Many of us probably think of Argentina wines as being fruit forward, easy going wines that appeal to a wide range of wine drinkers. Argentina wine connoisseurs, however, know there is a lot more to this wine producing country than these types of wines. They know there are some seriously talented people, as well as high altitude vineyards, that can produce compelling wines that are stunning with their combination of concentration and overall elegance.
Since 1890, Bodegas y Viñedos Pascual Toso has been a leader in producing some of the best Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon wines in Argentina. Their distinctive labels conjure feelings and thoughts of Argentinian fine wine with those who are familiar with their top selection. I was very intrigued to talk to the relatively new Chief Winemaker, since 2015, Felipe Stahlschmidt. Felipe had already spent a decade working at the world famous Catena Zapata Winery in Argentina before his appointment at Pascual Toso.
When I met Felipe for lunch I was not surprised by his warmth, as many Argentinians have a reputation for being very open people, but I was certainly pleasantly surprised by his obsession for balance and a linear quality for all of the Pascual Toso wines. Of course, these wines are already known for their balance and elegance, but he felt strongly that one should never rest on their laurels and he was constantly working to maintain that elegance. He not only addressed climate change but also how each vintage could be different – true elegance was only kept by constant adjustments in reaction to the ever changing world around us.
Felipe was originally the Vineyard Manager at Catena and he decided to go back to school to get a Master’s degree in Viticulture and Enology which allowed him to join the winemaking team. The importance of the vineyards has obviously never left him as he talked in detail about finding balance with the canopy of each vine – finding the ideal amount of leaves for the grapes and each year that formula would change. Also, he did not believe in a stagnant oak regime – oak treatment was determined by the various characteristics of each wine from each vintage. His philosophy of the maintenance of elegance was aligned with the Pascual Toso philosophy and so it made sense very quickly in our conversation why he was the ideal choice for them. Elegance was not something that was achieved and then automatically retained, it was a continual process that needed to be agile to unexpected occurrences year in and year out.
This sense of elegance in wines from Argentina actually first popped into my head over six weeks ago. I attended a winemaker lunch with Bodega Ruca Malen that had the dual focus of not only dispelling the perception that Argentinian wines were only in the fruit forward, soft style but they also presented the idea that some of the elegant versions could pair with a diversity of cuisines. That day I took a journey with Winemaker Pablo Cuneo and Chef Lucas Bustos that was called The Andes Kitchen. Yes, there is the classic pairing of an Argentinian Malbec with beef dishes, but an eye opening tasting featuring squash, rabbit and osso buco was a fantastic way to show the pairing potential for these more restrained, graceful wines.
Founded in 1998, Ruca Malen is a relatively new kid on the block. They have a more modern, youthful way of talking about Argentina with regards to them matching terroir driven wines with their terroir driven food which is served at their restaurant at the Ruca Malen winery. To them, food and wine, as well as a sense of origin, cannot be separated. There cannot be balance or elegance without always going back to the source of these wines. I can see that Ruca Malen is breathing new life in the food and wine scene in Argentina.
And just when I thought I had gotten enough elegant surprises from Argentina, a few days ago I tasted a couple wines from Bodegas Salentein. This winery is a new kid as well being established in the late 1990s, yet it has a wealth of experience behind it. Jose “Pepe” Galante is the Chief Winemaker and considered the father of modern wine making in Argentina. Paul Hobbs is a Wine Consultant for Salentein, as well as for certain wines from Pascual Toso, and he recognized early on, despite the skeptics, the high quality wine potential in Argentina.
Jose Galante is known as a thoughtful, driven man that has never relaxed his constant focus on making fine wines that can compete with the top wines of the world. It is always a healthy attitude to be open to the new, ever-evolving world, but not at the sake of losing the core values that has helped create some of the iconic wines known among those who love wines from Argentina.
Struggle for Elegance
The struggle for elegance is a constant battle that one never wins. This idea brings me back to my conversation with Felipe Stahlschmidt, Chief Winemaker at Pascual Toso. He said that one of the things he loves most about his wife is that she is always brutally honest, and he would not have it any other way because he never wants to stop struggling for elegance – once you stop fighting the good fight then that glorious tension and linear shape that transcends an average Argentinian wine to a world class wine will cease to exist.
A Time for Discipline, A Time for Surrender
A couple decades ago, I had a conversation with a movement teacher who taught actors how to be graceful and elegant. The key was to practice over and over again to let go of those things that seemed awkward in one’s face and body while reinforcing those attributes that gave a feeling of grace – most people who have taken ballet probably know a thing or two about this type of physical work. But you do that work in advance so you can surrender to what happens in the moment allowing something authentic, real and exciting to happen.
There is no formula for elegance – it is a different type of struggle for each region, for each person. Elegance is not gifted to someone or something, it is a tremendous amount of work to achieve a sense of elegance, work that never ends. But within that work there are those moments where we just need to surrender to what life and mother nature has given us – being humble that there are greater forces out there. That is what I find most inspirational about quality minded winemakers – even though they know mother nature is greater than they, they never stop on the quest of trying to make a libation that helps to transform our life into something special and remarkable. And for that I thank them.
Ruca Malen Tasting Notes from August 22nd, 2016
Ruca Malen is located in Lujan de Cuyo which is situated in the upper Mendoza valley, and some of their vineyards are located in Luján de Cuyo which sits at altitudes of around 3280 ft. (1000 m) above sea level. Malbec in particular is successful in Luján de Cuyo as well as, shockingly, Petit Verdot.
-Ruca Malen Brut Sparkling Wine NV, Tupangato and Uco Valley, Mendoza ($27.99): 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay. Bright cranberry fruit with lemon zest and a touch of roasted almonds.
-2015 Yauquen Torrontés, Salta ($12.99): 100% Torrontés. When you have blind tasted a lot of wines you are hopeful to be given certain hints which can lead you to a particular variety or place. I would always get Torrontés if it had a pronounced floral note on the nose yet lack of flavor with bitter finish on the palate. I would have not gotten this wine blind because the palate lived up to the pretty floral nose with juicy stone fruit and no bitterness on the finish. The winemaker Pablo Cuneo acknowledged that Torrontés was a difficult grape to grow and handle – great care was needed for a balanced wine.
-2014 Yauquen Malbec, Agrelo (Luján de Cuyo) and Uco Valley ($12.99): 100% Malbec. This wine had an easy going quality with lightly spiced notes and lively purple fruit and paired nicely with the carob dough stuffed with Malbec-braised rabbit from Chef Bustos.
-2014 Ruca Malen Reserva Malbec, Agrelo (Luján de Cuyo) and Uco Valley ($18.99): 100% Malbec with 55% sourced from cooler, high-altitude sites in Uco Valley and 45% from Lujan de Cuyo. The Reserva was a significant step up in complexity and grace with violet aromas and a fine tannic structure. This wine showed its elegance paired with the subtle flavors of cured Angus beef.
-2013 Ruca Malen Reserva Petit Verdot, Agrelo, Luján de Cuyo ($18.99): 100% Petit Verdot. This was a lovely surprise as I had never had a Petit Verdot from Argentina. Dense blackcurrant flavors with a whiff of rose and well-knit tannins with a flavorful finish.
-2011 Kinien de Don Raúl ($75.00): 64% Malbec (Uco Valley), 15% Petit Verdot (Agrelo, Luján de Cuyo), 11% Cabernet Sauvignon (Uco Valley) and 10% Syrah (Anchoris, Luján de Cuyo). From the Mapuche language meaning “unique”, Kinien is produced from 100% estate-grown fruit. The final blend is aged in 90% new French oak and 10% American oak. A highly concentrated wine yet the fresh acidity keeps this wine charming. This wine has only a hint of vanilla and cinnamon with fresh blackberry and black pepper on the finish.
Pascual Toso Tasting Notes from September 16th, 2016 (pic of all the bottles)
Pascual Toso vineyards are located in Maipú, Mendoza in Argentina which is dominated by flat vineyards at high attitudes around 2600ft (800m) above sea level. This altitude sees intense sunlight during the day followed by cold nights that are cooled by alpine winds from the Andes Mountains.
-Toso Brut NV ($12.99): 100% Chardonnay. Lots of marked acidity with a gentle apple flavor and noticeable minerality with a slightly creamy texture. Over delivers for price.
-2015 Estate Chardonnay ($13.99): 100% Chardonnay. These grapes are harvested twice, early harvest for acidity and later harvest for riper, more tropical fruit flavors. Enticing tropical flavors of pineapple with touch of spice yet backbone of acidity. A colorful lady who is sassy but never doubt for one minute that she is a class act.
-2014 Estate Malbec ($13.99): 100% Malbec. This Malbec is all about the fruit expression with vibrant plum flavors and licorice pizzazz.
-2014 Reserva Malbec ($24.99): 100% Malbec. 80% American oak and 20% French oak. A step up in complexity and structure with hints of roasted coconut and vanilla bean with plenty of structure from discerning tannins.
-2013 Alta Malbec ($49.99): 100% Malbec. 100% French oak. Only 2000 cases made. Vines average around 60 years old and come from a single vineyard that is 10 acres (4 hectares) in size. A beautifully polished wine with tobacco leaf, violet and fine tannins that have a persistent and graceful finish.
-2014 Barrancas ($19.99): 60% Malbec and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. 100% American oak. Firm structure and sweet spice, chocolate flavors yet the oak is seamlessly integrated. There is often confusion that all American oak is the same with regards to producing coarse tannins, but that is an incorrect general statement as some American oak, depending on place of origin and cooperage, will yield finer more sophisticated oak tannins.
-2014 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($24.99): 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 80% American and 20% French oak. Grapes come from Pascual Toso’s own vineyards, located in Las Barrancas, Maipú. Cassis and roasted cashews with an energetic finish.
-2014 Alta Cabernet Sauvignon ($49.99): 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 100% French oak. Only 2000 cases. A rich wine with boysenberry and vanilla flower with a linear shape that helps it to keep its nobility.
-2013 Magdalena ($129.99): 80% Malbec and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. 100% French oak. Only 300 cases. This wine incorporates Paul Hobbs’ (consultant for Pascual Toso) best 23 Oak Barrels selection of Malbec and is considered “his baby”. Nuanced raspberry and blueberry fruit with smoky espresso and dark chocolate notes that are held together with dignified tannins with a prodigious finish.
-2014 Alta Syrah ($49.99): 100% Syrah. 100% American oak. I thought Petit Verdot was my new favorite Argentinean wine but add Syrah to that list. Only 500 cases. Black cherry, Asian spice with a heady perfume that is still rolling around in my head as I write this…more muscular structure but still a gentleman.
-2014 Finca Pedregal ($73.99): 62% Cabernet Sauvignon and 38% Malbec. Cabernet Sauvignon is aged in American oak and Malbec aged in French oak. Only 300 cases. A wine with a pedigree as Pedegral is a single vineyard located in the highly regarded Barrancas sub-region. It is truly extraordinary and thrilling to taste a wine that can be highly dense and concentrated while balanced with bright flavors, distinctive minerality and a structure that has drive that carries along the long and expressive length.
Bodegas Salentein Tasting Notes from September 29th, 2016
This winery is located in the Uco Valley, as well as all of the grapes for the below wines came from this area. The Uco Valley is a well known wine-growing region of Mendoza, Argentina which is located an hour’s drive south from the city of Mendoza. Some of the altitudes for these vineyards exceed 3500 ft (1066 meters) above sea level.
-2015 Reserve Chardonnay ($18.99): 100% Chardonnay. I have always had a slight prejudice against Chardonnay from Argentina, but the tasting that I had with these three producers offering this variety in a blend or as a varietal wine, sparkling or still, has really won me over with the idea that wonderful Chardonnay can be produced in Argentina. Also, this wine proves the idea that a really good wine, that offers complexity of flavors and sense of place, can be had once one goes beyond the $15 price point. This wine was showed best around 60 F (16 C) serving temperature. It had lemon blossom notes, a sense of chalky minerality, seemingly judicious oak and a zingy finish.
-2014 Reserve Malbec ($18.99): 100% Malbec. My favorite thing about this wine is the harmony that is created by the stewed plum fruit and smoky charred aromatics with a graceful texture and refreshing, sustained finish.
-2014 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($18.99): 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Rosemary, cassis, cigar box and graphite makes this an intriguing wine. Great value.