When I visited Argentina a few years ago, my trip was a mix of vacation and wine investigation, and, like so many great trips, left me feeling like I had done too little of both. In the wine department, I left with two main regrets. The first was the lack of a visit to Salta, which is the first place I’ll head in South America next time I get down that way. And while I did get down to Bariloche in Patagonia for a little while to hike and fish, and generally relax, I really wish I had taken a little jog north to the province of Neuquén to see what was going on in the vineyards at the end of the world.
The province of Neuquén is one of Argentina’s hottest new (though actually grapes have been grown there for decades) wine growing regions, and one of the most southerly places in the world that people are trying to grow grapes. The phrase “extreme viticulture” is bandied about far too cavalierly these days, but with the lack of rainfall, extreme temperature swings, incessant winds, and searing un-ozone-filtered sunlight, Patagonia lays claim to the phrase more than most places.
Wine grape production in Patagonia peaked (as it did in many places in Argentina) in the 70s, and then fell off a cliff a while after that, only to be rediscovered in the last decade or so by enterprising winemakers seeking out terroirs beyond Mendoza. Along with the region to the east known as Rio Negro, the province of Neuquén has become one of the most talked about sources for Pinot Noir in Argentina, and indeed, in the whole of South America.
One of the earliest pioneers of the modern incarnation of wine growing in the area, Julio Viola can reasonably lay claim to being the father of Neuquén viticulture. A real estate mogul, with a penchant for doing things big or not doing them at all, Viola’s efforts to establish a winery in Neuquén were nothing short of herculean.
After extensive computer modeling to determine what he believed was the idea area for viticulture on an arid plateau about 1200 feet above sea level, Viola convinced the government of Argentina to loan him enough money to purchase more than three thousand acres of land.
Having accomplished that, Viola then needed to figure out how to irrigate his piece of high desert. So he went to find some people who knew a little bit about greening very dry places, and studied irrigation in Israel. Returning to Patagonia, he proceeded to build a 12-mile canal to carry water from the Nequen river to his land, build and install several pumping stations, and lay down literally thousands of miles of irrigation pipes to irrigate his lands.
Knowing that 3500 acres would be too much to farm for even a man of his ambition, Viola craftily built several wineries on his property, and easily found willing buyers for his turn-key offerings.
After buying a meager 12 acres of Malbec in 1998, Viola began planting his own vines starting in 1999 across much of his property, and after selling off parcels along with the seven different wineries that he built, Viola retained a staggering 2,100 acres of grapevines from which he makes wines at his winery named Bodega del Fin del Mundo, “the winery at the end of the world.”
His low slung winery, stuck in the heard of a checkerboard of vineyards, has a capacity of about 660,000 cases per year, and is pretty close to using it. The winery produces an ocean of wine, easily making it the largest producer in the region. While the winery is aggressively pursuing Pinot Noir (250 acres of it, making them one of the biggest growers of the variety in Argentina) the winery began its plantings and production with the Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot).
Since 2005 the (in)famous enologist Michel Rolland has been consulting at the winery with resident enologist Marcelo Miras. Together they manage the dizzying array of more than two hundred steel fermentation tanks, more than two thousand of oak barrels, and 100 concrete holding tanks to produce the estate’s 11 million bottles of wine each year.
This particular wine is a blend of 40% Malbec, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10% Merlot aged for 15 months in 100% new French oak before bottling.
I don’t know the full details of the winemaking, except to infer that fermentation takes place in oak vats after a long cool maceration period. The wine most likely uses commercial yeasts for primary fermentation, and perhaps for secondary (malolactic) fermentation as well.
While the wine doesn’t exactly sing of the unique place it comes from, this is a well-made and tasty wine that is worth seeking out for those interested in, if not going to, then just tasting a little bit of the ends of the earth.
Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.
Deep ruby in color, this wine smells of sweet candied cherries and oak. In the mouth the wine is bright and juicy, with cherry and cola flavors that burst with bright acidity. Notes of cocoa powder and sweet french oak linger with the bright fruit through the finish. Faint tannins wrap the mouth, emerging through the finish. The wine comes in an obnoxiously heavy bottle, weighed down further with a big metal embossed badge on the front. I shudder to think of the cost (in dollars and carbon) of moving cases of this wine around the world. Overkill on packaging, but thankfully less so in the wine, which is tasty. 14.5% alcohol.
Like many of Argentina’s bold red wines, this one is crying out for some grilled meat to dance with. Charred beef brochettes anyone?
Overall Score: between 8.5 and 9
How Much?: $35
This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.