Blending the Altitudes

“We play with the altitude like in France they play with the latitude,” said Hervé Birnie-Scott when I visited Terrazas de los Andes in Mendoza. The winery here was the first to be built in the middle of vineyards, in 1898, by one of the founders of winemaking in Argentina, but it went bankrupt (like almost all) in the bust of the 1960s. It was purchased by Domecq, who intended to use it as a distillery, but when they in turn sold it, Chandon purchased it with the intention of using the house for entertainment. When Chandon decided to move into production of dry wines in Mendoza, this became their headquarters and winery. Terrazas’s first vintage was made at Chandon in 1992, but its own winery was refurbished and was used from 1998. Some of the original Chandon vineyards were transferred to Terrazas, and when the trend to making varietal wines intensified in the late nineties, they purchased more land.

Today Terrazas has vineyards at various altitudes into the Andes, with 500 ha of black grapes, which include 270 ha Malbec, 180 ha Cabernet Sauvignon, 50 ha Petit Verdot, and some Merlot and Syrah; there are also 52 ha of white. There’s a very interesting approach here in matching varieties to terroir, where altitude is the main determinant. Going west from Mendoza towards the Andes, the land rises up from 800 meters to 1200 meters within some 20 km. Syrah is planted in the warmest vineyards, near Mendoza, and then as the land rises, varieties are chosen for successively cooler temperatures, culminating in Chardonnay at 1200 m elevation. With an average temperature drop of 0.6 °C per 100 m, the difference between the lowest and highest vineyards is comparable to going from the south of Italy to the north of France. Syrah is planted on the warmest sites at 800 m, Cabernet Sauvignon between 900 and 980 m, Malbec around 1067 m, Merlot in the highest sites for black grapes at around 1150 m, and Chardonnay at 1200 m.

The focus is on varietal wines. I asked Hervé whether this was a marketing decision or because they express the terroir better. “The dominant influence was the United States and Australia, driving in the direction of varieties. If you go through the phone book, under M you will find Malbec, but where would you find “blend?” We produced what people wanted to buy. Commercially there was a feeling that Malbec was just a table wine, and there was pressure to produce Cabernet Sauvignon. But from outside Cabernet Sauvignon was boring and the Malbec was discovered. The driving force was the journalistic view – the next big thing for you is the Malbec,” he says.

The top Cabernet here is the single vineyard Los Aromos, at 980 m the highest elevation at which they grow Cabernet. Yet the wine is refined and pure, with that directness of 100% Cabernet, but no signs of harsh mountain tannins. The Reserva range is made in a more obviously approachable New World style. Terrazas also has a collaboration with Château Cheval Blanc to produce a Cabernet-Malbec blend, Cheval des Andes. Here the French influence dominates, as the wine was clearly marked to be a blend from the very beginning.  Interestingly it seemed to me to have a firmer character than the single varietal Los Aromos.

Tasting Notes

Mendoza, Terrazas Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, 2009

There’s an immediate fruity impression of smooth black fruits with the tannins giving a slight edge to a warm finish. This is very much in the New World approach of fruit-driven wine, easily approachable, with just a touch of high toned aromatics. It’s soft and furry and the structure isn’t really evident (although 30% new oak was used). 14.4% 87 Drink to 2018.

Mendoza, Afincado Los Aromos Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007

The vineyard is in Perdriel, but the name has been trademarked and so cannot be used on the label. Some character shows immediately with a savory impression initially extending almost to barnyard and then clearing more towards a spicy and vegetal spectrum. Smooth on the palate and elegant, a refined impression with a fine texture coming from the tannins, and a touch of blackcurrants and cassis emerging on the finish. It’s just a touch linear, with precisely delineated fruits in the style of pure Cabernet Sauvignon, somewhat reminiscent of samples of pure Cabernet from Bordeaux. The wine was matured in 100% new oak.13.6% 91 Drink to 2022.

Mendoza, Cheval des Andes, 2007

There’s a warm nutty quality on opening that makes you think about very ripe Cabernet Franc, a reasonable thought given the antecedents of this wine in a collaboration between Terrazas de los Andes and Cheval Blanc, although in fact it is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. Smooth on the palate to the point of obscuring the tannins, some wood spices showing, but after the initial burst of generous fruit, a more sober palate shows a somewhat monolithic black fruit character with a dense structure that will take some time to resolve. It’s quite elegant and well balanced, but lacks the sense of uplifting acidity that characterizes the left bank in Bordeaux. It lacks subtlety, said my constant companion, the Anima Figure. 14.5% 88 Drink to 2020.

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The Elevation of Cabernet

You feel you are walking into a Mayan pyramid as you ascend the steps at Catena’s new winery in Mendoza, surrounded by vines, with a distant view of the Andes. Although the surrounding terrain feels fairly flat, the home vineyard is actually already at an elevation of 940 m, and other vineyards extend into the Andes at elevations up to 1500 m. The specialty here, as everywhere in Mendoza, is Malbec, but I was visiting to discuss Cabernet Sauvignon, for which Catena is a quality leader.

Catena Winery

Catena's new winery resembles a Mayan structure

It takes a certain nerve to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in your best vineyards when Malbec is so dominant, but Nicolás Catena told me, “I went to Napa and I fell in love with Cabernet Sauvignon. For me it was the best wine I have tasted in my life. I came to the conclusion that Cabernet Sauvignon was the king of the varieties.” Nicolás went on to explain that he made his first Cabernet Sauvignon to an international standard in 1990, but was devastated when a visiting consultant from Bordeaux said, “This tastes like a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Languedoc.” Nicolás decided that the only answer was to go to cooler areas: “So I took risks. One was that there would not be enough ripeness, it would be too cool. My technicians said I was crazy. Another danger is frost. My decision was based on assumptions that were not very precise. We planted Cabernet farther south and then went up in altitude. We decided – it took about six years – that Cabernet Sauvignon from cooler climates was better.”

Today Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in five vineyards at elevations from 800 m to 1480 m. A tasting of barrel samples from the 2011 vintages was a fascinating exercise in relating tannic structure to soil and climate. The wine from the lowest vineyard (Angélica at 800 m) was certainly the softest and least acidic. The wine from the highest vineyard (Adriana at 1480 m) was certainly the tightest, with mountain tannins hidden underneath the fruits but bringing more dryness to the finish. There wasn’t an exact correlation in between, but there was a perfect fit between my perception of total tannins and the measurement of polyphenols in each wine, which brings some comfort to the notion that numbers might mean something.

There are single vineyard Malbecs from these sources, but the Cabernets are always blended; this is due to market issues rather than any reflection on intrinsic quality or interest. Actually, most of these wines seemed likely to benefit from the blending process, although La Pirámide (940 m) seemed to be complete , and Nicasia (1180 m), the liveliest of the flight, seemed close to complete. The wines are blended for the top cuvée of the house, the eponymous Nicolás Catena Zapata, a blend with Malbec, and are also the source for the Catena Alta varietal Cabernet Sauvignon.

Catena also has a collaborative venture with Chateau Lafite in the form of Bodega Caro, whose lead wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Malbec; there is also a second wine with reverse proportions, called Amancaya. Winemaker Estela Perinetti says that the varietal proportions have been changing in Caro. “In cooler years we use more Cabernet. At the beginning the Malbec had more rustic tannins so we needed to use more Cabernet Sauvignon. Then we got better tannic structure with the Malbec and we reversed. Now we are going back to more Cabernet Sauvignon because it gives better aging.”

All the wines had a mark of elegance, but I am inclined to think that the blends with Malbec are more interesting than the monovarietal, because its  smooth, supple tannins nicely complement the more rigid structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. Quite a difference from the effect of blending with Merlot, which gives a fleshier mid palate.

Tasting notes

Mendoza, Nicolás Catena Zapata, 2003

This vintage had a more or less average varietal composition for the blend, with 72% Cabernet Sauvignon to 28% Malbec. It shows the superficial smoothness of Malbec, that somewhat glossy surface, which at the moment is the dominant influence. The firm underlying structure shows the presence of Cabernet Sauvignon, and with time the Cabernet will no doubt emerge more clearly to strengthen the black fruit impression. Slightly nutty on the finish with tertiary development not yet in sight. 13.9% 90 Drink to 2022.

Mendoza, Cabernet Sauvignon, Catena Alta, 2003

Here you see the classic elegance of pure Cabernet Sauvignon with a nutty background to the black fruits and a touch of heat on the finish, which has some bite. The ripeness of the region makes this wine readily approachable at this age, but reflecting the character of the variety, it is a more linear than the Nicolas Catena Zapata blend of the same vintage. 14.2% 89 Drink to 2020.

Mendoza, Bodegas Caro 2002

Smooth black fruits are cut by subtle savory and even vaguely animal overtones. There’s a lovely balance, in terms of maturity perhaps equivalent to a fifteen year old Bordeaux. Smooth tannins give ripe, firm support to the fruits with a touch of nuts developing on the finish. You can see – if this is not too imaginative – the influence of Lafite. 13.8% 91 Drink to 2023.

Traditional Winemaking in Mendoza

Visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Argentina and Chile last month, I spent some time trying to define regional and sub regional typicities. In Chile there’s a certain sense of restraint, perhaps making a halfway house between old Europe and the more forceful fruits associated with the New World style.  Maipo Valley was elegant, Colchagua more obviously structured, and Apalta the most silky. In Mendoza, well really in Luján de Cuyo since that’s where the serious Cabernet is to be found, the fruits are a bit more forward, but not nearly so obvious as, say, Napa. Both countries have a tendency towards varietal wines at entry level and blends at top level, although the blends are different: with Carmenere in Chile and with Malbec in Mendoza. In spite of that, I found the same difference between the varietal wines and the blends; where direct comparisons were possible, the varietal Cabernet has more of a linear purity, the blend smoother and broader and (to my mind) often more interesting with age.

But my attempts to define the wines in terms of terroir and climate were brought up short by a visit to Bodega Weinert in Mendoza, where winemaker Hubert Weber marches to the beat of a different drum. “The new style of winemaking is not very friendly for aging; if you concentrate on blackcurrant aromas and intensity, aging potential is reduced. Bodega Weinert is classic winemaking -I am not looking for intensity of young aromas, I am looking for complexity of flavor.  The wine spends up to five years in 2000 liter casks of old wood. Gran Reserva is the model,” he says. The lead wine is the Cavas de Weinert, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot. The blend stays constant in varietal composition, and is not produced unless all three varieties are of sufficient quality. It was declassified in 1995 because Hubert didn’t like the Cabernet, and in 1998, 2001, and 2005 because of problems with the Merlot. In some years, when one variety is exceptional, there may be a varietal bottling under the Estrella label.

Casks at Bodeha Weinert

Old casks are used to age the wines at Bodega Weinert

With no exposure to new oak, the wines make a distinctive impression: the primal quality of the fruits to come through, showing a savory, almost savage, impression with  age. And the wines certainly age: vintages were lively back to 1977 in a vertical tasting. Younger vintages seemed more dominated by Cabernet, older vintages more by Malbec. I also tasted two of the Estrella wines. A Cabernet Sauvignon from 1994 was still intense and barely showing the austerity of the variety; a Merlot from 1999 showed refinement, and seemed to be aging scarcely any more rapidly than Cabernet Sauvignon. As you go up the scale at Weinert, the wines start out more fruity with faintly savory overtones, and then at the top of the scale the fruits are still there of course (in fact they are more intense) but the savory and even animal notes become predominant. You might say that the wines show an increasingly traditional European flavor spectrum.

So what price terroir and climate as the defining features for common qualities in the wine? I decided my conclusions about different regions were all valid, just so long as the winemakers stayed within the bounds of a certain commonality of approach.  But once the consensus is broken, it’s the winemaker’s hand that shows.

Tasting Notes

Estrella Cabernet Sauvignon, 1994

The immediate impression is savory and developed, with notes of barnyard and gunflint, all integrated with the underlying sweet ripe fruits. There’s still a lot of intensity. This is a powerful wine with an interesting blend of savory and fruity elements, supported by balanced acidity and smooth, firm tannins. Notes of gunflint on the finish really bring the wine to life, with the savory to fruit balance at its peak, almost salty in its overall impression. Only at the very end do you see the austerity of pure Cabernet Sauvignon beginning to take over. No one could call this wine elegant – it has too much intensity for that – but the balance should allow it to continue to age for another decade at least. 14.5% 92 Drink to 2024.

Estrella Merlot, 1999

This Merlot bucks the trend for clay terroir by coming from relatively sandier soils. It spent three years in cask and ten years in concrete before bottling. Initially this seems full and ripe, showing Merlot’s characteristic presence on the mid palate, with the typical barnyard notes of developed Merlot and just a touch of pungent gunflint. But there’s a finer impression than comes from Merlot grown on its more traditional clay, with an impression of refinement that’s unusual for the variety, and there isn’t much impression this will be much shorter lived than the Estrella Cabernet. 91 Drink to 2027.

Cavas de Weinert 2004

This is the current release. The immediate impression are those characteristic savory, almost pungent, almost piquant, notes. Smooth and ripe on the palate, there’s a sensation of coated black fruits. Tannins underneath the fruits dry the finish, but overall the impression is quite glyceriny. There’s an openly delicious quality. 14.5% 89 Drink to 2022.

Cavas de Weinert 1994

Development has taken a slightly different path here, in fact the nearest parallel would be the 1977 Cabernet Sauvignon, as there are only some hints of savory notes and more of a delicate, almost perfumed impression. Apparently this wine has gone up and down, and appeared oxidized a year or so ago, when it was taken off the market for a while, but then it recovered. There’s a slight sense that the smooth fruits are beginning to dry out, allowing the tannins to show more as a dryness on the finish, which is a little nutty. 14.5% 88 Drink to 2016.

Cavas de Weinert 1983

Savory and animal with pungent overtones of gunflint, overall contributing to a slightly sweaty impression (perhaps a touch of Brett). The smooth palate tends to opulence but is beautifully cut by the savory overtones. This is at a perfect tipping point from fruity to savory (although it’s probably been here for a while). Hubert sees this wine as having become more dominated by Malbec over the past five years; indeed, it shows more Malbec as it develops in the glass, becoming smoother, more elegant, more perfumed, less animal. 93 Drink to 2019.

Cavas de Weinert 1977

We compared two bottles. Around 2004 one lot of wines was recorked for an importer who insisted on having fresh corks. The rest remain under original corks. The difference was like night and day. The wine under new corks showed slightly oxidized fresh fruits with hints of raisins; otherwise the wine remains youthful, with the evident fruits lacking savory overtones, and a little restricted in flavor variety. By contrast the wine with the original corks has more of that classic savory impression, with rather restrained fruits, kept lively by an acidic uplift. Matching the greater tertiary development, the color is also a little more garnet. Compared with the varietal Cabernet Sauvignon of the same year, the wine is a little more developed and a little less obvious. 92 Drink to 2019.

Blending Cabernet: it’s the history, stupid

In Bordeaux they will tell you that Merlot is the perfect partner for Cabernet Sauvignon, because the Cabernet doesn’t always ripen reliably on the left bank, and the fleshier tones of Merlot complement it by filling in the mid palate. In Napa they will tell you that Cabernet Sauvignon ripens so fully and reliably here that there is no need for Merlot; it makes a complete wine in itself. In Chile they used to follow the Bordeaux model by blending the Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot; but then it turned out that most of the Merlot wasn’t Merlot, it was really Carmenere; they did not throw up their hands with horror, tear out the Carmenere and replace it with real Merlot; now instead they make a point of producing varietal Carmenere or of blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon. In Argentina, if they blend Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s usually with Malbec, which is the predominant black variety. In nineteenth century Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon was usually blended  with Malbec and Carmenere as well as Cabernet Franc: the Malbec was replaced by Merlot, and the Carmenere disappeared after phylloxera struck. The blend everywhere is as much a matter of historical accident as a deliberate search for what varieties best complement one another. So the question is whether Cabernet Sauvignon still needs to be blended, given that the climate is warmer  in Bordeaux than it used to be, and that the other areas where it is planted are mostly warmer than Bordeaux anyway.  And if it does need to be blended, what other varieti(es) really give the best complexity, and are they necessarily the same in every region.

Even though Bordeaux has experienced warmer temperatures in the past decade, tastings of barrel samples have convinced me that the Cabernet Sauvignon makes a more interesting wine when it is blended. As a single varietal wine, it tends to have very pure, precise, but more linear flavors: it broadens out to become more interesting when blended. I believe the same is actually true in Napa, but not for the conventional reason. Young Napa Cabernets can be so bursting with fruit that you really do not see any need for any other variety to round out and complete the flavor profile. But wait a few years. As those primary fruits drop out, the wine begins to become more linear, more austere, the bare bones of Cabernet show more clearly, and you feel that by ten years of age it would very often be improved by some Merlot, which brings more interesting savory development.

A recent visit to Chile left me wondering about the rationale for blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Carmenere. If you think you have difficulties ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, try Carmenere – which usually harvests about one month after the Cabernet Sauvignon. That alone shows you why it became untenable in Bordeaux. Even in Chile, where the Cabernet ripens quite reliably, Carmenere can be questionable; it needs to be grown in the warmer sites. When it ripens fully, it develops a smooth, elegant palate, with tannins that seem more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon, and it brings elegance to a blend. When it does not ripen successfully, it has something of the same herbaceousness as Cabernet Sauvignon itself, so it’s something of a double or quits game.

Malbec is somewhere between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon: not as fleshy as Merlot, but certainly smoother and more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon. Under peak conditions, Malbec may be a more interesting blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot, because the tannic structure is complementary: the more supple character of Malbec adds smoothness to the tighter structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. It doesn’t fill in on the mid palate in quite the same way, so the wine tends more to elegance than fruit-driven power.

For roughly a hundred years, from its rise following the phylloxera problem in the 1880s until a couple of decades ago, Merlot was the perfect blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon. This is not true in the warmer climates of Napa and Chile, where the “Merlot collapse problem” describes the situation in which Merlot goes straight from green, herbaceous character to over-ripe jammy character, with too narrow a chance to catch it at the right point. I sometimes wonder whether Napa’s concentration on varietal Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t due as much to their difficulties with Merlot as to the attractions of the Cabernet. I am inclined to wonder whether Syrah would be a good choice, since it has richer tannins than Cabernet and can add a touch of aromatics that increases complexity, but Napa seems fixated on a bimodal view: it’s either Cabernet or it’s a Bordeaux blend. Syrah  might also do well in Argentina and Chile, but the accidents of history mean that Malbec and Carmenere are well entrenched. Come to that, it may be time for Bordeaux to reconsider, because in the 2009 and 2010 vintages, the Merlot became so ripe and alcoholic that in many cases it was impossible to blend it into the Grand Vin and it was relegated to the second wine. (An amusing paradox here, since that can make the second wine higher in alcohol than the Grand Vin, and the concept that higher alcohol goes with wines at higher appellation levels is well entrenched in the French hierarchy.) How about going back to Malbec or Carmenere in the Medoc – or maybe Syrah.