ADVENTURES IN ARGENTINA

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In March, the winners of our Bodegas Otronia and Argento competition visited Patagonia and Mendoza. There was time for some Buenos Aires culture, a smattering of tango and an afternoon of horse riding and quad biking. But the real wow factor was provided by the wines – and the people and places that produce them.  Graham Holter reports

These days, you know you’re entering real wilderness when you’re warned that your phone signal is about to drop out for a few hours. Our MPV pulls over so the driver can make a last call before we venture westwards across the bleak Patagonian Steppe, a cold desert in the rain shadow of the Andes in the province of Chubut. We’re heading for one of the world’s most improbable wineries, and the most southerly commercial vineyards on the planet. We’re going to Bodega Otronia.

It’s an empty but oddly beautiful landscape, peppered with tuft grasses and low shrubs. Isolated oil derricks nod rhythmically; occasionally we slow down to avoid colliding with guanacos, the hardcore llamas that thrive in this inhospitable part of Patagonia in a way that not much else does. Nothing we see on our protracted journey from the coast suggests that we’re entering wine country.

Finally, the estate emerges like a verdant oasis, alive with fruit trees and poplars and vines heaving with ripe berries. The harvest is under way, and frankly it looks much like any other. The pickers are busy with their work and amused at our interest in them. Perhaps we should ask someone to translate, for their benefit, how weird we think this place is. Who the hell plants vines in a windswept desert at a latitude of 45.3 degrees south?

The parent company of Grupo Avinea, which owns both Bodega Otronia and Mendoza-based Argento, was already cultivating cherries at this location, just outside the small oil town of Sarmiento, when thoughts turned to viticulture. Soil mapping was commissioned, and the land was divided into 52 discrete parcels, some sandy, some more dominated by clay. Poplars were planted around each boundary as protection from the biting winds, and in 2010 the first Chardonnay and Pinot Noir went into the ground. Everything – including the trees – needs constant irrigation with water drawn from the nearby Musters lake. There is no rain.

The Otronia project was born of a shared vision but the man who is given much of the credit is Alberto Antonini, the Tuscan wine consultant who first saw the potential for sparkling wine – and possibly ice wine – on the estate. He still spends two days a year here and his current visit just happens to coincide with ours.

“When I came here, there were no vineyards around so we could only guess,” he says of the advice he provided to his client. “I was in love with the soil, and proximity to a lake is always very good. It’s a salty area so, as the vine roots get deeper each year, they pick up more mineral elements. There are lots of herbs around. But there were no guidelines [to work to].”

Growing conditions at Otronia can be extreme, with temperatures reaching 35˚C in January and sometimes dipping down to near freezing during harvest. Despite the protection of the poplars, wind damage is still an occupational hazard. And yet it soon became clear that the grapes could ripen, not just to a level that would make them work for fizz, but in still wines. The estate is now home to Malbec, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Torrontés and Riesling, all farmed organically. Sauvignon Blanc has recently joined the roster.

These are terroir wines, but terroir wines don’t happen without human intervention. Any time spent with the Otronia team inevitably involves references to “precision viticulture” and “precision winemaking”, and that’s exactly what’s required here on the frontier of vinous possibility. 

Antonini seems to revel in the freedom that Otronia has provided. “We need to get over this concept that Europe is the only place where terroir exists,” he says. “We’ve probably only discovered about 20%, at most, of the terroirs that nature offers us.”  

One thing is for sure: we can now add the Patagonian Steppe to the list.

Our flights from Patagonia to Mendoza are disrupted by stormy weather and so our planned visit to the Argento winery slips off the schedule. But really it was never  the priority: the plan was always to spend quality time in the vineyards. We leave the culture and commerce of Mendoza City behind us and head south to Altamira, in the heart of the Uco Valley.

Argento claims to be the biggest organic producer in Argentina, with 340 hectares farmed without synthetic pesticides and herbicides. The 20-hectare Altamira vineyard sits at an elevation of just over 1,000 metres, with the Andes providing a dramatic backdrop to the west. 

It’s a sandy, silty landscape with huge rocks, excavated to make way for the vines, piled up on the edges of the parallelogram-shaped plots. We ask why there are nets draped over the rows: we’re told it’s for protection against hail, rather than birds. (Disappointingly, we don’t see any condors – nor the pumas that have been known to make fleeting appearances.)

It’s a worthy setting for a tasting of Argento Single Vineyard Altamira Malbec 2021, with its characteristic burst of red fruits and violets. We also sample the premium Argento Single Block Malbec 2021. Each vintage, the best-performing Altamira block – as judged in a blind tasting – has the honour of providing the fruit for this label, and every year Block 1 comes out on top. The 2021 is full-bodied but still elegant, with firm tannins and bracing acidity, and herbal notes mingling naturally with the dark fruit and spice.

Argento’s environmental ethos informs its approach to winemaking. It has Fairtrade certification for many of its wines and ensures that vineyard workers are paid fairly, provided with suitable clothing, and have access to a cleansing shower at the end of the working day. There are contributions made to schools and community projects in a region where poverty is often visible, and exacerbated by Argentina’s economic travails.

We head north to Alto Agrelo, a 230-hectare vineyard at a similar altitude to Altamira. It’s dominated by Malbec, but Cabernet Franc is in the ascendancy, thriving as it does in this part of the world. (In fact, thanks to a surge in its popularity, there’s now a shortage in Mendoza that vignerons are striving to address.) Cabernet Sauvignon, Sémillon, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot and Syrah are also Agrelo residents.

It’s here that we encounter a wild animal that can cause mayhem in the vineyard, and it’s going about its business in plain sight: the ant. Cecilia Acosta, whose role involves fostering biodiversity in Avinea’s estates, is figuring out ways of coexisting with these remarkable, but destructive, insects rather than blasting them with chemicals. After all, she reasons, they were here first.

Experiments are continuing, but she believes that encouraging ants to focus on plants other than vines as fuel for their underground fungus farms is likely to be the way forward. We each plant a species of sage between rows of Malbec, and hope we’ve done our bit to create an appetising distraction for the busy workers and soldiers we’re trying studiously not to step on. We’re all Team Argento now.

 

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