Patag­o­nia: the pioneers

Pa­tri­cio Tapia meets the men be­hind Noemía and Chacra, and dis­cov­ers how their suc­cess has in­spired other pro­duc­ers in the re­gion and en­sured the preser­va­tion of its an­cient vines

Decanter - - PATAGONIA - Pa­tri­cio Tapia is the DWWA Re­gional Chair for Ar­gentina

FROM THE AIR, the Río Ne­gro Val­ley looks like a nar­row, mis­shapen strip of in­tense green, a fierce con­trast to the thou­sands of square kilo­me­tres of desert that sur­round it. An oa­sis in the mid­dle of the arid Ar­gen­tinian Patag­o­nia, 1,200km south of Buenos Aires.

Once you reach Gen­eral Roca, the most im­por­tant city in the area, the con­trast be­tween desert and fer­tile val­ley be­comes even more ev­i­dent. The green strip hides large pear and ap­ple farms, ex­ten­sive vine­yards and long rows of tall poplars, planted there to par­tially stop the con­stant wind which blows through­out the year, es­pe­cially in spring.

On both sides, flank­ing the val­ley, rises the barda, a wall of sand and stones that marks the be­gin­ning of the desert. Río Ne­gro, that nar­row, green strip, is noth­ing more than the an­cient bed of what once was a mighty river on its way to the Pa­cific Ocean. The water that still flows un­der­ground is what al­lows the area to be his­tor­i­cally one of the most im­por­tant or­chards in Ar­gentina.

it was here, in 1998, that the 26-year old wine­maker hans Vind­ing-Diers ar­rived.

Raised in Bordeaux (his fam­ily owned Château Ra­houl and Château Landi­ras in Graves), Vind­ing-Diers had been hired by an English com­pany that had a joint ven­ture with Hum­berto Canale, one of the re­gion’s most tra­di­tional winer­ies. ‘When I was told I had to go to Ar­gentina, I as­sumed it would be Mendoza. In 1998 no­body had any idea that peo­ple pro­duced wine in Patag­o­nia.’

But, as in Mendoza, viti­cul­ture in Río Ne­gro is an in­trin­sic part of the agri­cul­tural tra­di­tion. And that is re­flected in the great legacy of old vine­yards scat­tered among the or­chards. That was one of the things that struck the young Vind­ing-Diers the most: ‘The place seemed in­cred­i­ble – es­pe­cially be­cause of the num­ber of old, mass-se­lected, pre-phyl­lox­era vine­yards. It was a trea­sure!’

In ad­di­tion to the old vines, the gravel soils of the Río Ne­gro river bed re­minded him of Bordeaux. And then there was the weather, with a per­ma­nent wind that en­sures the vine­yard re­mains healthy. ‘That still seems a lux­ury to me,’ he says.

With such ‘trea­sures’ and ‘lux­u­ries’ to hand, it didn’t take long for Vind­ing-Diers to start plan­ning a per­sonal project. Two years later, he found a plot planted in 1932 in the Main­qué area, in the heart of the val­ley. It was just 1.5ha of a larger vine­yard that had been to­tally aban­doned. ‘But you know what? I tried those grapes and they stirred some­thing deep in me. It’s hard to ex­plain, but ev­ery­thing came to­gether in my mind and I knew there was some­thing spe­cial there.’

The birth of Noemía

The ini­tial pro­duc­tion of th­ese Mal­bec grapes jus­ti­fied Vind­ing-Diers’ inkling. Just 1,300 bot­tles were made from them, but the wine ex­cited the young oe­nol­o­gist so much that he in­vited his friend, Count­ess Noemi Marone Cin­zano (for­mer owner of Tus­cany’s Tenuta di Ar­giano in Mon­tal­cino) to have a look. Like Vind­ing-Diers, she was also se­duced by the land­scape and the wine, so de­cided to in­vest in the project. Bodega Noemía was born in 2001.

This first vin­tage of Noemía, and those that fol­lowed it, at­tracted the at­ten­tion of crit­ics not only be­cause the wines were very good, but also be­cause they came from a vir­tu­ally un­known wine re­gion. The other two Mal­becs that com­plete the por­fo­lio – J Al­berto, from a vine­yard planted in 1955s, and A Lisa, the en­try-level red made with bought-in fruit and younger vines owned by the win­ery – gave even more so­lid­ity to this project. ‘When I’m asked what the dif­fer­ences are be­tween the Mal­bec of Río Ne­gro and that of, for ex­am­ple, the Uco Val­ley in Mendoza, I al­ways say

that Uco fruit seems more aus­tere, more black, with a men­thol note in the mid­dle. In Río Ne­gro, it’s more fruity, flo­ral and del­i­cate in char­ac­ter, less tan­nic.’

There has been a long tra­di­tion of wine pro­duc­tion in Río Ne­gro, and yet the wines never man­aged to cross the Patag­o­nian bor­der, let alone that of Ar­gentina due to the suc­cess of Mendoza. ‘Those were the times of vol­ume not qual­ity. A lot of wine was con­sumed, but no one re­ally cared about im­prov­ing them,’ says Os­car Fer­rari, an en­gi­neer who helped Vind­ing-Diers find the vine­yards for Noemía, and to­day is the win­ery man­ager.

That would be­gin to change with the first vin­tages of Bodega Noemía. Marcelo Mi­ras, who un­til 2002 was Hum­berto Canale’s wine­maker, said it was hard to quan­tify the in­flu­ence Vind­ing-Diers had among other wine­mak­ers in the re­gion. ‘What Hans did was to recog­nise the value of Río Ne­gro’s old vine­yards and then ap­ply his own stan­dards and ex­pe­ri­ence as a wine­maker. He had al­ways a clear ob­jec­tive: to make great wines here. Not many oth­ers were think­ing like that.’

The Chacra ex­per­i­ment

Vind­ing-Diers’ in­flu­ence didn’t stop with Mal­bec at Noemía, but ex­tended to Pinot Noir too, this time en­thus­ing a young Ital­ian from Tus­cany. In 2001, Piero In­cisa della Roc­chetta, grand­son of Mario In­cisa, cre­ator of Sas­si­caia, was at a din­ner in New York with Count­ess Marone Cin­zano and Vind­ing-Diers. There he blind tasted a Pinot Noir and, be­ing a lover of Bur­gundy, was im­me­di­ately fas­ci­nated. ‘The wine seemed to show the va­ri­etal char­ac­ters of the grape, but had some­thing more that at that time I in­ter­preted as sense of place,’ he re­calls. ‘The wine wasn’t par­tic­u­larly good, but it did have a lot of char­ac­ter.’

His en­thu­si­asm was such that, some months later, he landed in Patag­o­nia. But the land­scape was not what he ex­pected. ‘It wasn’t a dis­ap­point­ment as such, rather that I could not con­nect the desert and flat land­scape with what I had tasted in that wine. In Bur­gundy or Barolo, you can un­der­stand the in­flu­ence of cli­mate, to­pog­ra­phy and soil in the wine you drink. But here I could not make that link.’

But since he was there, he thought he may as well look around. And then he found a prop­erty in Main­qué with a vine­yard planted in 1932. ‘It was there that I be­gan to marvel at the vines: knarled, twisted plants, like you’d see in a Tim Bur­ton movie. I talked to the

owner and he agreed to sell me some grapes to ex­per­i­ment with,’ he says.

With Vind­ing-Diers as a con­sul­tant, he took up a space in the Noemía win­ery and in 2003 and 2004 the pair made their first wines un­der the Bodega Chacra la­bel. ‘The re­sult was some­what rus­tic, but we felt that there were the foun­da­tions that just needed to be deep­ened.’ With the help of part­ners, In­cisa della Ro­chetta man­aged to buy the prop­erty and slowly be­gan to oxy­genate the soil, work the land, and re­store bal­ance in the vines. ‘As a re­sult, this semi-aban­doned vine­yard to­day is an ex­plo­sion of flora and fauna – ar­madil­los, hawks, foxes, herbs of all species. What we aim for with our wines is to cap­ture the en­ergy that we have achieved in the vine­yard,’

An­cient vine her­itage

Sud­denly, in the eyes of In­cisa della Ro­chetta, the land­scape of Río Ne­gro be­gan to change; he was start­ing to sense that con­nec­tion he was seek­ing in the wine. His Pinot soon drew crit­i­cal at­ten­tion and peo­ple be­gan to talk about the va­ri­ety’s po­ten­tial in Patag­o­nia. Ev­ery­thing started to fall into place in the 2010 vin­tage. ‘It was a very tricky har­vest,’ he said. ‘Due to the hail, we had to pick two weeks ear­lier than usual. The wine had 11% po­ten­tial al­co­hol, but there was noth­ing green about it. Ev­ery­thing was fruit and fresh­ness.’

The 2010 vin­tage taught In­cisa della Ro­chetta that the time of ripeness in grapes com­ing from al­most 100-year-old, un­grafted, pre-phyl­lox­era vines was dif­fer­ent. ‘I re­alised that it is pos­si­ble to have com­plex­ity and sense of place with grapes picked ear­lier. To­day we make a re­fresh­ing yet lay­ered wine in a desert, thanks to one of the world’s most in­tense lu­mi­nosi­ties. It was then for me that ev­ery­thing made sense,’ he says.

Bodega Chacra makes three Pinot Noirs. The first is Treinta y Dos and comes from this orig­i­nal vine­yard. The soils are rich in clay which, ac­cord­ing to In­cisa della Ro­chetta, gives a large, volup­tuous wine. Cin­cuenta y Cinco comes from a vine­yard planted in 1955 on soils rich in sand, peb­bles and chalk that give the wine a more fo­cused and ver­ti­cal struc­ture. Barda, mean­while, comes mainly from a vine­yard of 22 years and is the least com­plex, but the most re­fresh­ing of the trio.

Ex­cept for Hum­berto Canale, most Río Ne­gro pro­duc­ers used their Pinot Noir grapes (in­clud­ing those from the cen­tury-old vines – some­thing al­most non-ex­is­tent else­where on the planet) for sparkling wines. Chacra proved not only that it was pos­si­ble to make still reds with them, but also some of the best Pinot Noirs in the New World.

The Patag­o­nian wine scene to­day is still young, but it has changed. The suc­cess of Noemía and Chacra has prompted other pro­duc­ers to res­cue and pre­serve the in­valu­able her­itage of old vines in their re­gion. They still have a long way to go to reach the heights at­tained by th­ese two pioneers, but the po­ten­tial ex­ists. As with so many things, it’s just a ques­tion of time.

Right: ar­madil­los are just one of the many species of fauna and flora that now co­habit Bodega Chacra’s re­ju­ve­nated vine­yards

Above: the ul­tra­mod­ern Bodega Chacra win­ery in Main­qué

Right: Piero In­cisa della Roc­chetta was amazed by the ‘knarled, twisted plants, like you’d see in a Tim Bur­ton movie’ when he first saw the vines on what would be­come Bodega Chacra

Right: Hans Vind­ingDiers and Count­ess Noemi Marone Cin­zano with their Bodega Noemía Mal­bec

Right: mist set­tles over Bodega Noemía’s vine­yards at dawn. The Mal­bec vines are in Main­qué, in the heart of the Río Ne­gro Val­ley

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