LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 45
Page. 44 - 50
By: Soledad Gil
FROM MENDOZA PUTUGATO
Mendoza seethes during the grape harvest. From January to March the dry sound of the scissors cutting bunch by bunch is the sound which dominates the vineyards. It is closely followed by the "clink" of the coin which the supervisors throw in the metal boxes of the harvesters when they spill there loot of 20 kilos of grapes into the collection truck. Most of them are Bolivians who, like swallows, have followed the harvest of grapes, wheat and sugar for many seasons.....
Each clink is worth 50c and a good harvester delivers 40 crates a day. Adults carry out the work but children help and the supervisor goes by with a long stick pointing out the forgotten bunches which have been overlooked.
We flew from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, which is the point of departure for any worthwhile wine route.
The first stop was at Norton. This bodega, founded by Edmund J. P. Norton in 1895, is going through a new stage since it was bought by the Swarovski family at the beginning of the 90's. New steel fermentation tanks, drip-feed irrigation, and new lands - which now total 575 hectares, including those at Perdriel, Agrelo, Alto Agrelo, Lunlunta and Medrano - are some of the new developments together with the new varieties of wine, Privada (for export) and Reserva.
New labels for old and good brands are part of the healthy philosophy for this company, which produces approximately 6 million litres per annutn. The wise combination of savoir faire, tradition and technology led to the creation of the Perdriel del Centenario, a wine that deserves a century of praise. I don't know if it is the wood, the plums, the almonds, or the tobacco, or maybe the vanilla, or which of all these things that are only mentioned by those who understand, but I swear it has a different taste. I wouldn't dare to try to define it, but it clearly has an extraordinary colour and a delicious palate. Because of its original blend and its price - which could well be higher - it is worthy of those toasts for special occasions.
In the Chandon bodega our jaws dropped. The trucks on the road formed long lines and the stacks of orange crates could be seen from afar. The visit is very well organised and includes a video presentation, a tour of the new storage tank facilities ending at an excellent shop where they sell not only the wine but useful bottle stops, champagne coolers, corkscrews, bottle carriers and t-shirts The production statistics of Chandon are almost frightening, they produce 24 million litres of wine of which 60% is used in the production of champagne. They are the world leaders of the "bubbly" market: their brands Chandon and Baron B represent 55% of the champagne consumed in Argentina. The bodega was created originally for the production of champagne only 4 years after the visit to Argentina of Robert Jean de Vogüé, President of Moet & Chandon, in 1955 and discovered that Agrelo was a privileged spot, with its stony soil, sunny days and cool nights. Thus, the branch in Mendoza was the first that France set up abroad, followed later by California, Australia, Spain and Brazil.
The first bottle of Chandon appeared on the market in 1960, and more than 10 years elapsed before another beloved son of the bodega was launched, the red Comte de Valmont. Last year a white version was launched, a welcome addition to the varietales. I shall explain; malbec, merlot, cabernet, semillón etc. are not brands, but types of grape. Any wine using between 85 % and 100% of each type of grape is called a varietal.
Those who know say that the malbec grape is doing very well in Argentina, as the syrah grape is in Australia. It is almost like the discovery of gunpowder, the grapes were always there, only that before they were there without anyone knowing. Wines used to be brands with fantasy names and it was the names and not the wines that decided one's choice. The trend of varietales changed that and clarified the whole scene for the consumer.
Luckily, nobody will ever be able to take away the "because I like it" choice, but at least one now knows more about the different wines than before. Of course there are merlots and merlots, as there are many types of olive oil, but a fantasy name is not the same as knowing if you are dealing with grapes, sunflowers, corn or olives, if you will excuse the comparison.
At Chandon, as one would expect, the most interesting part to observe is where and how the champagne is made. To a base of white wine sugar and yeast are added, which transforms the sugar into alcohol whilst freeing carbon dioxide in the process. Then a licquor, made from the same wine, and more sugar is added -'this determines the sparkling quality. Adding 24 grams per litre will produce a demi-sec, 12 grams per litre will make an extra brut and no sugar added at all will result in a brut nature. Raise your glass to the one like the best, cheers!
When we were wondering how it was that wine was made without pneumatic presses or hectolitre tanks we arrived at FabreMontmayou, in Vistalba, which belongs to the new generation of wineries using oldfashioned technology. Arriving from Bordeaux in 1992, and driven by the spirit of Frenchman Hervé Joyaux Fabre, who searched high and low in Chile for the perfect place but eventually found it on this side of the cordillera. In the vineyards planted in 1908, in the foothills of the Andes at Vistalba, south of Chacras de Coria. The place is spectacular and the plots are bordered with roses as they are in France; a picturesque tradition that also has a practical purpose. The roses reveal the symptoms of phylloxera before the vines are affected. Phylloxera is a virulent disease that can devastate the vines completely.
Fabre has 80 hectares, does not buy grapes from others and neither has he yet planted new vines. The bodega produces approximately half a million bottles a year. It is a considerable amount when one considers that the whole process requires a great deal of manual labour, for harvesting, labelling and clarifying the wine. There are several ways to do the latter; chemically or using filters, or by the more ancient methods which require ox blood and egg white! In Fabre they use six egg whites per cask, so for every 200 casks this adds up to 1200 egg whites (leaving of course an equivalent number of egg yolks to be distributed among the neighbours)! Imagine the hundreds of custard puddings produced in Vistalba during the Fabre's clarifying process...
Before our return we stopped by La Anita in Alto Agrelo. They only accept authorised visitors, so as to maintain the general exclusivity of the bodega. La Anita and Luna wines can only be obtained in wineries and restaurants. We were greeted by Manuel Mas, in his impeccable white trousers, rushing about to the usual rhythm of the harvest time in a bodega. He explained while we were in the grape cooling chamber that they produce 80 thousand bottles a year, using the best 30% of the grapes and selling the rest to other bodegas. Antonio Mas, Manuel's brother, is an agronomist and is in charge of production. Their favourite whites include a semillón and an original tocai friulano, which will soon be sharing the limelight with their chardonnay, currently in its first year of production.
Amongst the La Anita reds there is a malbec and a syrah, both being exported to Switzerland, Germany, Austria, England and Canada. We returned to Route 15 and headed towards Tupungato. The town takes its name from the ever present mountain, the highest after the Aconcagua. The Tupungato is a major challenge for professional mountain climbers and is not recommended for amateurs. 4x4 travellers have a wonderful alternative: pony treks organised by Don Romulo Nieto, which can range from one hour to several days, and can take you to the foot of the mountain (see LUGARES 44). Nothing better than the Tupungato for contemplative travel. Not for the bodegas, which are not open to the public, but for its generous geography, pleasant people and beautiful landscape. This is so to such an extent that Disney is setting up a bed and breakfast there. In the meantime, the place to stop there is the Chateau d'Ancon, with its excellent pony treks and Lucy Bombal's warm hospitality. As you will appreciate, there are several reasons to raise a glass. If yours happens to be empty, fill it up and celebrate. If there wasn't wine in your glass, we hope we have been able to persuade you to change the contents.