Wines of Argentina has designated Sunday April 17 Malbec World Day 2016. That’s only a week away, so you had better get started thinking about how you will celebrate this holiday. Please use the comments section below to share your Malbec World Day plans.
Malbec World Day is a good excuse for a Flashback Friday column since Malbec has appeared frequently in these pages in the context of the Argentinean wine industry. Malbec was, for example, the subject of an award-winning documentary called “Boom Varietal: the Rise of Argentine Malbec” (see video trailer above) that provided my first (and so far only) opportunity to be a supporting character in a film.
Here is a column from back in 2011 that honors all Malbec producers by revisiting Mendel Wines (a bottle of Mendel Malbec is on the short list of possibilities for our Malbec World Day celebration along with a “flashback” tribute Malbec from Colomé called Auténtico).
Balance is the key to great wine (and profitable wine business, too). I was reminded of this truth many times during our visit to Mendoza, where wine makers are trying to chart a course between and among several extremes:
- Competitive export sales versus the challenging domestic market;
- Reliable value wine sales versus potentially more profitable premium products;
- Popular and successful Malbec versus TNBT — The (speculative and uncertain) Next Big Thing.
The key to long term success involves finding the right balance in this complex economic environment.
I want to use this post to consider three types of balance that I think are particularly interesting in Mendoza – the balance between crisis and opportunity, local and international winemaking influences and the simple tension between the old and the new. We learned about all three dimensions during our brief visit to Mendel Wines in Lujan de Cuyo.
Crisis and Opportunity
Mendel is both very old and quite new. The vineyards are old, planted in 1928. Somehow these Malbec vines survived the ups and downs of the Argentinean economy. The winery is almost as old and has a certain decaying charm. It stands in stark contrast to Salentein, O. Fournier, the Catena Zapata pyramid and the many other starkly modernist structures that have sprung up in this part of the world.
The winery project is quite new. Mendel is a partnership between Anabelle Sielecki and Roberto de la Mota and is the result of a balance between crisis and opportunity. When economic crisis struck Argentina ten years ago, opportunities were created for those with vision and entrepreneurial spirit. Anabelle and Roberto seized the moment and purchased these old vines and well-worn structures for their new super premium winery project.
That their impulse was timely and wise may not have been obvious at the time (crises are like that), but it is perfectly clear now. Wine Advocate named Mendel one of nine “Best of the Best” Argentinean wineries in a recent issue.
Old and New
The winemaking that goes on in Mendel is also a combination of old and new. The technology is modern, of course, with stainless steel and French oak very visible. The setting, however, constantly reminds you of the past and the vineyard’s and winery’s history. Walking through the winery, for example, I was struck by the big original concrete fermenting tanks – a blast from the past for sure.
No, we don’t use them to ferment the wines anymore, Cecilia Albino told us, but we put them to good use. Peek inside. Sure enough, the tanks were filled with oak barrels full of wine aging quietly in the cool environment.
Mendel also illustrates the balance between local and global that characterizes wine in Argentina, where much of the capital and many of the winemakers come from abroad. Roberto de la Mota, partner and chief winemaker at Mendel, personifies this balance. Roberto is the son of Raúl de la Mota, who is sometimes said to be Argentina’s “winemaker of the [20th] century” so important was his work in developing quality wine in this country.
Roberto naturally grew up in the wine business both here and in France, where he sought advanced training on the advice of Emile Peynaud. He was the winemaker at Terrazas, Chandon’s still wine project in Mendoza, and then at Cheval des Andes, a winery with connections to Château Cheval Blanc. I think it is fair to say that Roberto’s resume represents a balance between local and global, between deep understanding of Mendoza terroir and knowledge that perhaps only international influences can provide.
Local and Global
I asked Roberto if it was important that Mendel is an Argentinean project and not owned by a foreign multinational. Yes of course, he said, but he hesitated a bit and I think I see why. Many of the influences and markets are international, but people, vines and inspiration are purely local. Not one or another, but intertwined, balanced.
And this thirst for a complex balance defines the future. Talking with Anabelle over coffee in Buenos Aires, she was ambitious to break into new markets – Hong Kong, China, and so forth. Anabelle is an architect — another field where global and local intersect.
Meeting with Roberto at the winery in Mendoza, he was interested in learning even more about his vines and terroir so as to better develop their potential. And to bring more of the classic Bordeaux grape varieties (like Petit Verdot) into the mix.
Mendel has charted its balanced course quickly, purposefully and well. It is a perfect illustration of both the tensions that define wine in Argentina and the potential for success if a clear but balanced path is boldly taken.
 The other “Best of the Best” wineries in Wine Advocate issue 192 are Achaval Ferrer, Alta Vista, Catena Zapata, Viña Cobos, Colomé Reserva, Luca, Tikal and Yacochuya.