Monthly Archives: April 2014

Is Salta Argentina’s Next Hot Spot for Wine?

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Last week, I spent several days touring the high country of Argentina’s northwest in the Province of Salta, a varied landscape that kisses the arid edges of Bolivia and Chile. While driving three hours south from the city of Salta towards wine country in Cafayate, the landscape transforms every 30 minutes, and we moved from green and stormy hills evocative of the Scottish highlands to a landscape akin to Arizona cactus country and finally past red Mars rockscapes. The dreamy scenery is nice, but the highlight for the vinous-inclined is the wines.

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You’d hope that wine grown in a land of extremes would provide similar drama from within the bottle. The mainstays of the region’s wine production are high-altitude, mineral-driven Malbec, and surprisingly approachable, soft-edged Tannat (a wine often with hard tannins), both showing promise as foils to Mendoza’s warmer, riper styles. The third, but perhaps most important grape, is a white variety called Torrontés. With spring in swing, Torrontés, with its perfumed aromatics mirroring the season’s newest blooms, should be your wine of the moment.

This grape has been written about before — some offer praise, others disdain. Those that took issue with it may have felt it lacked complexity, had too much perfume, or was often bitter. There’s merit to all those claims; the first two are subjective observations, but the latter is an issue that’s been mostly eradicated. In Salta, I found advances in viticulture and handling in the winery meant bitterness management has improved to the point I rarely recognized it as a problem in any wines I tasted. We’ve never seen a better time for drinking high-quality Torrontés than now.

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The grape is a relative to Muscat of Alexandria, a relationship that’s fairly obvious when dipping your nose into a glass of this intriguingly aromatic variety. It makes for a good bridge for those who like the heady aromas of overtly sweet fruit, citrus, and florals of wines like Moscato, but want to drink something crisp, refreshing, and dry.

The final boon to those that give this grape a chance at the table: The wines offer incredible value. Every bottle on my list comes in under $20 and is available in the U.S. market.

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Tasting at Bodega Colome

Bodega Colomé, $13.99.
This is the highest altitude bodega in the world, and Colomé’s Torrontés grapes come primarily from Finca La Brava in Cafayate at 1,700 meters above sea level. The wine is piercingly fresh, with grapefruit and mandarin plus floral notes of rose and jasmine on the nose and palate; gorgeous aromatics I wish I could bottle for a perfume. A steal at this price. Buy a case for your summer “house” wine.

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El Esteco’s estate

Bodega El Esteco, Don David Reserve Torrontés, $14.99. 
From the largest winery in Cafayate, El Esteco, the exuberant floral and tropical fruit notes on the nose belie a crisp, dry palate. A fuller body comes from a minimum amount of oak aging, but it doesn’t interfere with the fruit.

Anko, Torrontés, $15. 
“Anko” means high-altitude oasis, and this bottle from winemaker and co-owners Jeff Mausbach and Alejandro “Colo” Sejanovic, comes from a 50-year-old vineyard they’d found derelict and overgrown. Brought back to life, the old-vine grapes produce an intense, fuller bodied Torrontés. Aromatics of rose-scented soap and dried flower potpourri, orange rind, and white pepper on a long, slightly oily finish make this wine seem like a cross between Grüner and Gewürtrazminer.

Bodega Domingo Molina, Hermanos Torrontés, $15.
The relationship to Muscat is evident in the nose of this wine, as fruits and florals explode from the glass like a call girl doused in perfume. Refreshing on the palate though, the wine is a pale yellow with shades of green; a hint of freshly mowed grass adds an herbaceous component.

Alta Vista, Premium Torrontés, $19.99. 
Alta Vista’s specialty is high-altitude, site-specific wines. The grapes for this bottle come from a blend of holdings in Cafayate; the wine, aged on its lees for greater complexity and a rounder mouthfeel, produces bright citrus and white floral aromatics with a clean, refreshing palate.

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The Porvenir tasting room

Porvenir, Laborum Torrontés, $18.
The winery was founded in 1890, and it sits within the little town of Cafayate. Tasting here feels reminiscent of stepping into a saloon from the old West. The current owners bought it in 2000, and their goal with this wine is pure summer in a bottle. Mandarin orange, grapefruit, and lemon-lime notes abound, with less florals than other versions. A perfect quaff for the beach.

Dominio Del Plata, Ben Marco Torrontés, $18. 
From the cooler Altamira region of the southern Uco Valley, I am cheating a bit adding this wine since Uco is in Mendoza, not Salta. But the young winemaker, Jose Lovaglio Balbo, is the son of famous Susana Balbo, who helped put Torrontés on the map with her Crios line. He has taken an unusual approach to the grape: 100 percent new French oak fermentation and aging for three months. It works surprisingly well, giving fullness and a hint of baking spice to the already perfumed, medium-bodied wine. Will be in the States by May.

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Postcards from the city of Salta, Argentina

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Postcards from Bodegas Salentein, Uco Valley, Mendoza

 BODEGAS SALENTEIN, UCO VALLEY, ARGENTINA

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Is Pinot Noir Humanity? Reflections from the Central Otago Pinot Fest

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Lakeside view of Northburn Winery.

This past January and February, I attended the 10th Central Otago Pinot Celebration. I was asked to reflect on my time at this year’s event by New Zealand Winegrowers, but will start with the story of a tree…

Strolling around Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown a few days after the event, the girth of an unusual trunk, a species of which I’d never beheld, drew my gaze up along its grand frame, and into the intertwined branches of its shadowy canopy. I stood for a while, watching the interplay of the waning sunlight on dappled leaves. Habit triggered me to reach for my camera. I twirled the machine in my hands, trying different angles to determine how to collect the moment digitally, forever, but I just couldn’t frame it as I experienced it in life.

Suddenly I was struck by a duality of emotions brought on by the paradox of great beauty: it has the ability to ignite immense joy and sorrow in the beholder, simultaneously. I could not take with me the beauty of this tree, and recognized the ephemeral state of the moment, meaning my brief interaction with it was only that. I felt oddly saddened.

So why do I ramble on about a tree when I should be talking wine? Because the tree left me pondering the various manifestations of beauty experienced at this year’s 3-day Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration, and the emotional arc each one created.

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Beauty is a complex and highly subjective concept, with several definitions in the dictionary, the first being “the combination of all the qualities of a person or thing that delight the senses and please the mind.” Considering that definition, I start with the obvious: the scenery of Central Otago. Set within the magnificence of the region’s natural good looks, the festival utilized various winery and restaurant sites nestled beneath the jagged peaks that ring Otago’s neat rows of vineyards, and at the center of which sits the sparkling, aquamarine-hued Lake Wakatipu.

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The Grand Tasting featured participating wineries inside The Shed at Northburn, a former station (ranch) picturesquely set on a ridge, now home to a winery and a rustic-chic barn. Each producer supplied its 2012 Pinot for vintage comparison, and a second bottle of its choosing.

We tasted the beauty of local foods. Vineyards and wineries hosted festival goers for a sunny, outdoor repast. I was fortunate to dine at Amisfield on sensationally fresh produce such as zucchini and leeks. The highlight, however, was a 20-hour, spit-roasted whole lamb, delivered with unintentional theatrics via a pitchfork, to our tables fringing Amisfield’s vineyards and duck-filled pond.

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On the first night, welcome canapés and drinks — a showcase of white wines from the Pinot producers — started the evening off at Rata, a stylish, contemporary spot in downtown Queenstown. On our last evening, we celebrated at Skyline, a restaurant perched high above the glittering town, with a menu of regional highlights such as cured Aoraki salmon and tender venison filet.

Despite the stunning backdrop and fare, most attendees joined the celebration for one reason: their devotion to Pinot Noir. In Central Otago, Pinot especially is beauty in pure form. Through a colorful spectrum of hues from vivid ruby to gentle garnet in mature vintages, to nose and palate tendering floral notes; the garrigue of local, rampant growths of thyme; warm spices; and red and dark fruits, washed forward in waves of silk and velvet.

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But Pinot isn’t merely a sensual, shallow pleasure; it expresses beauty conceptually. Love drives folks to rationalize crazy decisions, and the Central Otago winemakers who’ve fallen for the finicky grape have enduringly committed their souls to her care. Pinot vines cling to vineyards at the end of the earth, such as those of Two Paddock’s Last Chance Vineyard, arguably the furthest place south in the world that a grape can be nurtured to ripeness while struggling against a marginal, frost-prone climate and hellacious winds. These dedicated stewards bottle each vintage’s expression of site, weather, and toil, telling the love story of their year, no matter how tragic.

Considering further the notion of beauty as “an outstanding example of its kind”, many Pinots at the festival demonstrated Central Otago sub-regions do, quite prominently, exist. Wanaka trended towards minerality; Alexandra, a land of great diurnal range, explored spice and fragrance; Wanaka Road, e.g., Pisa, Cromwell, and Lowburn, tendered sweet fruit and florals, while Gibbston, the highest elevation, celebrated the savory balanced with fine red fruit character. Bannockburn developed natural structure, and riper tannins, while Bendigo, the warmest region, added blue fruits and more powerful tannin.

We also explored the beauty of vineyard site: Felton Road Cornish Point. Beauty of vine age: Terra Sancta Slapjack Block. Beauty in viticultural philosophy: Burn Cottage. Beauty of clones, and even in Steve Davies’ Doctor’s Flat soil microbes, or so he would argue.

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Sam Neill, owner of Two Paddocks, near his Last Chance Vineyard.

There were beautiful displays of generosity and collaboration. Skilled orator John Hawkesby coaxed bidders out of nearly ten-thousand dollars at the charity auction to benefit Mercy Hospital Charitable Outreach and the Sport Otago Trust. The winemakers of Central Otago demonstrated a deeply ingrained spirit of sharing and partnership not just with each other, but also in the region’s bond with Burgundy, illustrated by the presence of French delegates who traveled thousands of miles to join, including Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

But the conundrum of the immense joy wrought by beauty is the equal measure of sadness derived from knowing it and losing it, each glass drunk, another bottle gone, never again to be tasted; each festival event concluded, that day never to be regained.

This may appear a glum ending for a recap of an ebullient occasion, but it’s not meant to be. By recognizing the fleetingness of life and the unstoppable passage of moments, I’m drawn to conclude, all from meeting a tree one evening in Queenstown, that Pinot people don’t spend life in anticipation of tomorrow, or focused on regret. They are present, alive in each moment, and lovers of life. To quote the Pinot celebration’s spokesperson Jen Parr of Terra Sancta: “Pinot is humanity.” Pinot lovers accept that what we cannot take to the grave makes precious what we have before us now, and for that, I will always be a Pinot person.

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