When Hans Vinding-Diers arrived in Río Negro in 1998, he landed just below the 39th parallel at Humberto Canale, one of the last surviving wineries in what had been a thriving Patagonian wine business.
Vineyards had arrived more than a century ago with the railroad from Buenos Aires, 750 miles to the north. And for more than 50 years, Río Negro was the third largest producer of grapes in Argentina (after Mendoza and San Juan). Then the economic crises of the 1970s annihilated more than 70 producers in the region, along with thousands of acres of vines.
Vinding-Diers left Stellenbosch, South Africa, where he was making wine for the British firm that had recently partnered with Canale, Hedley Wright. He accepted their offer to work in Patagonia, but later reflected on leaving the Cape, “That was the end of my surfer days with a Hilux pickup truck.”
On the other hand, he was joining a high-powered team, with Marcelo Miras and Roberto de la Mota from Mendoza, who were already making exceptional wines there. What really turned his head was a cache of older Canale wines he discovered in the cellar—wines from the 1930s that blew him away. “Some were rustic, but they had freshness and minerality,” he recalls. “The wines were alive. I could not believe it. The reality was that none were Château Lafite, but they had all the potential to be.”
When Vinding-Diers’ girlfriend, Noemi Marone Cinzano of Argiano in Montalcino, came to visit, she recognized what he saw in the old-vine assets that surrounded them. They started looking for land to make their own wine and eventually found a vineyard at Mainqué, about 17 miles east of General Roca. It was planted in 1932 and is now the source for their top selection, Noemía. Later, Marone Cinzano ventured into the Valle Azul, a district to the east of General Roca, where she bought another property, now the site of their winery.
Sixty miles west, in Neuquén Province, Uruguayan businessman Julio Viola set out to establish vineyards in San Patricio de Chañar in 1997. He tamed what was a wild and inhospitable desert with water from a dam 20 miles away, brought to his ranch by a long canal. To battle the wind, he planted rows of poplars as protection for the vines he would plant in 1999. A decade later, there were 5,000 acres of vines in the area and seven wineries: Bodega del Fin del Mundo, NQN, Familia Schroeder, Valle Perdido, Bodega Patritti, Secreto Patagónico and Bodega del Añelo. ■
Marcelo Miras has focused his entire career on the cool climates of Argentina; with 20 years in Alto Valle de Río Negro, he is the winemaker with the most experience and detailed knowledge of Patagonia. For his own label, he works with old-vine sites in Mainqué and Ingeniero Huergo for his Üdwe and Miras wines. His production, about 1,600 cases, includes pinot noir and merlot notable for their elegance and clarity.
This was the first new wine from maritime Argentina. Based at the cool, eastern end of the Río Negro, 15 miles from the Atlantic, the Lascano family planted their first vines in 1998; they now tend 54 acres, their vineyards influenced by the ocean fog. They farm under biodynamics and ferment their wines without adding yeast. Marcelo Miras consults here, helping to produce 8,300 cases a year; the wines are clearly marked by the sea, with a salty freshness.
WEINERT PATAGONIAN WINES
Bernardo Weinert helped pioneer Patagonian wines at his project in El Hoyo de Epuyén, on the 42nd parallel. The vineyard, in a small valley at an elevation of 1,000 feet, is surrounded by forest. Weinert planted an experimental plot 16 years ago, with 300 vines; the vineyard now covers 62 acres, focused on varieties that perform well in short growing seasons, including pinot noir, merlot, riesling, chardonnay and gewürztraminer. Look for the Epuyén Chardonnay–Riesling, marked with freshness and concentrated fruit.
PASO DEL SAPO
At dinner one night in Buenos Aires, I overheard a conversation between Paz Levinson, one of Argentina’s top sommeliers, and Matias Michelini, one of Mendoza’s superstar winemakers. “You have to go to Paso del Sapo,” Levinson said. “It’s in Chubut—a wonderful place where a madman has planted chardonnay.” Michelini took the challenge, finding a secluded town on the Chubut River with no more than a hundred inhabitants. (It’s located 120 miles southeast of El Hoyo de Epuyén). The madman was Jorge Varise, who owns about 1,500 acres there with some friends; he had been experimenting with different crops to see what might work. Based at the 43rd parallel, Varise planted 180 vines in 2008 in volcanic soils. Michelini harvested those grapes on March 3, 2012, preserved them under dry ice on the 2,000-mile trek north to Mendoza, fermented them on the skins and produced 300 bottles of chardonnay. The wine is as wild and rustic as the landscape in Chubut, pointedly acidic with a salty taste of the Argentine soil.
5. Southern Chubut
This project is named for the Chubut town of Sarmiento, in the far south of the province, in the hills above Lake Musters. It’s owned by a businessman from Buenos Aires, who hired Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini and terroir consultant Pedro Parra from Chile. Parra compares the region’s climate to the Okanagan Valley in Canada. It’s very cold during winter, with lots of snow and temperatures dropping to 5° F.; the summers are short, with peaks of over 86° F. Parra has segregated five blocks with distinct soil profiles (mostly limestone), experimenting with chardonnay and pinot noir for still and sparkling wines. While the property itself is large, they have planted just over 20 acres, waiting for some initial results. They are now in the planning stages for a winery to handle grapes grown on the 46th parallel. This is, by far, the most southerly vineyard in Argentina.
This story was featured in W&S February 2013.
This story appears in the print issue of February 2013.
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