Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Bodegas Salentein: Altitude, Acidity & Terroir

Numerous consumers seem to believe that Argentina is primarily the place for inexpensive and delicious Malbec wines. When I see them at the wine shop, they most often ask for Malbec from Argentina, and not other varietals like Torrontes or Cabernet Sauvignon. Most often, they seek Malbecs costing $15 and under, though we have a fair share that will spend up to $25 for a better bottling. It is very rare that they come in seeking a high-end Malbec, or any high-end wine from Argentina.

I've traveled to Argentina, met numerous wine makers and winery owners, and tasted many of their wines. It was a fantastic trip, from great food to beautiful views, from compelling wines to interesting people. More people need to understand that Argentina is much more than inexpensive Malbec. Terroir is becoming more and more of an important concern in Argentina. They are paying careful attention to soil, altitude, microclimates, viticulture, and much more. Wine makers are trying to make more wines reflective of place, and they are succeeding.

At a recent media lunch at Mooo Restaurant, all of these issues once more rose to the surface as I dined with Jose Galante, Chief Winemaker at Bodegas Salentein, and Matías Bauzá Moreno, the Senior Brand and PR Manager for Salentein. Matias has worked for Salentein for about 13 years. In the photo above, Jose is on the left and Matias is on the right. Both men were very knowledgeable, had a clear passion for wine, and were excellent spokespeople for the wines of Argentina, as well as their own winery.

Bodegas Salentein is located in the Valle de Uco, the Uco Valley, a region to the southwest of Mendoza. It is considered one of the prime spots for quality vineyards in all of Argentina. The Uco Valley consists of about 75,000 hectares, with about one-third covered in vineyards, and the region produces about 6%-7% of all Argentina wines. In the future, the Uco Valley region may be broken down into smaller, distinctive regions, to better showcase specific terroirs.

The former owner of Salentein, who passed away a few months ago, was Mijndert Pon, who once worked in the family business of importing Volkswagens into the Netherlands. After retiring, Mijndert decided to sail around the world, but that dream ended near the Panama Canal. Afterwards, in 1992, Mijndert, at age 68, decided to purchase what would become the Salentein farm in Uco Valley.

He named the estate after his family farm back in the Netherlands. The property has historical roots, and one part of the estate was where Jesuits once made wine in the 17th century. At first, Mijndert just wanted to grow grapes, but it didn't take long for him to feel the desire to produce wine too, and his first vintage was in 1999. Currently, the Salentein estate consists of about 5,000 acres, with about 1700 aces being farmed.  

Jose Galante is relatively new to Salentein, as this has been only his fourth vintage, and he previously worked for about 34 years at Bodegas Catena Zapata, which is an admirable resume. Catena has long been on the cutting edge of vinous research in Argentina, so I'm sure Jose possesses great experience. In addition, his grandfather, who was from Italy, worked in a winery as did his father. Seems that wine is in his blood, and in addition, Jose spent about ten years teaching at a university. Upon moving to Salentein, Jose brought his lengthy experience and wine making philosophy with him, leading to some changes in the wines that have been made. To Jose, wine making is simply his way of life, and he wouldn't have it any other way.  

The prior winemaker at Salentein produced wines in a more classical wine style, while Jose chooses to use less oak and a less aggressive maceration. Barrels are now toasted in a more Burgundian style rather than a more aggressive Bordeaux style. In addition, Jose frequently tastes the wines in the barrels to assess when they need to be taken out of the barrels, trying to prevent issues with too much oak maturation.

He believes that the Uco Valley is the best region of all of Argentina, with plenty of high altitude vineyards. Those altitudes are very important, and the higher the altitude, the earlier the harvest, sometimes even by as much as an entire month. Different altitudes will also present different flavor profiles. For example, consider how altitude can affect Chardonnay. At low altitudes, you'll find more tropical fruit flavors while at medium altitudes, you'll get more apple and pear. And at high altitudes, you'll get a leaner wine with more mineral notes.

One of the most important keys to the region is acidity. The Uco Valley bring out acidity very well in wine, and there is no need to correct its acidity as you sometimes have to do in other regions. Jose believes that altitude may be a prime component in acidity. Acidity helps to make wines more food friendly.

Jose feels that the most important challenge he faces is to show all of the potential of Uco Valley, to make wines that reflect the terroir of their estate. They are still evaluating their soils, trying to determine the best areas for each type of grape. They never stop learning. Jose also wants use more restrained use of oak to showcase the flavors of the wine rather than overpower it. He doesn't want the oak to hide the terroir. In addition, he loves to visit the vineyards, taste the grapes, and feel closer to the land. He understands the importance of winemakers getting into the vineyards, to better understand how it will affect their wine making.

Vintage variation is not too great, though Jose stated that 2013 was one of their best vintages. As for the 2014 vintage, it had more rain and some issues at the end of the vintage. Despite that, Malbec did very well and Sauvignon Blanc was more mineral, though Cabernet Sauvignon suffered some. Most of the wines we  tasted were from 2012.

We began our lunch with the 2012 Kilka Torrontes ($14.99), which receives its name from an aboriginal world that means "opening" or "gateway." Jose stated that classical Torrontes possesses a bitter finish but this wine is intended to be different. Instead, it is easy to drink, a crisp and clean wine, with plenty of bright citrus flavors. It is very food friendly and elegant, lacking any bitterness on the finish. Pair with seafood, salads, and light chicken dishes. An excellent white wine choice.

Our first courses was a salad of roasted baby beets, goat cheese; and mache, topped by an apple cider & balsamic vinaigrette. With this course, we enjoyed a 2012 Chardonnay Reserve ($18.99), from medium altitude vineyards. With a pleasant aroma, it possessed tasty flavors of green apple and pear with a hint of smoke. It had a richer mouthfeel, partially due to having spent time on the lees and a partial malolactic fermentation. This white wine was also crisp and clean, with a lengthy and pleasing finish. Another food friendly wine too.

Our main course was a choice of swordfish or beef, and I opted for the Broiled Petite Filet Mignon with horseradish whipped potato, green beans, marrow toast, & red wine jus. Matias though chose the swordfish, noting that he believes it pairs well with Malbec. That is a pairing I;ll have to try some time.

The 2012 Malbec Reserve ($18.99), made from 100% Malbec, is aged for about 12 months in French oak and spends another 6 months in the bottle before release. With a dark red color,it had an interesting nose of black fruit and spice. On the palate, there were tasty flavors of ripe plum, black cherry and blackberry with a spicy backbone and a lingering finish. There was a nice depth of flavor to this wine, with moderate tannins and good acidity. A good steak wine. This wine is going to please all those Malbec lovers out there.

The 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve ($18.99), made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, is aged for about 12 months in oak, 90% French and 10% American. There was a certain elegance to this wine, with ripe black fruit flavors and plenty of spice notes. It possessed moderate tannins, nice complexity and a pleasing finish. My personal preference of these two wines was for the Malbec, which I felt might have possessed a greater depth of flavor, but both were very good wines.

The 2012 Numina Gran Corte ($41) is a blend of 62% Malbec, 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Petit Verdot. Each varietal is vinified separately and then is aged separately in the barrel for about 6 months. Afterwards, the grapes are mixed and then spend an additional ten months in the barrel. The term "numina" means "spirit." Until 2007, this wine used to be a Malbec/Merlot blend but Jose brought changes to the cepage.

Jose feels that it is more exciting to make a blend rather than a single varietal, a sentiment I have heard before from other winemakers from Argentina.. I found this to be a fascinating wine, possessed of a complex nose and taste, with great depth of flavor and a very satisfying, lengthy finish. Ripe plum, black cherry, hints of blueberry, lots of spicy notes, and hints of leather, cocoa and herbs. This is a wine to slowly savor, appreciating every complex and intriguing sip. An impressive and highly recommended wine.

The 2010 Primum Malbec ($65) is produced from 100% Malbec, 40% of the grapes from a high altitude vineyard, and it was aged for about 18 months in the barrel. This was such an elegant and delicious wine. Lots of violet and floral aroma, and a palate of cherry and plum flavors, with mild spicy accents, nice acidity, a touch of minerality and silky tannins. Another beautiful wine to slowly savor, with or without food. It well shows the potential of high-end Malbec, and is the type of high quality wine consumers need to understand can be produced from Malbec. Highly recommended.

All of these wines are now available throughout the U.S., and including in Massachusetts, So you have no excuse not to seek them out.

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