By Celia Strong
Time to take another trip. As we do every week, we get our tickets, pack our bags and wander through a bunch of information to end up at a new wine. There are probably some things in life that are better, but a new wine every week has got go be close to the top of the list. Even if every week it’s not a new favorite, as long as we keep doing it, our list of favorites keeps growing. Seems like a good idea to keep doing just what we’re doing.
That being said, pack for a long trip this week. We are going waaaaaay south, to the other side of the equator. Down there, they are six months ahead of our schedule in the northern hemisphere. Grape harvest is in the spring. After their long hot winter, when they have their summer weather. Wait, I have that confused. They have summer weather over the fall and winter months. No, no. Wait. I had it right. Oh, shoot. Let’s just move on.
Phew! So, now we are looking at Argentina. Their wine industry is the fifth largest in the world. (And they are the eighth largest wine drinking country.) Until the early 1990’s, Argentina produced more wine than any country outside of Europe. Unfortunately, most of it, like over 90 percent of it, was considered to be such poor quality that it was not worth exporting. That’s because most producers were more slanted toward making massive amounts of wine, regardless of its quality. At the end of the 20th century, as wine consumption exploded around the world, they started to see quality wines as a good thing. And, in 2002, when the Argentine peso was devalued, operating costs decreased significantly and tourism in the country increased. Currently, Argentina is the largest wine exporter in South America.
Grape growing was introduced to Argentina by the Spanish as they colonized the Americas. The first vineyard established in 1556, by Father Juan Cedrón, with vine cuttings from Chile. It’s probable that these vines were ancestors of the País grapes of Chile and the Mission grapes of California. There were some hurdles that had to be overcome, though, in order for the wines from Argentina to become what they are today. Irrigation systems had to be developed. Despite all the melting snow in the Andes Mountains, if it wasn’t guided to where it was needed, no crops could be successful. Also, most of the good grape growing areas are inland. That meant transportation, affordable transportation, had to be developed too. The completion of an Argentine railway in 1885 was a huge help. And, in the nineteenth century, the arrival of European immigrants, people familiar with grape growing and winemaking as well as wine drinking, brought wine knowledge and expertise to the new industry. In 2003, there were more than 360,000 acres of vineyards in Argentina.
There are wine regions, now, in the provinces of Buenos Aires, Córdoba and La Pampa. But the majority of them are located inland, in the foothills of the Andes. (A long trip even by train.) Mendoza is the largest region and produces more than two-thirds of the yearly production. Other regions in the foothills include San Juan, La Rioja, Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta, where some of the highest vineyards in the world are. To the south, there are some vineyards in Patagonia, the Río Negro and Neuquén provinces.
Presumably, we all know that Malbec is the grape variety that Argentina is most known for. But there are others. Ours this week is Chardonnay. Chardonnay, like other European varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Bonarda, Sauvignon Blanc) was introduced into the vineyards here because of popular demand for these wines. Chardonnay is currently the most widely planted white grape in Argentina. Generally, in the soils and climates of this country, Chardonnay can ripen fully and it is used to make a wide range of wines — sparkling, full-bodied barrel fermented wines and lighter, drier, more elegant unoaked wines. The University of California, Davis, developed a special clone of Chardonnay, known as the “Mendoza clone,” for Argentina. This clone thrives at higher altitudes, and has been planted in Argentine vineyards at four thousand feet above sea level. Just so we know, according to Argentine wine laws, a grape name on a wine label requires that the wine is at least 80 percent that variety.
Our Chardonnay comes from Ernesto Catena, the eldest son of Nicholás Catena who owns and runs Catena Zapata. Ernesto is a fourth generation winemaker and, like many who have been lucky enough to grow up in winemaking families, has traveled and studied — many places and many things. (A Bachelors degree in Computer Science and Economy, a Masters degree in Design from Milan, a History degree from London, you get the idea.) In his spare time, he reads, paints, collects art, rides horses, plays polo and is an archer. Truthfully, any of us would need a good bottle of wine after one of his days. Ernesto founded his winery, Ernesta Catena Vineyards, in 2002. And he makes wines under several different labels.
Catena Padrillos, a Malbec and a Torrontes, is named for his love of horses. “Padrillos” means “stallions.” These wines are meant to “show the wild spirit” of Argentina’s two true grape varieties. His other label is “Tahuan” and “Siesta en El Tahuan.” (This is pronounced “tah-wan.”) This name comes from the Incas. The Incas conquered most of the Indian tribes of the Andes with commerce and religion, not war. They built roads that inter-connected all the different tribes and allowed their cultures to blend together. While traveling on one of these roads, Ernesto dreamed of honoring this history, the culture of the Tahuantinsuyu. An Indian phrase that means “The Four Lands United.”
Tahuan wines are all 100 percent of the variety named on their labels. The Siesta wines, a Cabernet and a Malbec, are their “reserve” level and come from some of the one hundred seventy-eight of vineyards that Ernesto owns in Mendoza. The “Tahuan” label brings us a Malbec, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Bonarda, and yes, our Chardonnay. These Chardonnay grapes are grown at just over 3,600 feet and, for this vintage, were harvested the first week in March. There’s that six months off our calendar confusion thing again. The juice is fermented at cool temperatures, between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Half of the wine is aged in oak barrels for eight months, half French and half American oak.
In our glass, this wine is a light straw shade of yellow. The aromas start with a hint of lemon, then become fruit salad — lemons, oranges, peaches — all with a hint of mint. The flavors are full of stone fruits — peaches, nectarines — and baking spices ( cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla – all from the barrels). The best part of the Chardonnay, though, is the textures. Like his other wines, Ernesto’s Chardonnay has a softer style, crisp but not biting, smooth on your tongue, flowing in your mouth. A wine made to be rolled around. In your mouth, I mean, not you rolled around in the wine. A wine made to enjoy on its own as well as with food. So sip it, savor it. Remember it whenever your mood or menu calls for a Chardonnay. It never, never isn’t just right. Enjoy!