Don’t go solo drinking Zolo

By Celia Strong

The label of this week’s wine shows a simple white background with a little man in a suit and his hat popping off his head. The image on this good new wine provokes mystery, as does its name, “Zolo,” and makes us wonder about the stories behind it. First, we need to learn about the history of this Malbec, so off we go to Argentina in South America.

The wine industry in Argentina is the fifth largest producer in the world. Much of it, like the cuisine of this country, has its roots in Spain. But, there are some roots in Italy, as well. Growing grapes in Argentina dates back to 1557, during the Spanish colonization of the Americas, when Santiago del Estero brought vine cuttings into the country.

The beginnings of wine in Argentina, though, were not the most auspicious. Producers were much more geared to quantity over quality. And, even until the early 1990’s, much of what they produced was not worth exporting, even though they made more than any other country outside of Europe.

We’ve learned, previously, that the 1885 completion of the Argentine national railroad helped make it possible to get the wines out of the vineyards and to the coast for shipping to the world. More help came in 2002, when the Argentine peso was devalued. Production costs dropped and tourism dollars appeared. And, tourism brought wine lovers.

Mendoza is one of the provinces of Argentina. For most of us, it is the best known of their wine regions. This is the largest wine producing area in all of Latin America. Mendoza, the capital city of the region, is one of the 10 cities worldwide in the network of Great Wine Capitals. (The others are Bilbao/Rioja, Spain; Bordeaux, France; Cape Town/Cape Winelands, South Africa; Christ Church/South Island, New Zealand; Firenze, Italy; Mainz/Rheinhessen, Germany; Porto, Portugal; San Francisco/Napa Valley, California, United States; Valparaiso/Casablanca Valley, Chile.)

The city of Mendoza was founded on March 2, 1561, by Pedro del Castillo. The name “Mendoza” came from the Spanish governor at that time of Chile. The city was founded on the banks of the Rio Mendoza, but, really, the river was just a big irrigation canal developed by one of the local Indian tribes before the Spanish arrived. The area around the city grew thanks to Jesuit missionaries and the slave labor of the natives. With organized irrigation from their rivers,  agriculture production increased from the end of the 18th century on. Besides wine, the Mendoza province produces olive oil and uranium.

The Mendoza region is located in the far western part of the country. It has a continental climate with semi-arid dessert conditions. Obviously, the irrigation is needed. There are four seasons here, with no extreme temperatures. This makes the grapevines’ growing cycle uneventful — good for the grapes and their wines. The soil is mostly alluvial with loose sand over clay. As of 2008, there were more than 350,000 acres of vineyards here, almost two-thirds of the total in Argentina. The vineyards are at elevations of 2,600 to 3,600 feet above sea level.

The main growing areas are in two departments — Maipú and Luján. The first Argentine designated appellation, Luján de Cuyo, was declared in 1993. The switch to European varieties from indigenous ones, at about the same time, made Mendoza even more important and profitable. Today, though, the pink-skinned grapes Cereza and Criolla Grande still account for about 25 percent of the grapes grown in Mendoza.

But, we are doing Malbec this week. Malbec was first introduced into Argentina in the mid-19th century and, today, there are more than 50,000 acres of it planted there. The highest rated Malbecs come from high altitudes in Mendoza — from 2,800 feet to 5,000 feet above sea level.

Malbec is a purple grape that gives its wines a dark inky, purple color and robust tannins. A great story about Malbec, just not necessarily true, says that Malbec is named for a Hungarian peasant who spread the grape throughout France while he was working undercover for a viticulturalist. Sadly,  because that’s such a good story, more evidence says that the original name of this grape was Côt, and it probably came from northern Burgundy.

In France, in the Bordeaux region particularly, Malbec was used as a blending variety. This is a thick skinned grape and needs more sun and heat than both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. It ripens in mid-season and brings color, tannins and a plum-like flavor to its wines. Its wines are dark, rich and juicy. On the negative side, Malbec is sensitive to frost. But that makes the climate of Mendoza really good for it. In addition to its plum flavors, Malbec has blackberry and black cherry notes along with chocolate and cocoa powder, violets, leather and sweet tobacco, depending on the length of time it’s aged time in oak.

Now, our wine for this week comes from Fincas Patagonicas, under the Zolo label. This winery is owned by Patricia Ortiz, who stresses both the science and the art of wine. The winery has its own laboratory and the latest technology. One of their winemakers is Jean Claude Berrouet, who has also worked at Chateau Pétrus in Bordeaux.

The grapes for our Zolo Malbec all come from estate vineyards, located throughout Mendoza. Agrelo vineyard grapes give classic plum flavors to the wine; San Pablo vineyard grapes give concentration and structure; Tupungato grapes  give “terroir” and dark fruit aromas; Maipú grapes, from 70-year-old vines, give red fruit aromas; Vista Flores give color, structure and berry and floral aromas; and Urgarteche grapes make intensely fruity wines with elegance. The average elevation of these vineyards is 3,200 feet above sea level.

Our Zolo Malbec is 100 percent Malbec, all handpicked grapes that are cold macerated for three to five days to extract color and aromas. They are fermented in stainless steel tanks for 10 to 14 days and 100 percent malo-lactic fermentation happens spontaneously. The wine is then aged for six months,  90 percent in French oak barrels and 10 percent in American oak.

And the name “Zolo?”  It means several things. One is “high” or “inebriated,” which might make sense for a wine. But, Patricia Ortiz is married, and works in Mendoza much of the week while leaving her husband alone in Buenos Aires. “Zolo” also means “solo,” which I suppose can apply to both of them.

And why the hat in mid-air on the Zolo label? I’ve given you plenty of stories this week, the hat story is on you. The Zolo Malbec can be your inspiration. For $12.99. Enjoy.

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