leaders in the category. Producing some of the country’s best Champenoise and Charmat method bubbly, Cruzat is already the yardstick for Argentine sparkling wine.
There is another game-changing sparkling wine up their sleeve though, to be released in the next couple of months: “We are preparing the launch of a special edition millesime, these are two sparkling wines that have only been produced in very small productions and when the harvest acquires an exceptional quality,” says Mulet. “They were both bottled over 4 years ago, from the 2006 harvest – one is 100% Pinot Noir, and the other Pinot Noir-Chardonnay.” These will undoubtedly add more sparkle to Mulet’s already bright future.
Having been mentored from a young age by his father, internationally acclaimed Norton winemaker Jorge Riccitelli, 34-year-old Riccitelli Jnr is now making excellent wines in his own right. For many years Riccitelli was Head Winemaker at Fabre Montmayou, but since last year he has been fully committed to his family project, Matias Riccitelli Wines, with award-winning results.
Part of the new generation of winemakers, Matias is one of the most promising on the scene making well balanced and modern wines from a selection of vineyards in Lujan de Cuyo and the Uco Valley. While his Malbecs continue to accrue awards, the latest focus of the winery is on bringing out a wider portfolio including premium oak-aged Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, an unoaked Pinot Noir, and a Pinot Noir-Malbec Rosé in the entry level ‘The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From The Tree’ line.
Although a small project, Cara Sur is already beginning to have some big repercussions. Avid mountain climber and garage winemaker Bugallo lives in the isolated mountain community of Barreal, tucked behind the Precordillera next to the Andes mountains (3 hours from San Juan). It’s here where the agronomist has been working with old vineyards that had long been forgotten about and undervalued as only suitable for cheap, table wine. Breaking with convention, Bugallo has been making some eye-catching wines together with his renowned winemaker friend and partner in Cara Sur, Sebastian Zuccardi.
A high-altitude Bonarda and Argentina’s first fine wine made of Criolla (Mission) are the two offerings to date, but this harvest you can expect a white Criolla too. As well as giving a fresh face to Criolla, the duo are revealing the winemaking potential for Calingasta Valley – a secluded, high altitude region with excellent luminosity and an acute thermal amplitude. “Cara Sur is a small project, but the bigger project is getting Calingasta known as a wine region,” says 33-year-old Bugallo who manages many of the vineyards in the valley and makes wine for some of his neighbours. “We can make very sincere mountain wine here.” Plans are in the pipeline for some more extreme plantations on the mountainsides, but currently Cara Sur’s refreshing, low alcohol wines are already showing a new dimension from San Juan.
While this list is mainly composed of the new generation of winemakers, or those taking Argentina in a more radical direction, there are of course many excellent winemakers not on the list that have been leading the segment and making award-winning wines for numerous years. Distinguished winemakers who have been producing some of the highest regarded wines in Argentina over the last decade or more include (in alphabetical order): Susana Balbo (Dominio del Plata), Walter Bressia (Bodega Bressia), Roberto de la Mota (Mendel), Mariano di Paola (Rutini), Jose Galante (Salentein), Marcelo Pelleriti (Monteviejo, Marcelo Pelleriti Wines), Daniel Pi (Trapiche, Mar & Pampa), Jorge Riccitelli (Norton), Alejandro Sejanovich (TeHo, ZaHa) and Alejandro Vigil (Catena Zapata, El Enemigo).
Other winemakers in the new generation that are beginning to impact the Argentine wine scene include (in alphabetical order): Paula González (Casarena), Andrea Mufatto (Bodega Gen, Zorzal), Alejandro Nesman (Piattelli), Mariano Quiroga (El Porvenir), Laura Principiani (Zuccardi), Soledad Vargas (Finca La Anita), and Mauricio Vegetti (Gauchezco).