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Mendoza wine no longer a one-grape wonder

Source: Financial Times
By: Jancis Robinson

I have been to most of the world’s wine regions but I have never been to a place where wine is so deeply embedded as in Mendoza.

Bordeaux and Porto run it close, but both have other important commercial activities.

The neat grid of tree-lined streets of Mendoza’s capital, also called Mendoza, seems designed to spirit you as quickly as possible to one of the numerous vineyards outside the city.

Walk through the brilliant white 19th-century Spanish colonial façade of the Park Hyatt, Mendoza’s most prominent hotel, overlooking Plaza Independencia, and you are assailed by invitations to sample a glass of wine in a bar, join a tour of the vineyards or buy a bottle or two.

There is something about the quality of light – a brilliance typically filtered by the leaves overhead – that echoes what the local producers believe defines their wines.

At 750m elevation, the city of Mendoza is already relatively high. But it is the altitude of the vineyards and the quality of the ultraviolet light there that gives distinction to them and their produce.

Mendoza is on roughly the same latitude as Tunis, which is normally too close to the equator for good quality wine production, but altitude counterbalances this.

Mendoza’s vineyards used to be concentrated on the fertile plains around the city, making vast quantities of slightly rustic reds and pinks and some decidedly heavy, often oxidised, white wines.

Rainfall here is low – barely eight inches, or 200mm, a year – but the melted snows of the Andes have (so far) provided supplies of irrigation water – sufficient to plump up the grapes nicely.

So high were yields traditionally – often several hundred hectolitres per hectare, when the usual limit for France’s better wines is about 50 hl/ha – that Argentina was at one time the fourth most important wine producer in the world.

Americans have planted the vine so enthusiastically that the US has overtaken Argentina in terms of total volume produced, helped by the fact that Argentina, not much of a wine exporter in the 1980s, had a national vine pull scheme.

But, in the past 25 years or so, the Argentine wine industry has woken up, become much less insular, and started to export in great quantity.

The crucial ingredient in the mix was a redrafting of the Mendoza wine map.

Since the late 1980s, vineyards have been planted at much higher altitudes, where cooler nights slow the ripening process and prolong the growing season, meaning that the resultant grapes have time to build up subtlety as well as sugar while retaining refreshing acidity.

The belief is that the clarity of light here plays a part in building up the phenolics so important to fine red wines.

Many of the best new vineyards have been planted in the Uco valley at altitudes of up to 1,700m. In Europe, 500m is regarded as the maximum altitude at which grapes can be persuaded to ripen.

Tupungato and Tunuyán are the most important departments for fine wine production in the Uco valley, with La Consulta district cool enough to have encouraged growers to plant white wine grapes as well as the finicky Pinot Noir that ripens so early it needs a particularly cool climate.

But Malbec is by far the dominant grape variety of Mendoza province. Indeed, Mendoza Malbec has played by far the biggest part in Argentina’s successful transformation into a successful wine exporter.

It produces rich, powerful wines, typically packaged in overweight bottles that satisfy marketeers if not ecologists, and conform to what has been the stereotype of a successful red wine.

Mendoza Malbec was such a hit in the US market that producers in Cahors in southwest France, home of the grape variety, started calling their grape Malbec instead of using their traditional names Cot and Auxerrois.

But the winds of change have recently been blowing through the vineyards of Mendoza, with many producers deliberately making finer, more scented reds from their signature grape variety by, among other things, picking grapes earlier and reducing the number of new oak barrels.

There has been no shortage of outside investment in Mendoza wine.

Prominent incomers include Michel Rolland, the world’s most famous consultant winemaker who owns the Clos de los Siete winery; Diane and Hervé Joyaux Fabre of Fabre Montmayou; California’s Cuvaison; Cava giant Codorniu; and José-Manuel Ortega, a Spanish former banker whose wife also runs one of many exciting restaurants in the wine country outside the city of Mendoza.

Argentina, with its waves of immigration from France, Spain, Italy and Germany, has long benefited from its particularly diverse range of cultural influences and all of these are reflected in the increasingly wide variety of wines coming out of Mendoza.

Rather unexpectedly, Mendoza turns out to be the source of some particularly fine, distinctive Chardonnay, a grape that seems to thrive in the relatively long hours of Mendoza sunshine.

Torrontés, the Argentine speciality white grape, also thrives there, as does Pinot Gris and even Friulano, as well as, from the highest vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc.

Mendoza is no longer a one-grape wonder, even if hail remains the bane of every vine grower’s spring and summer.

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