Posts Filed Under overachiever wines
“This…. this was all vineyards of Malbec…”
They say the Italian influence runs strong in Argentina, and nowhere does it look stronger than in the face of our driver, Carlos Tizio Mayer – Plump, Roman-nosed and topped with a wavy shock of grey hair, he could be any of a dozen Italian uncles plucked straight from of the memories of my youth growing up in Wilmington’s “Little Italy.” He is driving with one hand, and waving to articulate his words with the other (as they saying goes, if you want to get an Italian to stop talking, hold down his hands). He’s waving towards the South American urban sprawl passing through the view from my passenger-side window.
Even his cadence seems Italian – or, I should say eeeeee-TAL-haaaaahn – deliberate, slow, and almost bearing a sing-song quality. I have plenty of time to consider the nuances, as Carlos is talking nearly non-stop during a two hour pickup truck ride (with me, uncomfortably, in the back “seat”) from downtown Mendoza to the small town of Vista Flores, home to the winemaking properties of Clos de los Siete, and the vineyards which Carlos maintains as their General Manager.
Carlos is holding court with his captive audience during our drive, but I’m only paying half attention. For one, Argentina’s roads aren’t exactly conducive to legible pen-and-paper note-taking; for another, I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes off of the view to our west, where Tupungato, the massive Pleistocene-era statovolcano, is also holding court. Tupungato is a giant among giants, towering over most of its Andean neighbors in a stunning, unmoving testament to the immense pyroclastic forces that, an immense amount of time ago, poleaxed an equally-immense stretch of land between what is now Chile and Argentina.
While I stare out the window waiting for the morning sun to get high enough to change the snow-capped peaks from auburn to bright white, Carlos continues without pause his history lesson of Argentine grapegrowing.
“We had fifty thousand hectares, now, it’s about thirty thousand” he says. The vineyard plantings around Mendoza gave way to sprawl in the 1980s, when local consumer tastes changed. Domestic per capita wine consumption here in the last twenty-five years has decreased from eighty liters a year to “less than thirty. The younger generation is drinking soda… and beer.”…
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Visit Familia Zuccardi, in the Maipú region of Mendoza in Argentina, and any (or all) of three things are likely to happen:
- You get stuffed like a veal calf, mostly on splayed goat, beef, and half-a-dozen different preparations of sausages, all done up Argentine Barbeque style.
- You fall somewhat under the kind-old-uncle spell of Director José Alberto Zuccardi, or are simply worn down by his seemingly endless wellspring of good cheer and all-around positive vibes.
- You realize that there’s good reason why books like Opus Vino call Zuccardi’s “Q” line “the portfolio stand-out.” If you’re not too stuffed on splayed goat and sausage to pay attention, that is.
Also, you might get tested on your Malbec blending skills (more info. on that – and on whether or not I passed – after the jump).
Despite a 2 million case / year production, Zuccardi still lives up to the “Familia” tag, particularly when they’re stuffing you at lunch and educating you on the proper method of sharing Yerba Mate tea Argentina style. And it’s still a family-run outfit: José’s father planted their first vines in 1963, mostly to show off an alternative use for the construction irrigation system he designed, but he “fell in love with winemaking” (funny how that happens), as José explained it to me (José’s been on board since `76, and his children are now involved in various aspects of the business).
Family ties do not a great wine guarantee, however. Defining Zuccardi’s “Q” as a “great” Malbec is, of course, a debatable matter, but after tasting through a not-insubstantial amount of Malbecs during my March jaunt through South America, let’s just say that I’m pretty confident telling you that it’s unlikely the “Q” would be considered anything other than at least “damn good” even by those who find Argentina’s signature dark Malbec wines to be a bit too… brutish for their personal tastes.
To understand what I mean by that, I need to take you behind the scenes at Zuccardi, where I got a crash-course (before the barbeque-stuffing) in whether or not Malbec really can show terroir…
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You don’t really know a winemaker until you’ve shared a seesaw ride with him. That’s my new mantra after visiting Viña Morandé’s “House of Morandé” restaurant and tasting bar (oh, yeah – and playground) just outside of Santiago in Chile.
The playground is for the kiddies, to keep them occupied while mom and dad taste some wine. At least, that’s the company line from Pablo Morandé, winemaking director at Viña Morandé.
Pablo comes off as a series, polite man; he’s tall, with white-grey hair, and a matter-of-fact look about him. When asked questions, his answers are short, to-the-point, and delivered with a sort of “of course this is the answer” confidence that comes from being one of the pioneers of modern winemaking in the area. In other words, they’re hopelessly non-quotable; but who needs quotes when you’re sharing a seesaw moment, right?
Being the pioneering granddaddy of modern winemaking in these parts is, of course, relative – it means you’ve been making wine since, say, 1996, and not 1896, so “grandfather” might not be totally appropriate a moniker. But when you see Pablo Morandé, I defy you not to think “grandfather.” When you meet Pablo Morandé, there is no way in hell you’re not going to be thinking “grandfather.”
Anyway, I consider it a Vatican-worthy minor-miracle that we got Pablo Morandé on the seesaw. But then, after finishing up a tasting and lunch at his restaurant during which he wasn’t spitting, it probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise after all, despite his serious demeanor (I’m guessing that the wines helped).
What has Pablo Morandé learned in his relatively long Chilean winemaking tenure? In summary: do less…
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Quick quiz for you: How many times can you listen to a winery’s PR guy mention Robert Parker scores before you want to shove wine barrel bungs into your ears to drown out all sound?
For me, the answer is “somewhere around 25 times,” which is about the amount I endured in the impressive underground barrel storage area of Errazuriz during my recent visit to Chile. I certainly don’t blame their PR for dousing me with the Robert Parker score hose during my visit – Errazuriz are clearly (and justifiably) proud of the accolades that their wines have received; they’ve been at the production of high-end, “icon” wines longer than just about anybody else in Chile, after all. But… what I had a difficult time with was the relentlessness with which that stream of scores was trained at my poor, unsuspecting ears.
God knows I don’t hate Parker, and I don’t hate wine scores (I find them very limiting, and rife for misuse, but don’t hate them). While I find Parker’s palate prefers wines that, to me, come off a bit on the brutish side (and quite a few of Errazuriz’s releases fall into that category), I’m sure plenty of people who like the higher-scoring Parker selections likely find my highly-rated selections on the tepid, shy side.
All further proof that you owe it to yourself to learn your own taste preferences before following the advice of critics too closely, I suppose.
Anyway… back to the cellar of PR pain…
I actually tried to derail said PR person by mentioning (when we were discussing Bordeaux wine prices versus those of Chile’s finest reds) that I’d interviewed Parker fairly recently. I figured what the hell, maybe telling him I’d had contact with Parker would at least change the context of the current discussion about Parker. Nope – that tactic had about the same effect as trying to stop a charging elephant with a grade-school-classroom-grade spitball. So I turned it into a learning opportunity, and the lesson was this:
Reciting a litany of wine scores isn’t really marketing!
It wasn’t helping the oppressive vibe any that day that the icon winery at Errazuriz is impressively imposing in its starkness, or that the barrel rooms have brick and calcareous rock that measures up to two and a half inches thick in some places – while good for withstanding Chile’s earthquakes, the whole thing came off as being a bit too overwhelming, and it all felt just a tad old school.
Quite a marked contrast to the experience I had just a few hours earlier when visiting Errazuriz’s western vineyard location, the gorgeous Chilhue Manzanar (“seagull’s place” in Mapudungun, the language of the region’s indigenous Mapuche people) 120 km northwest of Santiago, and mere 12 km from the Pacific ocean…
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