One visit to Patagonia can change your life
“There is an incredible intensity of light,” said Piero Incisa della Rocchetta, almost reverently, his eyes channelling that sparkle as he described Patagonia at a seminar in Vancouver a number of years ago. Under his Chacra label, he crafts a handful of Pinot Noir wines that are penetrating, wild and energetic yet ultimately graceful. They have long been my reference for Patagonia and fuelled a desire to explore the region for myself.
It was the depth of winter when I finally made it to Patagonia in August. Banish any thoughts of penguins and ice fields, though: Patagonia is a vast area and its wine country is far removed from such things. A seemingly endless, flat desert, the region is populated by low-lying dry scrub brush, like chañar and alpataco, with pockets of vineyards interspersed. The naked vines lend a slightly desolate feel to the place, one exacerbated by the non-threatening cloud cover. Alas, Patagonia’s intense sun eludes me on my visit. Equally elusive, more to my surprise, is a defining identity in the wines, something I had expected of this extreme region.
Patagonia is hundreds of kilometres south of the hub of Mendoza, sitting between the 36th and 45th parallels. Summers are long with 45 minutes more sunshine per day. It also rains less than 200 millimetres on average per year and the extreme aridness is immediately evident. My hands start cracking within moments of exiting the airport. “It’s good for the hair but bad for the skin,” quips Agustín Lombroni, winemaker at Del Rio Elorza.
All of that sun means a lot of sugar in the grapes. “Our challenge is to make low-alcohol wine with good phenolic ripeness,” explains Lombroni. Wind is an important piece of the puzzle. Poplar trees surround many of the vineyards in an attempt to curb its constant and mighty gusts. “The wind stresses the plant, slowing down photosynthesis,” Lombroni continues. It also encourages the grapes to develop thick skin while keeping the vineyards healthy and virtually disease free.
This being Argentina, my eyes are constantly searching beyond the poplars for a glimpse of the Andes. However, here the mountains are much lower and, at over 300 kilometres to the west, they don’t loom over the region as in Mendoza. To the east, the Atlantic is even farther away so the climate is pure continental. Despite modest average elevations of 300 metres above sea level, the temperature swings are just as dramatic as they are at 1,500 metres in Mendoza or 3,000 metres in Argentina’s northern region of Salta. “In the summer, it can be 35°C during the day and only 12°C at night,” says Julio Viola, Director de Campo y Bodega at Fin del Mundo.
How, in the middle of seemingly nowhere, is this wine region even possible? The answer lies in its rivers. The Limay and Neuquén flow hundreds of miles from the Andes, converging at the city of Neuquén to form the Río Negro, which flows eastward towards the Atlantic. Hosting pink flamingos, swans and coots, these ample waterways are absolutely essential for irrigation. In fact, without them there would be no vines. British settlers arrived here at the end of the 19th century, colonizing the area to the east of the city of Neuquén in the province of Río Negro. They dug channels to establish agriculture (think apples and pears) and viticulture soon followed, with Pinot Noir planted in the region as early as 1927. Founded in 1909, Humberto Canale was among the first pioneers, and is the only winery from that era that still exists today, as many of the original vineyards were eventually abandoned.
The promise of old vines lured Piero Incisa della Rocchetta (whose family established Sassicaia, by the way) to Patagonia in 2004. He was tipped off by the owners of Bodega Noemía. Italian Countess Noemi Marone Cinzano and Danish winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers had come to the area three years earlier and discovered a forsaken vineyard planted in the 1930s from which they craft one of Argentina’s most stunning Malbecs.
Recovering old vines is only part of the story in Patagonia, however. To the north and west of the historical area of Río Negro, the region of Neuquén is completely new to winemaking. Traditionally an oil province, its vineyards were only established in the last 20 years as an initiative by the government to develop agriculture as a means of job creation. Wineries, such as Fin del Mundo, Malma and Familia Schroeder, planted hundreds of hectares, hence the area’s speedy development. Today, there are more plantings in Neuquén than in Río Negro.
Despite this rapid growth, Patagonia remains numerically insignificant. With less than two percent of Argentina’s overall plantings, it counts a mere 30 wineries and only half of them export. Yet the buzz is much greater than these numbers would suggest.
In particular, Patagonia Pinot Noir has captured international attention. However, producers are divided over its potential. “It should represent at least half of the plantings,” declares Martin Kaiser, Viticulturist at Doña Paula. In reality, he estimates it accounts for only 11 percent of the region’s reds. While Bodega Chacra has hung its hat on Pinot Noir, producing it almost exclusively, Viola of Fin del Mundo is less bullish about it in Neuquén. “We have slightly higher temperatures than Río Negro and in warm years it can suffer too much stress,” he asserts.
For Viola, Malbec has the greatest potential and here, as in the rest of Argentina, it is king. Yet the flavour profile of Patagonia Malbec is different. “Here, it is darker rather than red fruit,” declares Viola. Kaiser adds, “it is still floral but more dried, potpourri flower than fresh.” Viola is equally convinced about Merlot but suggests that producers don’t take it seriously enough to show its true potential.
Instead, second to Malbec is Cabernet Sauvignon, despite the fact that this grape struggles to ripen in some areas. For this reason, Rio del Elorza grafted over Cab to Malbec in a particularly cool, rocky site. Since 2 to 3 percent of the grafts didn’t take, Lombroni picks and vinifies the two varieties together. “As the Cab isn’t fully ripe, it’s a natural way to give higher acidity to a 13.5 percent Malbec,” he declares. “Plus, the range of ripeness levels gives complexity.” This intuitive approach is echoed in Lombroni’s winemaking and the resulting wines were a gratifying discovery during my trip.
As for whites, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are the most common, particularly in the newer region of Neuquén. The latter often shows up in Patagonia’s diverse bubblies. Yet it’s the Sémillon that piques my interest. Planted in Río Negro as far back as the 1940s with the purpose of making sparkling wine, old Sémillon vineyards represent aborted projects of the past. Until recently, only Humberto Canale and Miras were crafting wines from these precious vines. Now Bodegas Noemía has a small release from 40-year-old vines and Mendoza winemaker Matias Riccitelli makes a stunning example from an even older plot. The success of these wines has inspired newer plantings in neighbouring Neuquén. “If more wineries produce Sémillon, it is better for us,” declares Pablo Miras who works with his father, Marcelo, founder of Miras Wines. “It is a great white here and helps create a reputation.”
The Miras project is truly a gem in Patagonia. Besides championing Sémillon, the father-and-son team produce tiny quantities of weirder grapes, such as Trousseau, Verdicchio and Ancellotta, which somehow happened to have been planted in Río Negro. “It’s a small project with a huge curiosity,” says Miras. “We produce the wines we like to drink.”
In Argentina’s far-flung south, Patagonia is a fascinating juxtaposition. It is the reinvention of a faltered viticultural past with the brand-spanking new and the inevitable mix of large-scale and boutique wineries. Against the well-defined backdrop of the environment, the wines are still finding their footing. On the one hand, some are generic, polite and have yet to harness the extreme conditions that make Patagonia unique. On the other hand, the ample glimmers of hope demonstrate a succulence and brightness allied with intense fruit definition and, without being simplistic, are hugely chuggable. I look forward to more of these wines in my glass.
Chacra Cincuenta y Cinco Pinot Noir 2016, Patagonia ($70)
Crafted from vines planted in 1955, this wine is positively floral rather than fruity, exuding violets, lilac, iris and even cherry blossom. The palate is pure with a lightness of texture, barely-there silky tannins and notes of truffle and cherry skins kicking in. Very Cru Beaulolais-like and a deliciously modest 12.1% alcohol. Top notch!
Bodega Noemia A Lisa Malbec 2017, Patagonia ($30)
Seductive black raspberry, lilac and black liquorice waft from the glass. Slightly grippy grape tannins make way for plush, fleshy, exuberant fruit while an intrinsic juiciness keeps the palate brilliantly buoyant. This wine packs in fantastic value and clearly demonstrates the diversity of Malbec in Argentina.
Bodega Del Río Elorza Verum Tácitos Pinot Noir 2017, Alto Valle del Río Negro ($25)
From a single (and particularly challenging) plot christened “Paulina” after the owner’s mother-in-law, Tácitos was first bottled separately in this vintage. Restrained and fine-boned, it offers strawberry, red cherry and rose petal while an earthy hint adds intrigue. Super drinkable.
Matias Riccitelli Old Vines Sémillon 2017, Río Negro ($50)
Source from a 60-year-old vineyard, this Sémillon is given a couple of days’ skin contact, fermented with indigenous yeast and aged in a combination of used barrels and concrete eggs. It is gorgeously textured and tactile with lime zest, cashew meal and a subtle leesiness, all lifted by a lively, refreshing backbone.
Miras Cabernet Franc 2014, Patagonia ($40)
Humberto Canale Gran Reserva Malbec 2015, Río Negro ($30)
Generously oaked in new French and American casks, this wine demonstrates overt vanilla and spice to start. On the palate, it is fairly full-throttled with blueberry fruit and ripe, layered tannins but a balancing brightness keeps it from being heavy.
Fin del Mundo Extra Brut Sparkling NV, Patagonia ($20)
An uncomplicated Charmat Method sparkler crafted from Pinot Noir with a healthy dollop of Chardonnay and aged for 4 months on the lees. Soft, creamy bubbles carry red berries to an appealingly chalky finish.
Familia Schroeder Saurus Select Pinot Noir 2016, Neuquén ($30)
Whole-berry fermentation with 40% of the wine aged in new French and American oak for 9 months and the remainder in stainless steel. This mild-mannered Pinot offers red currants, cherries and cinnamon framed by soft tannin.