08 Jun 2010

Mendoza Winery visit

Mendoza Winery visit

Recently I made my first trip to Mendoza wine region in Argentina and visited over 20 wineries. Gregg Phillips, our senior buyer, has made numerous trips down there. What I learned is interesting to me and I have a few observations, most positive, but a few that concern me.

Firstly, sub-regions are important as they dictate style based on micro-climate and terroir. Mendoza is over 300 miles in length from the north to the south and pretty wide too. A lot can change over a few miles let alone a few hundred. We try to be more regional in our assessment of wines from here but find that the average US consumer thinks that Mendoza wines are all very similar regardless of where in Mendoza they are grown.
 
Secondly, hail damage seems prevalent and the close proximity of the Andes mountains brings about hail storms almost every year which as you can imagine, can be devastating to a crop. As a result, in the areas most prone to damage, netting is used in the vineyard to protect the vines.

There are two types of netting used - side netting (where the canopy is raised in a vertical manner, opening up the rows and making for a thinner target for hail to hit) is cheaper and more widespread. Overhead canopy netting is used as well, allowing the canopy to sprawl and maximizing overhead protection for the vines. This method costs about $2,000 per acre more to implement than the $4,500 side netting alternative.
 
The effects of netting are very different depending on the netting option used. Side netting reduces the ability to do things such as shoot thin, leaf pluck and green harvest, so typically all of this is done beforehand as a precaution, before the netting is strapped against both side of the vertically shoot positioned vineyard. As such, a lot more sunlight penetrates the vineyard and grapes achieve sugar ripeness a lot quicker - often too quickly and as a result there's a lot of high octane wine being produced with this method. Vertical shoot positioning is a canopy management practice, used predominantly in cooler climate areas, where the grower needs to accelerate the grapes production of sugar.

When you implement this practice in an area that does not require it, you create a time gap between the physiological ripening of the fruit and the sugar ripening. The greater this gap, the more prone the fruit is to having too much sugar and yet still having green stemmy flavors from under ripe seeds and skins. In warmer areas like Mendoza, it concerned me to see a great number of vineyards implementing the cheaper option at the expense of quality fruit. Invariably the characteristics of the fruit from these vineyards were predictably alcoholic. A sprawling canopy in a warm region slows down the faster developing sugar ripeness and ensures more physiological ripeness of fruit at lower alcohol levels - these wines are simply easier to drink. This is something we are carefully monitoring in our product selection process.
 
Thirdly, Life beyond Malbec...It is going to be very important to this industry so that it is not viewed as a one trick pony, like New Zealand with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or even worse, like Australia with Shiraz. Unless the consumer is constantly engaged and entertained by new opportunities within a category, that category becomes predictable and eventually boring. Look out for Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to grow in stature and for the white grape, Torrontes to expand the category and fuel that excitement.
 
Lastly, vine age and relative pricing appear to be of both interest and concern. There is a healthy amount of old vine material that produces absolutely extraordinary fruit, much of it reasonably priced. Since this category became red hot around 2005, there has been a lot of investment planting. Designer labels and overripe, over oaked and over priced wines are becoming plentiful, ala Australia from 2002 onwards. We are keeping a close eye on this and holding the producers to a high value for money quality standard.
 
To be continued...

Posted by John 10:42:00

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