Argentina’s Canadian connection
Mendoza: the heart of Argentina’s burgeoning wine boom and a long way from Calgary, Vancouver or Waterloo. But for a group of Canadian investors, there isn’t a better place in the world to park their hard-earned cash.
It’s not the lure of a quick return on their investment that has attracted 40 Canadians to help create a winery in a distant, foreign land. No. It’s because they, first and foremost, simply love the wine that’s being made in Mendoza.
Calgary’s Dan Huras, by day a corporate executive and in his spare time the chief financial officer and one of the founders of the group that’s financing Zorzal Vineyards and Winery in Mendoza, sums up the reasons he and his diverse group of Canadian investors have sunk money into the new winery.
“Our owners all understand the dynamics of what is happening with the Argentine wine industry and are excited to be part of a fabulous new winery, in the fastest-growing wine region in the world,” he says. “We all fully expect this to be profitable in the long run, but understand it takes time to establish a new wine. In the meantime, we are in it for the fun, the excitement and, of course, the great wine.”
Zorzal, located just 80 kilometres southwest of Mendoza’s provincial capital also called Mendoza, at 1,350 metres above sea level (the highest of any winery in the region), was established in 2007 by founder and general manager Gerardo Michelini, his winemaking brothers, Juan Pablo and Matias, and a group of investors from Alberta, BC and Ontario.
These investors come from varied backgrounds with one common link: their love of great wine.
Many of them knew each other before investing in Zorzal or were approached by Zorzal president Bruce Murray, from Calgary, through leads provided by other investors. The board of directors includes Huras, Murray, Ian Mallory, Eric Schneider, and Otto Jelinek — world-champion figure skater and former Progressive Conservative MP and cabinet minister.
Mendoza, with its 1,200 wineries, is by far Argentina’s largest and most important wine-producing province. Malbec is king here, the variety that has conquered world wine-markets in recent years, although a large number of other varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda, Chardonnay and Torrontés, are also grown and are finding success in the international export markets.
Mendoza includes within it several distinct winegrowing districts. It is in the high-altitude Uco Valley more specifically in the Gualtallary zone, considered one of Mendoza’s finest wine-growing regions, that Michelini chose to locate the Zorzal winery and grow grapes.
The southwestern region of Mendoza can be quite extreme. It is a parched land with rosemary, thyme, hawthorn and cactus blending into a barren, desert landscape. The specific terroir at Zorzal is derived from a rocky limestone soil, with chalk-streaked stones and a breeze from the Andes, which makes it cool and healthy. It is here where a new kind of Malbec is being crafted, the kind that raises the bar for wines coming out of Argentina. And it’s this unique terroir that the Michelinis wanted to showcase (while also striving to give rise to a new dimension of quality).
To get to the Zorzal winery in the small town of Tupungato, in Gualtallary, is just over an hour’s drive from Mendoza city. You pass through a small range of hills as you travel west through the Uco Valley, and the majestic snow-covered Andes rise from the valley floor in a stunning display of beauty and power.
Not much had been farmed in the Mendoza region up until the mid-90s, when oenologists figured out that the irrigation problems that prevented agriculture in the past could be countered with deepwater well drilling and drip irrigation systems. This allowed growers to locate new vineyards at high altitudes such as the Uco Valley, with its limited access to canal water used by wineries in the lower altitudes.
The early pioneers to the region, such as Nicolás Catena, wanted to focus on higher-quality wines, not the mass-produced Malbecs that had, until the mid-90s, dominated the Argentine wine industry and, in many ways, put the industry on the map. The higher temperatures in the lower-altitude regions of Mendoza were not ideal for producing a more elegant style of red wine, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.
The terroir where Zorzal has staked its claim is ideal for growing Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chardonnay for the whites, and Malbec, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon for the reds. (Zorzal has planted 175 acres of Malbec, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc and hopes to have it all under vine by 2013. The first wines, beginning with the 2008 vintage, are made with purchased grapes from trusted growers who share the same goal of non-invasive viticulture.) In general terms, the valley is very cold in the winter and very hot and dry during the summer with a long period of sunlight and a cooling-off period at night. Rainfall is no more than 200 millimetres per year, making artificial irrigation essential.
Zorzal shares its unique location with other major players who have moved into the area, including France’s Chandon (of Moët and Chandon), which recently bought and planted a substantial vineyard near Zorzal. Just down the road, Catena Zapata, considered one of the best wineries in Argentina, has its premium vineyard in the area. Freixenet, the large Spanish winemaker, also has a large vineyard nearby.
Huras’s attraction to Zorzal stems from a love for the region and its wines.
“I had travelled to South America many times prior to getting involved [with Zorzal],” he says. “I love the people of Argentina and the land. There are strong similarities with Alberta. The opportunity to launch a new winery in this region with a highly regarded and passionate wine family like the Michelinis was too good to pass up. Of course, a love of wine helped, too.”
Huras has only visited the winery twice before returning this past spring to attend the launch of a new restaurant at Vina Morande, a Chilean luxury winemaker and the winery of Zorzal’s distribution partner, and then to Zorzal to meet with his team. It was during that trip that Huras learned Zorzal’s 2010 varietal Malbec was given 93 points and named one of the Top 100 Wine Best Values in the World by Wines & Spirits magazine (one of only two Argentine wines to make the list).
Most of the investors, many of whom have not yet seen their investment’s physical location but have all happily tasted what’s produced there, are planning trips over the next few years.
Minto Schneider, wife of board member Eric Schneider, says their interest lies more on the wine side of things rather than worrying about a big return on their investment. The Waterloo, Ontario, couple, who are lifelong collectors of fine wine (mainly from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Germany and, of course, Argentina), were first and foremost “blown away by the quality of wine” being made at Zorzal. “We really like good wine,” said Minto. “It wasn’t a huge money-making venture. And part of the attraction was getting in on the ground floor and investing in Gerardo’s dream.” Huras says Zorzal has hit all the right notes right out of the gate, with some of the finest new wave of luxury wines in Argentina now being made at the new estate.
“Our quality and consistency are phenomenal. We strive to be a high-quality luxury winemaker and are more than meeting those goals,” he says, and starts listing off recent awards, including the Trophy Award for Best Argentine Malbec over $50 from Wines of Argentina, a gold medal for its Climax red blend, bronze for its Sauvignon Blanc and a double gold medal for its Reserve Malbec. “We have received many accolades and awards, but to me personally, I simply find our wines very enjoyable and drinkable. They are soft, silky smooth and with beautiful structure and balance. The winemakers know how to present an authentic expression of the terroir,” he says.
I ask Huras how difficult it was to find 40 like-minded wine lovers to invest in a winery as far away as Argentina. “Well, I did most of the convincing to get those other Canadian investors, but I know they all came in because they love wine, love to travel, have a sense of adventure and just liked the idea of being part of this unique wine club,” he says. “I was personally approached by David Somerville, an investment banker who knew the Michelinis. He asked me to help him raise the money to build the winery — which was to be their family dream. I am an accountant so I did wait until I ran the numbers, but my heart said yes immediately.”
With 159,000 hectares of vines at about 33 degrees latitude, Mendoza is by far Argentina’s largest and most important wine-producing province. This is the home of Malbec, the variety that has conquered world wine markets, although a large number of other varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon, Bonarda, Chardonnay, Torrontés and, of course, the ubiquitous Criolla varieties — are also grown.
Mendoza includes within it several distinct wine-growing areas. Eastern Mendoza is relatively low in altitude and warm with deeper soils than other regions. In general, this is an area of high-yielding vineyards producing wines for domestic consumption. Bonarda does especially well in this area. To the west, Maipú is a department that includes within it some famous wine-growing districts, including Lunlunta, Barrancas and Coquimbito. Still further west and higher in altitude is Luján de Cuyo, which is another department, but it is also the name of the DOC that comprises several famous wine-growing districts, the most famous being Vistalba, Las Compuertas, Perdriel and Agrelo. Finally, the high altitude Uco Valley, which includes parts of the departments of Tunuyán, Tupungato and San Carlos, is considered one of Mendoza’s finest wine-growing regions. Among the famous districts of the Uco Valley are Gualtallary and La Arboleda in Tupungato, La Consulta in San Carlos, and Vista Flores in Tunuyán.
malbec is king in argentina
Argentina is world famous for its Malbec, which has grown 300 per cent in wine exports from just six years ago. It remainsArgentina’s most important grape, accounting for 13 per cent of total premium variety plantings. Mendoza remains the country’s most important wine region with 69.5 per cent of total grape production. More importantly, it is by far the most important region in terms of premium wines, representing 91.5 per cent of all bottled wine and 94.1 per cent of all wine exported to the North America.