Is high altitude turning Malbecs into Volnays?
Luigi Bosca's head winemaker takes me on a journey through their new-wave Malbecs
My conversation with Luigi Bosca's head winemaker, Pablo Cúneo. He took me on a high-altitude trip around Mendoza.
Pablo Cúneo, Head Winemaker at Luigi Bosca winery, grew up in Mendoza, a city surrounded by the sublime landscape of Argentina’s Andes mountains. He graduated in Agricultural Engineering from the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo in 1999 and went on to work at Chandon Winery in Argentina, gaining expertise in sparkling wines. He was then transferred to Terrazas de los Andes – another winery within the LVMH group- as part of the winemaking team - liaising between the vineyard and winery. During this period, he also worked in Bordeaux and the South West of France. In August 2006 he moved to Ruca Malen Winery as Technical Director, where he stayed for more than a decade, before joining Luigi Bosca in August 2017. In his role, he has bought innovation and expertise to the winery, developing the entire Luigi Bosca Collection. His first vintage – the Finca Los Nobles Malbec Verdot 2018 was awarded the top commendation – the Platinum medal – and an exceptional score of 97 points.
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We all know that Argentina is capable of producing some very fine wines, most of which are red.
And then in practice, Malbec is one of those wines that suffers from major stereotyping and every restaurant has to have a non-descriptive one on their wine list. The ones I tasted tended to be thick and juicy simpletons of wine.
And so, I avoided Malbecs like the plague.
But my head started turning when, at my first dinner out of lockdown, at Enoteca da Luca, I had one made by my fellow Veronese compatriot, Masi. A blend of Malbec and Corvina using the traditional appassimento method — the Masi Tupungato Passo Doble is an easy-drinking and interesting take on big wineries expanding to other wine regions.
But Argentina’s Malbec's most recent notoriety among wine critics is to a certain extent related to Catena Zapata and their landslide success, especially at the latest release on Place de Bordeaux. Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Mundus Bacillus Terrae label has become one of the most prized and collected Malbecs, sold via the Place de Bordeaux (since 2015) and distributed around the world. Their latest 2019 vintage was awarded 100 points by Jane Anson, and she also nominated it as her “one wine to buy”.
It caused a shift: Argentina’s Malbecs are now viewed in a different light.
Laura Catena (the daughter of founder Nicolàs Catena Zapata and managing director of the family estate) shares the secret of their success with Lisa Perrotti-Brown in TWI: her father’s vision.
What my father started was to build around altitude. With higher altitude comes a cooler climate, slower ripening, and lower alcohols because the sugars happen at the same time as the phenolics. The big problem with this is frost. We lose out some of our crop 1 year out of 4. You just have to accept that.
Read more: WineLeaks #15
And, altitude, probably because of climate change, is at the forefront of the wine world agenda: the explosion in popularity of Alto Adige wines from the most northerly mountainous sites in Italy down to the Etna wines of Sicily, just to mention a few. And perhaps that’s why the wine world is now more receptive to Argentina’s new-wave of fine Malbecs.
Not just because of the name, which evokes some exotic sand beach paradise, a welcomed respite amid the grey and rainy days of autumnal London, but also because back in 2007 Jancis Robinson wrote, in her article Even Malbecs Want To Be Pinot Noirs Nowadays:
“A recent vertical tasting of Malbecs from one of the most respected Mendoza producers Luigi Bosca demonstrated just how prevailing fashions and techniques have lightened up Malbec over the last 30 years. The 1978, their very first varietal Malbec, was an antique, the fruit seeming to have been boiled out, perhaps without sufficient temperature control in the winery. Over the years, you could see how the tannins became increasingly polished and less obvious while the fruit became riper and riper but also more evident and satisfying on the palate. The most recent vintage in this Luigi Bosca line-up was 2002 whereas the Malbecs for blind comparison with Pinots were from younger vintages. Perhaps by 2010 Luigi Bosca will be making Volnays from their Malbec?”
Fifteen years on, I was curious to find out if Jancis Robinson turned out to be right.
A very brief introduction to Luigi Bosca. Argentina’s most ancient family-owned winery today, it was founded in 1901 by the Arizu family, who still owns and runs the company. Their wines reflect the founder’s commitment to the terroir and the production of the best varietal expressions that Mendoza has to offer.
Their vineyards are located across Argentina’s important wine regions of Uco Valley and Lujan de Cuyo, between 600m to 1,070m in altitude.
Echoing Laura Catena’s words, Cúneo remarked that Mendoza is a desert — irrigation systems using snowmelt water from the Andes reaching the adjacent piedmont are crucial not only to winemaking, but also, more broadly, to the cultivation of other crops: plants to survive need 500-600mm of water, and in Mendoza rainfall is just about 200mm.
The Andes, the low rainfall, the intense sunlight and a soil poor in organic matter are Argentina’s secrets. While Malbec may be originally from Cahors, in France, Cúneo believes that it doesn’t show off its potential, lacking that crucial midpalate to support the flavour development typical of the variety. He added:
It wasn’t Argentina that chose Malbec; Malbec chose Argentina.
Fernando Buscema (Catena Zapata’s winemaker) did an extensive scientific study to discriminate the main wine characteristics affected by terroir (locations), that goes into creating that typicity of Mendoza’s Malbecs. The research was published by Nature, the prestigious British scientific journal.
For this, they analysed the phenolic compounds in Malbec wine across multiple sites in Mendoza, Argentina, looking to fingerprint not only the growing season and climate but also how well specific site and soil characteristics were expressed: Mendoza, spanning less than 100km, thanks to both altitude and terroir diversity hosts a great variety of climates and wine-growing environments.
When asked what are his driving principles as head winemaker, Pablo Cúneo replies that he doesn't want to ‘invadir’ (to overpower) the wine. He spent time looking at the heart and soul of the place and all he wanted to do was to ‘fine-tune’ the winemaking, find the best ageing times and reduce the impact of oak were among his examples.
And that’s what I found — a line-up in which each bottle has a deep connection to Mendoza and its terroir is reliably recognisable.
Luigi Bosca, De Sagre Chardonnay Semillon Sauvignon 2021 Mendoza. 50% Chardonnay with MLF, 25% Semillon and 15% Sauvignon Blanc (no MLF) from Tupungato in Uco Valley. The wine has delicate layers of floral notes followed by white stone fruit, a light sweetness hint from the oak and texture from contact with yeast. Pablo mentioned a few times that he’s obsessively trying to avoid aggressivity — I understood what he meant, once I tried this wine and the reds.
Luigi Bosca, Pinot Noir 2020 Mendoza. The Pinot Noir is from high-altitude (1170m) Uco Valley. Only part of it spent 8 months in French oak, cold maceration. Dark ruby-coloured, it has an engaging perfume of raspberry, cherry, and cinnamon. Very delicate with intense sweet fruit, the wine has excellent varietal character and light tannin. If it wasn’t for the warmth of the 14% alcohol, I wouldn’t say it’s a southern hemisphere Pinot Noir!
Luigi Bosca, Malbec 2020 Mendoza. Made with grapes from the Uco Valley and Luján de Cuyo. The former provides intense floral notes, finesse and acidity while the latter the ripeness of the fruit. It’s so juicy — at times, candy-like, but astonishingly fresh and clean.
Luigi Bosca, De Sagre Malbec 2017 Mendoza Paraje de Altamira (Ed. Limitada). The 2017 De Sangre is selected from the best vineyards limited production originating in Altamira in the Uco Valley at 1050m of altitude, with cool weather. This is very fine. It has a well-defined floral bouquet of red currant, raspberry, and ripe and enticing sweet spices. It handles the 12-month second-use large oak barrels well, and has a lengthy finish, with lingering spicy black fruit.
Luigi Bosca, Los Nobles Malbec Verdot 2020 Mendoza Las Compuertas, Luján de Cuyo. The 2020 Los Nobles is made up of 94% Malbec and 6% Petit Verdot aged in new French oak for 18 months from 90-year-old vines from Las Compuertas at 1150m. The vines are so low-yield that one cane only makes one bunch. It is purple-coloured with an enticing perfume of black cherry, blackberry, and juicy plum. Mouth-filling — or like Pablo described it carnoso (meaty), on the palate, with savoury notes, the wine has depth, and a long, spicy and intense black fruit flavours to finish.
Luigi Bosca, Paraíso Malbec Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 Mendoza. See Paraíso below.
Paraíso 2019 saw success at the recent Decanter World Wine Awards 2022, receiving a gold medal and a score of 96 points. It’s a truly special wine, with intense, balanced and elegant aromas and a fruity character, smooth on the palate with a persistent finish and good ageing potential. A blend that pays tribute to an exceptional vineyard of the family, which Cúneo referred to as the “viticulture lab“. This wine is a blend of Malbec (71%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (29%), with grapes sourced from select vineyards in the Uco Valley, from the best parcels: Gualtallary (Tupungato), Altamira (San Carlos) and Los Árboles (Tunuyán) at 1,000 and 1,200 meters. At 15% alcohol, the wine is fresh, precise and eloquently elegant.
The question of ageability came up, “this one can age 30 years” — Cúneo said. Malbec has historically been considered a wine best enjoyed youthful, lacking the structure, tannin and acidity to age gracefully, however, given the progress made over the past 15 years I would relish the opportunity to try the Paraíso 20 or 30 years from now. “We recently tasted a ‘91 and it was still great. While the flavours aren’t as refined as our more recent vintages, the character is still there.”
As always, Jancis Robinson quite perceptively saw that the times were ripe for a wine revolution in Argentina, one that swayed the perception of Argentine Malbec away from a big, brash, sweetish, often oaky, bargain variant on stereotypical Napa Cabernet.
Luigi Bosca’s new Malbec is made from from old vines, earlier picked grapes, lower levels of extraction, textured rather than oaky and with a distinctive terroir expression, a refined understanding of the vineyards and the complex interplay of climate, soils, elevation and exposition that gives their wines such a rich palette of flavours and styles.
Pablo Cúneo’s attention to detail can be exemplified in his annoyance at the sticker numbers on the bottles. “I hate this, “ he said, frowning and scraping away at the sticker. That respect for the final product is what can be found in Luigi Bosca’s wines. I admire the scientific leap forward, towards this “Volnay-style“ Malbec which has, in my opinion, made this grape variety shine a little brighter in Mendoza.
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