Into the Patagonian Desert

April 6, 2010
Wine Spectator | Matt Kramer.

What are wineries doing in the empty flatlands of Argentina? And why are some of the wines so good?

NEUQUÉN, Argentina—In the United States (and probably pretty much everywhere else in the world), when you read “Patagonia,” I suspect that you think of glaciers, sharp-edged mountain peaks and vast emptiness.

It’s a pretty nice image, eh? So let’s get something straight right away: When it comes to wine, Patagonia is a desert. Flat. Empty. Lizard-dry. Sandy. Stony. And did I mention flat? Really, it’s about as far from a conventional winegrowing area as any on Earth.

Shortly after arriving in Argentina six weeks ago, I tasted a 2005 Cabernet Franc from Bodega del Desierto, which is located in Patagonia. (You can’t accuse them of misleading labeling, can you?) I was struck by the sheer goodness of that wine. It is a terrific Cab Franc: cherry-scented, dense, “typical” in the French sense of that word, and filled with finesse. I resolved to see where this wine came from.

I contacted the winery’s owners, Armando “Tate” Loson and his sister Maria; bought an airplane ticket from Buenos Aires to Neuquén (which is about 620 miles south of Buenos Aires); arranged for a car rental upon arrival, and set off for Bodega del Desierto. The Losons, who live in Buenos Aires, accompanied me, squeezing themselves into the back seat of my econobox rental car.

“Almost no one visits Bodega del Desierto,” laughed Maria Loson. “When you see it, you’ll know why. It’s not set up for visitors. And it’s in the middle of nowhere.” She was right on both counts.

I’ve already given you the lay of the land. The town of Neuquén, when seen from the air, looks like an oasis. Which is precisely what it is. Whatever is green is irrigated. Whatever is brown is “natural.” There’s no in-between, no shadings, no escape from the sagebrush desert dryness of the place. There’s seemingly no limit to it either.

“It’s a two-hour drive from Neuquén to Bodega del Desierto,” said Mr. Loson. “Technically we’re in the province of La Pampa. We’re in the desert—but way out there.”

I still don’t know why they chose this spot. They could have gone 100 miles in any direction for all I could tell by eyeballing the landscape.

If you’ve ever driven across the vast expanses of the American west, places like Arizona or Nevada, you already know the you-can-drive-forever emptiness of it. There’s nothing to relieve the eye and even less to make you think that wine, let alone really fine wine, could come from such a place. In my experience, only eastern Washington is similar, yet the scale is much less forbidding.

So what the hell are these guys doing here? “We were looking for a place to grow grapes, and this area seemed as good as any,” shrugged Mr. Loson. It was the kind of laconic understatement an Australian would have been proud of. Even after hours of discussion and an extensive tour of their 445-acre vineyard, I have to admit: I still don’t know why they chose this spot. They could have gone 100 miles in any direction for all I could tell by eyeballing the landscape.

Yet I’ve got to say that Bodega del Desierto is on to something. Some of its wines—notably that curiosity-inspiring Cabernet Franc, as well as an excellent Syrah and a really stunning Malbec—make it clear that this isn’t simple commodity wine. The finesse of these wines vaults them into another league, which can’t be said for many wines from other desert-dry winegrowing areas.

Something about the area seems to create wines that deliver pure, beautifully delineated fruit to your palate with the roll-off-the-fingertip ease of a layup by a basketball pro.

The world has plenty of irrigated vineyards in dust-dry areas—eastern Washington, various parts of Australia, several spots in California, an awful lot of Chile and most of the rest of Argentina, for that matter. Yet this one winery, like some kind of vinous truck stop in a godforsaken location, tells us that something original is emerging in the larger Patagonian wine zone. Bodega del Desierto is merely the most isolated site.

Just Add Money and Pour

To confirm this, I left the Losons in the proverbial dust and returned to what passes for the central winegrowing zone of Patagonia, strung out in a long stretch on either side of the town of Neuquén.

It’s perhaps best imagined as a string of “wine lights” in a larger sea of fruit orchards protected by sentries in the form of thousands of poplars. Wind, you soon discover, is the area’s biggest problem. “We get winds of 60 to 150 kilometers an hour [37 miles per hour to 93 mph] pretty much every day,” said Lucas Nemesio, one of the owners of the large, ultramodern, tourist-oriented (it gets as many as 15,000 visitors a year) NQN winery. “It gives the grapes unusually thick skins and keeps the berries small.”

The NQN winery, which was started in 2001, is one of three sizable wineries at one end of the 125-mile-long length of the Neuquén “oasis.” It was only when I visited its neighbor, Bodega del Fin del Mundo (the end of the world), that I discovered why these three big wineries were clustered together.

“I used to be a real estate developer in Buenos Aires,” said Bodegas del Fin del Mundo owner Julio Viola, an engaging man who makes no bones about being in business, as opposed to being in “wine love.” “The government was offering attractive loans to develop this area. So in the mid-1990s I bought some 3,200 hectares [7,900 acres] of empty land. It was a desert.”

Mr. Viola is the kind of guy that the legendary master builder of New York City, Robert Moses, would have loved. “First, I had to construct a 20-kilometer [12-mile] irrigation canal just to get water to this place. Then I started planting my own vineyard and selling large parcels of potential vineyard land to others.”

Mr. Viola installed numerous pumping stations and more than several thousand miles of irrigation pipes, creating a “just add money and pour” startup-vineyard and real-estate venture for investors. NQN bought one. Neighboring Familias Schroeder (big medical money) bought another sizable chunk, also building a showplace winery.

For his part, Mr. Viola grew Bodega del Fin del Mundo with the kind of drive unseen since the Gallos in California. In less than a decade, he created a gargantuan winery structure (which, characteristically, is utilitarian rather than a tourist-minded showplace), ramped up production to 1 million cases and became by far the biggest winery in the zone. Recently, he sold a 50 percent interest in his winery to the Buenos Aires family business that owns, among many other things, the lucrative concessions in the two big airports in Buenos Aires.

“I love the wine business,” enthused Mr. Viola. “I won’t ever go back to real-estate development.”

The wines, as you might expect in such a big operation, are mixed, but two are standouts: a Cabernet Franc of outstanding depth and a superb blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot simply called Special Blend. Both are strikingly flavorful and have, yes, finesse. They go down like water, in the best sense of that phrase.

The Improbable Vineyard

Although the great majority of Patagonia’s wine efforts are 21st-century new, the fact is that the area around Neuquén has a century-old history of fruit-growing, some of which involved wine grapes. The area’s oldest winery, Humberto Canale, was founded in 1909 and is today a major wine producer as well as a significant fruit grower.

Knowing that, the seemingly unlikely story of the twin artisanal wineries of Bodega Noemía and Bodega Chacra makes more sense. Started in 1998 by an unlikely Patagonian adventurer, Italian countess Noemi Marone Cinzano (famous vermouth on her father’s side and Agnelli of Fiat automobiles on her mother’s), Bodega Noemía is all about preserving and celebrating one of Patagonia’s oldest vineyards.

Already an owner of a prominent Brunello di Montalcino estate (Argiano), Ms. Cinzano added this property to her portfolio after her companion, Hans Vinding-Diers, spied an old vineyard dating to the early 1930s planted with Malbec and, improbably, Pinot Noir.

“It was a mess,” said Mr. Vinding-Diers, who also is the winemaker at Argiano. Raised in Bordeaux (his father owned Château Rahoul), Mr. Vinding-Diers decided that he and Ms. Cinzano should only work with the Malbec. What to do with the Pinot Noir? No problem. They sold that portion of the vineyard to Piero Incisa della Rocchetta, whose family owns the famous Sassicaia estate in Tuscany’s Bolgheri zone.

Each have separate wineries, with some 25 miles between them, yet Mr. Vinding-Diers commutes between the two like a happy Labrador retriever fetching two sticks, helping make the wine in Rocchetta’s Bodega Chacra, as well as being the sole winemaker at Cinzano’s Noemía.

Both wines are among the most remarkable expressions of “wine Patagonia.” The three Malbec wines of Bodega Noemía are dense, rich and substantial, with noticeable oak in Noemía’s signature bottling, called simply Bodega Noemía.

Bodega Chacra, for its part, creates a Pinot Noir like no other in my experience. “The oldest vines date to 1932 and the next oldest from 1955,” said Mr. della Rocchetta. “So we make two separate bottlings from each parcel, as well as a ‘regular’ Pinot Noir from younger vines that we planted, called Barda. These Pinot Noir vines, including the youngest vineyard, are all the original strains found in the 1932 vineyard. We use no modern clones.”

So far, of the Pinot Noirs I’ve tasted in Argentina—which aren’t that many, as Pinot Noir is a recent phenomenon here (Bodega Chacra’s vineyard notwithstanding)—those from Chacra are easily the most persuasive.

All of these wines, among others I have not mentioned, share common attributes of superb acidity, bright, precise fruit and what can only be called an ingratiating quality that derives from superb balance.

Even after traipsing in some rather extreme grapegrowing spots in Australia, Chile, Washington, California and Idaho, among other places, I’ve got to say it: Patagonia is the most improbable fine-wine area yet for this vineyard hound.

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