Fifty miles south of the city of Mendoza the valley of Tunuyan feels less like a valley and more like a vast, kneeling supplicant to the immediate, looming bulk of the Northern Andes mountains. Though the valley floor is massive -- sweeping away from the jagged, snow capped peaks in every possible direction as if it were trying to get out of the way of their falling bulk -- you never get the sense that it is very flat. No matter where you stand, the world seems to be constantly tipping up towards (or down away from, as the case may be) the peaks above, leaving the uneasy feeling that somehow if you stopped walking or closed your eyes for a moment, you'd fall over -- nudged off balance by a world pushed aside by the Andes.
The topological uneasiness caused by the very real angle of the alluvial plains of Tunuyan is accompanied by another phenomenon common to the world's most expansive landscapes. The ground seems nearer to the sky; and the two of them together -- the whole wide world -- contrive to make the human observer seem mouse-small in the face of its sheer grandeur.
In this landscape, it can be difficult to fully appreciate what is quite likely the most ambitious winery project on the surface the planet. In the shadow of great mountains, winemaker Michel Rolland, viticulturalist and managing director Carlos Mayer, and some of the world's most famous and influential winery families are building the crown jewel of Argentina's wine world. Clos de los Siete -- a partnership originally with seven investors (though some have subsequently pulled out) -- will be, when fully realized, a semi-collective grouping of world-class wine estates who will each make their own wines while contributing some of their grapes to a single wine produced under the Clos de la Siete name.
Certainly the dirt and pothole-ridden pavement back roads that lead the visitor to the unmarked adobe-style gatehouse at the base of Clos de los Siete do not properly set the stage for the grandeur that lies in wait at the foot of the mountains. Driving past the gatehouse onto the lower roads of the property, which are beginning to show signs of their eventual groomed state, and even seeing the initial views of some of the vineyards and low-slung architectural forms of the wineries, it is difficult to get a handle on exactly what it is you are seeing.
For me, it took a short drive with Carlos Mayer to the top south-western corner of the property, the highest elevation point of the project, to fully understand the real scale of the numbers he was reeling off as we bumped along the dirt roads. 2092 acres of property at 1,200 meters above sea level planted, since 1999, with vines at 2500 plants per acre on a plot of land four kilometers long and two kilometers wide sounds like a lot of vineyard. Until you see it. And then you realize that it's a hell of a lot of vineyard.
As we bumped our way back down to the first of the winery buildings past the neighboring property overrun with head-high gorse and some sort of equally unattractive bush (which Mayer says indicates excellent soil infertility for grapes) I also got the sense of the unbelievable effort it must have taken to transform the landscape to the point at which grapevines (and irrigation pipes, and electrical wires) could be put into the ground. Clearly neither time, effort, nor expense were a barrier to success.
And it took only two steps into any one of the wineries on the property to fully understand how much expense we are really talking about.
Of the eventual five wineries in the project, three have been constructed, and each is an exercise in architectural expression as well as the stuff of winemakers' wet dreams. With a literal blank slate (and no doubt, blank checks from the owners) the wineries of Clos de los Siete are the most sophisticated custom winemaking facilities I have ever seen. Fully optimized for gravity flow, precise humidity and temperature control, workflow, cleanliness, and the exacting custom specifications of Mayer, Rolland, and the individual winemakers for each of the families, they would be impressive even without the stylish edifices in which they sit. The buildings themselves express the personalities of their owners, and no doubt their architects as well. From the postmodern Santa Fe visions of artist/illustrator Philippe Duillet (famous among other things for being the art director of the Star Wars films) at the Flecha de los Andes winery, to the low slung modernism-meets-Tuscan-castle of Cuvelier los Andes, to the majestic Boston-brick-warehouse monolith of Monteviejo.
It's all to easy to see only as far as the expression of massive wealth and ambition at play across the landscape here. These palaces here at the ends of the earth can, and likely will by some, be written off as an exercise of ego with no spending cap. But anyone who bothers to stay long enough to taste the wines being made here would have to be dead not to recognize that Rolland and Mayer and the individual winemakers of these properties are without question in the process of setting a new bar for Argentinean wine.
I was astonished not only at the quality of these wines, but at their level of complexity and depth considering that some of them are made from vines that are only three years old. Yes, you read that right, one year less than most aggressive California winemakers think you have to wait in order to get even "usable" fruit. Mayer has a twinkle in his eye as he explains how through aggressive yield reduction, intensely detailed rootstock-soil pairings, judicious irrigation, and careful training he is able to coax not just usable but incredibly high-quality fruit from vines so young. I'm still in disbelief, even knowing that all grapes go through hand harvesting, a triple hand sorting process, destemming, and long periods of cold maceration before their various aging times in new French oak.
On the heels of the energetic Mayer, we made our way through the three working wineries in April of 2006 to taste the wines that will soon be waking the world up to what Argentina can do.
FLECHAS DE LOS ANDES (Arrows of The Andes)
The owners of this estate are Laurent Dassault, owner of (Grand Cru) Chateau Dassault in St. Emilion, and Baron Benjamin de Rothschild, who needs little introduction in the world of wine. The Duillet designed winery, immaculate in its attention to detail, has a capacity of 900,000 liters and is currently operating at about 30% of its total capacity. At the moment, the winery plans to make only two wines.
2005 Flechas de los Andes "Gran Malbec", Tunuyan, Argentina
Deep, opaque purple in the glass, this young wine has a rich, fresh nose of cassis, blackberry, and dark wet earth. In the mouth it is polished and silky on the tongue, with the unmistakable vanilla-smoothness of new oak, but with enough restraint to let the blackberry, blueberry, and cassis flavors shine most of all. The tannins are taut and rippling like the abs of a well oiled bodybuilder. The finish is substantial. After tasting a lot of under ripe Malbec in the days before, this wine is a revelation. 9/9.5. It is expected to retail for $18-20.
2005 Flechas de los Andes "Gran Corte," Tunuyan, Argentina
I have a lousy memory, but I can't remember the last time I saw a wine this opaque in its purple inkiness. It's nose is a heady mix of blueberries, chocolate, vanilla, and Kirsch liqueur. In the mouth it spreads like and inkblot on wet paper to coat the whole mouth with rich velvety tannins and sit on the tongue like a satin-wrapped sumo wrestler. Big, brawny flavors of blueberries, tobacco, leather, and black cherry don't so much dance as much as they mosh across the palate, leaving a long finish to remember themselves by. An extraordinary blend of Malbec, Merlot, and Syrah. 9.5. It is expected to retail for $35-$40.
Proprietress Catherine Péré Vergé also owns and runs Chateau Montviel in Pomerol and Chateau la Graviere at Lalande de Pomerol in Bordeaux. This large winery has a capacity of approximately 125,000 cases, and in addition to Péré Vergé's wines, it also produces the Clos de la Siete blend.
2005 Bodega Monteviejo "Lindaflor" Chardonnay, Tunuyan, Argentina
Bright yellow gold in the glass this wine has an astonishing nose of buttered popcorn, lemon curd, and freshly baked flan. In the mouth it is incredibly silky, sexy, and rich, with wild, dynamic flavors of lemon curd, pastry cream, butter, and a light mineral tone all of which meld together into a tremendously long and powerful finish with just the hint of sweet oak. This extraordinary wine hangs in fine balance between New World and Old World styles and manages, seemingly to transcend both. 9.5/10. Price unknown.
2003 Bodega Monteviejo "Lindaflor" Malbec, Tunuyan, Argentina
Opaque purple in the glass, this wine has a bright fruit nose of blueberries and fresh blackcurrant fruit. In the mouth it is dark and lush with beautifully fine grained tannins supporting rich flavors of cassis, leather, and wet earth that linger into a very nice finish. 9/9.5. Expected pricing around $45.
CUVELIER LOS ANDES
This estate, which will have its official opening ceremony in March, is the third flower in the crown of the Cuvelier family, Bertrand and Jean-Guy Cuvelier, who also own Chateau Le Crock in Saint Estephe, and the second growth Chateau Leoville-Poyferre in Saint Julien, Bordeaux along with several other wine related businesses. The wines are made by Adrian Manchon in consultation with Michel Rolland.
2004 Cuvelier los Andes "Coleccion" Blend, Tunuyan, Argentina
Dark, inky ruby in color, this wine has a rich, savory nose that combines blueberry and fig aromas with nicoise olives and dates. In the mouth it is smooth and round with flavors of blueberry, blackberry, and black cherry fruit mingled with fine grained tannins that carry through to a long finish. Missing some depth and complexity that would make it more impressive, it has a very unique presence. 9. Expected to cost around $20.
2004 Cuvelier los Andes "Grand Vin" Blend, Tunuyan, Argentina
Opaque garnet in color, this wine has a wild, gamey nose of leather, dirt, cassis, and very faint floral aromas. In the mouth it is sexy and voluptuous with dusty, fine tannins that swirl in a deep vortex of rich flavors that include black cherry, leather, and dark mineral aspects and a long finish. The tannic structure is both delicate and robust, if you'll forgive the seemingly contradictory adjectives, and promises some serious aging potential. I have a feeling that I am just scratching the surface of this wine, and had I an hour or two over a glass, I would scratch out and rewrite these tasting notes many times over. 9.5 Expected to sell for $40.
CLOS DE LOS SIETE
This blend of grapes from all the estates on the property, made by Michel Rolland, makes up approximately 80% of the total production output of all the wineries. A constantly morphing blend, it is comprised of approximately 80% Malbec, 10% Merlot, and 10% Cabernet.
2002 Clos de los Siete, Tunuyan, Argentina (first vintage)
Deep ruby in the glass, this wine has aromas of blackberries and prunes with high tones of orange peel. In the mouth it is rich and smooth with flavors of blueberries and chocolate supported with nicely balanced acids and smooth, well integrated tannins. The finish leaves something to be desired, but otherwise is an excellent wine. 9. Cost: $14.
2004 Clos de los Siete, Tunuyan, Argentina
Dark, opaque ruby in color, this wine has a nose of redcurrant, blackberry, cherry, and a nice mineral component of wet slate. In the mouth it offers primary flavors of cherries and blackberries with lightly grippy tannins that will likely smooth to imperceptible levels in a year or two. Pleasant finish. 9. Cost: $14. Where to Buy?
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