Friday, October 29, 2010

Vino Argentino: learning more about the wines and food of Argentina

A few weeks ago, Michael Lamp from Hunter Public Relations sent me a couple of wine samples from the Alamos brand. There was also a copy of Laura Catena's new book, Vino Argentino that she describes as an insider guide to the wines and wine regions of Argentina.

Laura Catena's life is absolutely fascinating. She is simultaneously a practicing emergency room physician, a winery owner, an active ambassador of Argentine Wine, and a book writer. She is also the daughter of Nicolás Catena, the pioneer of Argentina's high-altitude viticulture and the first wine producer to plant a Malbec vineyard at almost 5,000 feet (1,524 m) elevation in the high plains of Mendoza.

The Mendoza province is Argentina's main wine region. It is a high desert that receives an average annual rainfall of less than 8 inches (20 cm). The climate is continental with very cold nights and intense sunlight during the day thanks to the elevation. The soils are very poor in organic material and filled with alluvial rocks and gravels, which means excellent drainage. Grapevines growing in this environment suffer and have low yields. To protect their seeds from the sun, they build thick grape skins that are rich in tannins and polyphenols, therefore producing wines that are concentrated and flavorful.

The Alamos brand was introduced in 1993 by the Catena family as a second label to the higher priced Catena wines. The name Alamos means poplar in Spanish and is derived from the poplar trees lining the vineyards to protect them from the strong dry winds coming from the Andes.

We tasted our first wine sample, the 2009 Alamos Torrontés, with appetizers. A crossing of Criolla Chica (a local cousin of the Mission grape) and Muscat of Alexandria, Torrontés is Argentina's signature white variety. The grape, which thrives in cold and dry conditions, produces the best wines in the Salta Province in the north west of the country, a region of high altitude and low humidity, with dramatic diurnal temperature variation.

The Alamos Torrontés is sourced from vineyards located near the city of Cafayate, in the Salta province. It is cold fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. The wine showed a light golden color and an aromatic nose of peach, apricot, and white flower blossom. On the palate, it was crisp and fresh with notes of honey and orange peel on the finish.

With our dinner, we opened the other Alamos bottle, a 2009 Alamos Malbec. Malbec is the signature wine of the Mendoza region. Originally from France, it is one of the six grapes allowed in the blend of red Bordeaux wine. It is also the primary grape used in the Cahors appellation in the South-West of France. But then in the 1860s, a French agricultural engineer called Michel Pouget brought the grape to Argentina. Malbec being a thin-skinned grape that needs more sun and heat than either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to mature, it quickly thrived in Argentina's high-altitude vineyards and is now widely planted in the country.

The Alamos Malbec is sourced from high-altitude vineyards in the Mendoza wine region. It is aged 9 months in oak barrels, 50% French, 50% American, 25% new. The wine had a dark purple color and aromas of black cherries and blackberries on the nose. On the palate, it was full-bodied with a good balance of acidity and tannins and notes of pepper and pomegranate on the finish.

For dinner, I made a Carbonada, using a recipe that I found in Laura Catena's book. The stew was heartwarming with some sweet and fruity flavors that went perfectly well with the Malbec.

There are several other recipes in the book that look as delicious. And many other things too that make you wish you could visit the country.


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Saturday, October 23, 2010

The 2000 Château Sociando-Mallet is ready to drink and wonderfully seductive

The other day, our friend Marcus invited us for dinner. He asked me to come early because I had to choose the wine and then we needed some time for the wine to breathe. The thing is that Marcus had built quite a large room underneath his house to store his wines, and I was quite excited to have a look at his collection. I wanted to choose a bottle that would work best with the meal. There were thick fillet steaks waiting to be grilled on the barbecue and a swiss chard gratin baking in the oven.

Down in the cellar, as I concentrated my attention mostly on the Bordeaux and California Cabernets area, I found a bottle of 2000 Château Sociando-Mallet. With little hesitation, that's the one I brought back to the kitchen.

The 2000 vintage is considered one of the finest in Bordeaux, although the year didn't start very well. Winter was warm and spring was wet. July was cool and overcast. But then suddenly, the weather changed. August was unusually dry and above all, the weather was warm and dry during the entire harvest, allowing Cabernet Sauvignon, the primary grape variety of the Médoc, to ripen beautifully.

The Sociando-Mallet estate is located to the north of the Saint-Estèphe appellation, on a gravel outcrop, right on the Gironde river. The vineyard is planted to 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, with the remaining 5% divided between Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

Sociando-Mallet was classified as a Cru Bourgeois in 1932 but nowadays, it is considered as good as most Médoc Cru Classés Châteaux. The harvest is done manualy and fermentation occurs in both concrete and stainless-steel vats. After fermentation, the wine is aged in oak (100% for the grand vin) and then bottled without fining or filtration.

The wine didn't disappoint at all. The color was deep garnet and the nose really attractive with fragrant aromas of blackcurrant and eucalyptus. While the palate was rich in flavors, it displayed classy finesse and elegance. The wine had aged well and was succulent, like the tenter and juicy meat, and the creamy gratin.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Can technology help make better wines?

I recently received an email announcing the launch of UC Davis' new high-tech winery. It is a $15 million teaching-and-research facility and is expected to be the first winery to earn a LEED Platinum certification.

The project is impressive. The winery's eco-friendly features include onsite solar power generation and a system for capturing, storing, and recycling rainwater. The ultimate goal is to operate the facility independent of the main campus water line and be self-sustainable in both water and energy. Moreover, an innovative system of plastic tubes running up to the ceiling from the fermenters is designed to capture the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation. There are also plans to sequester that CO2 in order to work in a carbon zero environment.

The winery has also a new high-tech fermentation system that was donated by T.J. Rodgers, chief executive officer of Cypress Semiconductor and a winemaker himself. 152 stainless-steel fermentation tanks automatically control temperature during fermentation. In each tank, a brix sensor measures sugar levels and transmits the data across a wireless network. With this high-tech system, UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology plans to conduct data-intensive studies, hoping to understand how different variables such as grape-growing practices, vineyard location and choice of yeast strains impact the character and quality of wines.

“No other viticulture and enology research organization has a facility with these capabilities,” explains David Block, vice chair of the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. “And when it is fully implemented, it will contain one of the largest wireless networks in any fermentation facility in the world.”

To me, it is not clear how all this data analysis will really help winemakers. “A lot of information is great,” acknowledges PlumpJack Winery General Manager John Conover, “but the great thing about wine is that there is no recipe.”

By contrast, I remember my recent visits to Oregon wineries and the discussions I had with the local winemakers. Their main focus is to grow the best fruit in the vineyard. Viticulture science helps them select the best soils, microclimates clones, crop size, and grow more healthy grapevines. However in the cellar, most of them believe in minimal intervention and to just let the grape shine.

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Monday, October 04, 2010

Will an unusually cool California summer result in more balanced, lower-alcohol wines?

“If conditions continue, we'll be harvesting into November”, recently declared David Beckstoffer, president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.

While many parts of the U.S. experienced a scorching summer season this year, Napa and Sonoma had the second coldest July in 50 years. Wine growers like to use degree days, measuring accumulated degrees above 50 degrees during the summer season, and so Oakville, at the heart of Napa Valley, has typically 2,700 degree days. But this year, until the recent heat wave, it was at 2,300. In Paso Robles, it's at 2,200, compared to a typical value of 3,000.

Harvesting so late is going to be risky for winegrowers because any rain in October may worsen the threat of mildew that already exists due to persistent caostal fog and cool temperatures. However, more time on the vine can result in better fruit quality.

“The fruit flavors are very strong,” says Larry Hyde of Hyde Vineyards in the Carneros region. “The stuff that makes fruit taste fruity, compounds like esters and ketones, are sensitive to hot weather and tend to be vaporized in the heat of a warm season. But we're finding great fruit flavors in all varieties, and high acidity.”

“2005 was an odd year like this with a late harvest,” explains Andy Peay, winemaker at Peay Vineyards in this article, “It was kind of a lesson to winemakers. People who were used to making these big, bold, high-alcohol wines ended up producing some of the most elegant, balanced, beautiful wines they'd ever made. You just have to take care. Some of our best vintages came out of years like this.”

Grapes should be less ripe this year, which means that less sugar will be converted into alcohol. I think this is good news: we should see more wines with lower alcohol levels as well as higher acidity. I am also looking forward to finding those that are going to show additional balance and elegance.

More on the 2010 California harvest:
•  California's late grape harvest of 2010: What it could mean
•  Grapegrowers anticipate a late - but great - 2010 harvest
•  Three California Winemakers Discuss the Difficult, Possibly Disastrous 2010 Vintage

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