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) -- has become 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 los 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 were beginning to show signs of their eventual groomed state when we visited about seven years ago, 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.
Each winery on the property 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.
Perhaps the most wildly available product of this project is the wine that bears it's name: Clos de los Siete, a blend that Michel Rolland personally puts together each year from fruit provided by each of the partner wineries. I've tasted the wine for the past seven or eight vintages and have been interested in its evolution. What started out as a somewhat lush, accessible wine has become ever more serious, to the point that it now sports tannins that are built for aging, and a flavor profile that really needs a couple of years in the bottle before it will show its full potential.
While I didn't care so much for the 2007, and the 2008 was a bit more rustic, here in the 2009 vintage everything seems to have come together to represent one of the more substantial and profound wines from the New World with this kind of price tag.
Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of wet dirt, cassis, and dark dried cherries. In the mouth leathery tannins enclose earthy, cool flavors of cassis, black cherry, wet dirt, and wet wood. Wonderful acidity and a dark stony brooding quality make this quite a compelling wine. A blend of 57% Malbec, 15% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah, and 3% Petite Verdot. 14.5% alcohol.
This is the kind of wine whose cork you want to pull out with your teeth, while holding a massive roast of meat skewered on a sword in your other hand. Gauchos rejoice.
Overall Score: around 9.
How Much?: $16
This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.
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