Friday, 19 October 2007

South America, September 2007 - Part Two, Chile

The next morning, Neil and I were leaving the Gaucho Three in Mendoza to visit other estates, while we headed towards Chile. It's a quick hop over the Andes from Mendoza to Santiago – we can't have been in the air for more than 25 minutes – but it was certainly spectacular. We were picked up by Julio Bouchon, and it was a three-hour drive to Mingre (pronounced “man – grey”), the Bouchons' family house, surrounded by vineyards. It is a delightful hacienda, built in the middle of the nineteenth century, and in the process of a gradual renovation. There is nothing flashy here – everything is simple and tasteful, although the enormous stag's head on one wall might divide opinion.

Mingre is to the south of Chile, and therefore cooler than those regions further north, and only 30 km from the coast, so benefits from a maritime influence. It is also at the fairly high altitude of 750 metres. In the summer, this means day temperatures of around 32 Celsius, while the nights are cool, dropping to around 12 degrees. At the time of our visit, early spring in the southern hemisphere, it was cold.

Julio gave us a little family history. His ancestors had first come to the Maule Valley at the end of the nineteenth century. In the sixties, his father, Julio Senior, studied oenology in Bordeaux with Emile Peynaud, but returned to Chile to find the family estates had been re-distributed by the government as part of a land reform programme. He then set up his own two-aeroplane domestic airline, and by 1976 was in a position to start buying back land.

In 1991, Ron Potter updated the winery, importing rotating fermentation tanks from Australia, and since then, the Bouchon's have worked hard to improve every aspect of their production, re-grafting vines, reducing yields, picking later to maximise phenolic ripeness, introducing selection tables for reception of the whole harvest, bleeding the vats to increase concentration, re-introducing the use of their epoxy-lines concrete tanks for the premium reds, and pumping over four times a day for 25 minutes, rather than once a day for a longer period.

The family house and winery at Mingre are surrounded by 50 hectares of vineyard, and another 550 hectares of land for cattle grazing and forestry. This makes for an environment rich in flora and fauna. It's a pretty dry area, with virtually no rain between October and May (their summer and autumn), which helps limit vine diseases, but not so dry as to make viticulture impossible without irrigation. Some of the vineyards are dry-grown, while others are equipped with drip irrigation systems. The clay soil is poor, limiting vigour and benefiting fruit quality.

In addition to having a detailed inspection of the winery, where notices displaying its safety record speak of Bouchon's application for ISO status, we were able to see the shower rooms and staff canteen that employees use. All the facilities were immaculate, and our impression was that workers are treated very well at J. Bouchon. In fact, given how sparsely populated the region is, Julio points out that they have to be if they are to have sufficient manpower to run the business.

We returned to the house in order to taste the range of wines:

Before lunch, Julio Senior arrived in his six-seater plane, and joined us for empañadas on the veranda. He then announced that he would take Neil and me by plane to see the Las Mercedes and Santa Rosa vineyards on the other side of the hill. Before jumping into the plane, we had to drive the length of the landing strip in order to confirm the complete absence of cows. Cows and aviation don't mix well, apparently. Then, after Julio had completed the safety checks, we were airborne and gazing down on the winery and vineyards. Around five minutes later, we affected an alarming but, in retrospect, perfectly safe, landing at the airstrip adjoining San ta Rosa David Round on a horse.

Transport in these parts is not for the faint-hearted, and we toured the vineyards on horseback. Julio Junior is an enthusiastic and highly skilled polo player, a hobby that requires large numbers of ponies to be stabled on the estate. I made a mental note to check the small-print on my travel insurance before making any more buying trips.

Santa Rosa, in addition to stables and landing strip, does have 100 hectares of vineyards on sandy, rocky soil on the banks of the River Maule. This is where the majority of the Sauvignon Blanc is grown. Nearby is Las Mercedes, where another 100 hectares are planted in one large, sloping block of vines. The soil type is similar to Santa Rosa, but with a little more clay.

It was beginning to get quite dark, so we returned to the house, to be joined for dinner by Patrick Valette, former owner of Château Pavie, who acts as a consultant for Bouchon. His assistant Gonzague was also in attendance, as was Pedro Bouchon, Julio's cousin and the General Manager of all of the family business interests.

Patrick Valette's cost to Bouchon amounts to far more than his fees, such is his attention to detail and uncompromising view of what sacrifices need to be made to produce top quality wine. However, this investment is certainly paying dividends. His influence is mainly on the premium reds, which are becoming very exciting indeed. He is also behind their latest attempt to make a Pinot Noir, but his approach seems to be, unsurprisingly, a little more Bordelais than Bourguignon, and the result lacks a little elegance. This is certainly work in progress. Maybe they should send Laura, their winemaker, to do a vintage in Burgundy.

After weathering Patrick's wide-ranging interrogation, which embraced issues as diverse as golf handicaps and Argentinian wine, the evening drew to a close. We had a very early start the following morning in order to catch our plane home from Santiago, and in the absence of much in-flight entertainment on Iberia, we used part of our long flight to muse over how impressed by Bouchon we had been. The developments in vineyard and winery, the attention to detail and the quality of the wines had greatly impressed us. And it's a very inspiring place to visit.

Monday, 1 October 2007

South America, September 2007 - Part One, Argentina

At 4.00 one Wednesday morning in September, we found ourselves at Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport. Present were Trade Sales Director Neil McAndrew, together with Phil Crozier, Marina Diaz and Lindsey Goddard from Gaucho Grills, a highly successful group of Argentinian restaurants, and me. The reason for being at Heathrow at this gut-wrenchingly early hour? A trip to South America to visit our suppliers in Argentina and Chile.

A day and a half later, after changing at Madrid and an overnight stop in Buenos Aires, we emerged blinking into the daylight of a Mendoza spring morning, weary but expectant. It wasn’t long before we were being greeted by Alberto Arizu, part of the family that owns Luigi Bosca, for whom we act as agents in the UK. Our friends at Gaucho Grills are big customers and enthusiastic ambassadors for these wines. Luigi Bosca Sign

Luigi Bosca has a 100 year-old winery, part of which started life as a corn mill. It was founded by Alberto’s great grandfather, and within Argentina is one of the leading brands. Amongst premium wines, it is virtually unrivalled in its own country. We hope that before long we will be able to say the same in the UK.

The winery is stacked from floor to ceiling with oak barriques, mainly tighter-grained Tronçais and Nevers. The older part has been converted into a smart reception and tasting area where we ran through the range. Alberto Senior, who speaks no English, joined us for the tasting (his mobile phone rang halfway through the tasting and, rather unexpectedly, the ring-tone was “Bitter Sweet Symphony”). We tasted new vintages of the wines we sell, as well as the rest of the range that we do not stock.

Bosca have an enormous range of wines - we tasted over thirty, so space doesn’t permit full tasting notes. However, amongst the highlights were the fresh, complex Sauvignon Blanc Reserva, the smooth-textured strawberry-like 2006 Pinot Noir Reserva, the tremendously fleshy, multi-layered 2005 Gala 1, and the structured, immensely refined 2003 Finca Los Nobles Malbec Verdot.

The tasting concluded with three possible blends for Corte Icono (name to be confirmed) – their new top wines, whose first vintage will be from the 2005 vintage. My preference at this stage was for the blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Malbec, a stylish wine with great depth and ripeness. Others suggested that the blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 60% Malbec might turn out better. Only time will tell.

After a lunch of empañadas and a selection of local meats, cheeses, fruits and nuts, we had an afternoon of inspecting the vineyards. First stop was Viña Paraiso, a 250 hectare vineyard, of which a massive 35 hectares is given over to experimental vineyards, with a variety of different training and trellising systems being trialled. This is an impressive piece of investment – 35 hectares would be a large estate in its own right in any region of Europe. Vineyard manager Gustavo Arizu explained the advantages of different systems, as well as their approach to the use of chemicals. They use sulphur and Bordeaux mixture in the vineyard, but because of the dryness of the area, only need to use 15% of the levels typical required in the wetter regions of France. They also return skins, pips and prunings to the vineyard, as they are a valuable, natural source of nitrogen. The vines were also interspersed with lines of olive trees, which Bosca are just beginning to use for olive oil production, a subject on which Gustavo is as knowledgeable as he is about grape cultivation.

Water is the key to any agriculture in Mendoza – where there is no irrigation, everything withers away. Essentially, it would be a desert without the irrigation that was pioneered by the indigenous inhabitants long before the Europeans arrived. The land is flat, allowing flood irrigation, whereby water from the river or from wells is allowed to flow over a vineyard every couple of weeks. Bosca is gradually reducing its use of water, allowing the vines to experience a little water stress, lowering yields and improving concentration of sugar and flavour in the grapes.

We then drove west, with the Andes looming in front of us, to Las Comportas, at an altitude of Finca Los Nobles vineyard1100 metres, to have a look at Finca Los Nobles, a 50 hectare vineyard of which the best 6 hectares supplies the grapes for Bosca’s top wines. This gently sloping vineyard has high plantation density of 10,000 vines per hectare, similar to vineyards in Burgundy, and very high for Mendoza. This encourages competition for resources amongst the vines, and limits yield per vine, helping to increase quality. We noticed some serious artillery in the middle of the vineyard, which turned out to be a cannon that is part of Mendoza’s defence against hail, and serious threat in the region that is responsible for a great deal of damage.

Later in the evening, after the sun had dropped below the Andes, we were able to experience the potential of Finca Los Nobles at its best – a double magnum of the 1996, soft, rich, refined and drinking perfectly.

The next day was to be spent visiting Viña Alicia. While Luigi Bosca spans an impressive range of quality and price levels, from Finca La Linda al the way to Finca Los Nobles, the Arizu family’s other estate, Viña Alicia, concentrates only on the top end. This is where the parents, Alberto Senior and Alicia, concentrate their efforts these days, along with their son Rodrigo.

At 11,000 vines per hectare, the vineyard at La Lunta has the highest plantation density in Argentina. They have another vineyard at Las Comportas. Plantings include Petit Verdot, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Albariño, Riesling and Savagnin. The most striking thing to a European’s eyes is how flat the vineyard is, given that slope is an important consideration in much of the Northern Hemisphere. But there is no advantage to being on a slope in Mendoza, as sun is plentiful, and drainage is not required. In fact, being on a slope makes life unnecessarily hard, as irrigation becomes problematic.

The winery itself is compact and bijoux, as befits an estate that produces less than 4,000 cases per year (although this will climb to nearer 10,000 cases over the next few years), and there is an underground barrel cellar, which is rare for the region. Everything about the vineyard and cellars speaks of the determination to produce the best wine possible from this vineyard, and we settled down to taste the fruit of the Arizu family’s labours.

The tasting began with a fascinating and unique blend of Albariño, Riesling and Savagnin, made in tiny quantities and yet to be named. This was followed by the 2005 Malbec, spicy yet refined, and structured but with plenty of juicy fruit. The 2005 Morena, a Bordeaux blend, was pure, concentrated and deep, and the 2005 Botte Negro (“Black shoot”, a mutation of Malbec, with smaller, but looser bunches) opulent and powerful, with youthful black fruit. The 2004, Nebbiolo, the only pure example of this grape in Argentina, was aromatic, perfumed and fresh, while the climax of the tasting was the perfectly-defined, mineral Cuarzo, a beautifully inviting wine with an immaculate palate, made from 96% Petit Verdot and a little Grenache and Carignan. It was Margaux-like in style and proportions, a real treat.

Over lunch, Gustavo Arizu explained that Viña Alicia is an opportunity to make terroir wines and ignore fashion or buyers’ requirements. They can simply make, on a small scale, wines that best represent the region and grape variety, without the worry of having to sell large volumes – it’s easier to take risks. Alberto then took us to the Hyatt in Mendoza, where a large screen had been wheeled out to allow the locals to witness Argentina shock Franc Suset over the Andese in the Rugby World Cup. By the end of the match Alberto had lost his voice.

That concluded the Argentinian leg of our trip. Next stop Chile.

David Round MW