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Given that planting vineyards 1,200 metres above sea level is the norm, it’s fair to say that Argentina’s terroir harbours some of the world’s most elevated vineyards. But besides going Icarus-style ever closer to the sun, winemakers are pushing the limits in other ways too.
Fine Dining Lovers met Matías Michelini, José Morales and Claudio Zucchino, who are tackling extreme climates and locations dotted around Argentina, the world’s fifth-largest wine producer.
Taming Patagonia’s Atlantic coast
Sea lions and Darwin’s rhea share the land where Matías Michelini of Passionate Wine is taming a single hectare of Patagonia’s brazen Atlantic coast with Semillón and Pinot Noir goblet vines (there’s also a penguin colony 20 minutes away, confirming this is Patagonia).
While the area closest to the Andes in western Patagonia has been producing wine for 100 years, this collaboration with Astrid Perkins and Matías Soriano from Bahía Bustamante is set to deliver unique wind-blown maritime vintages from 2020, whose labels will likely sport a whale skeleton. Michelini says: “I first heard about Bahía Bustamante, a tiny coastal village without any electricity, from bartender Tato Giovannoni in May 2018. It’s extreme Patagonia, 46º latitude, well in the south with plenty of maritime character. It sounded so exciting, I went there a fortnight later – and fell in love with the place. I undertook some soil studies and assessed the strong winds, with the idea of fulfilling my dream of making wines with coastal character. We found a sheltered spot in front of the village restaurant on the coastline with stone, shell, sand and clay soil, ideal for vines, which also offers protection from the harsh winds blowing west to east".
“I returned in October with my team, seedling vines and an irrigation system – a potable water source 20 km away has served the village since the 1950s. We planted Semillón and Pinot Noir, as these two varieties are sufficiently sensitive to capture the place’s character and produce coastal wines. Inquisitive sea lions and rhea came to check out what we were doing as we planted. It’s both inhospitable and marvellous here, and I’m certain the force of nature will come across in these wines".
“The vines grew well this first year, some even producing clusters so we could perceive their saline, maritime flavours. The idea is to create sustainable ecologically friendly wines of origin and produce them at the small winery we will build here.”
It’s snow joke in Pedernal
When it snows during the grape harvest (and you’re not making ice wine), you know we’re talking extremes. In Pedernal Valley, San Juan province, José Morales has to be one step ahead of Mother Nature. The winemaker for Pyros Wines, says: “Conditions are very extreme in this part of San Juan. Frost, thanks to the topography and geographical location, is a big risk between September and November and can ruin a vintage, while Pyros’ vineyards are totally isolated from civilisation, making logistics complex. Then there’s the flint, limestone and pink marble that we had to bore into just to plant Malbec…”
A bumpy hour-long 50 km drive from the aforementioned civilisation, there’s only stunning mountainous landscape to admire between the village of Media Agua and Pyros, which means ‘fire’ in Greek, a reference to the flint found across the vineyard. José says: “Surrounded by the Pedernal Hills to the east and the Andean foothills to the west, it’s a beautiful place to work where you can be at one with yourself; it’s so quiet and within that peace, you hear the sound of silence. I come to understand this place via the wines.” With the wind and the occasional puma for company, the weather front changes all the time, clouds clinging to the top of the Pedernal Hills before dispersing.
Pyros is a pioneer in this southeastern corner of the valley that adds 1,400 metres above sea level (masl) to its extremities CV, and every vintage is a learning curve. “This year we identified different characteristics within the Malbec plots and corroborated three topographical bands. Our Malbec Limestone Hill 2016 is sourced closest to Pedernal Hills, for example, which produces a well-textured wine. That was the year we had to stop picking during the mid-April harvest as it snowed. As soon as we could transport the team back in, we had get the job done fast else the grapes would simply have fallen off the vines,” he adds.
New highs along the former Inca Trail
The final location for Argentina’s extreme winemaking is tucked away in the Unesco-protected Quebrada de Humahuaca in Jujuy, a cardon cacti-studded province bordering Bolivia. Here, indigenous communities such as the Aymara have lived in the tough yet vibrant mountain range at 2,500+ masl, raising llama and goats, and growing maize and quinoa, along the former Inca Trail.
This often inhospitable environment – granted Geographical Indication (IG) in 2015 – known for fierce weather fronts is where vintner Claudio Zucchino has chosen to grow Malbec, Merlot and Syrah for his Uraqui blend. He planted two vineyards at 2,750 and 3,329 masl: the latter, Finca Moya, briefly held the title of the world’s highest vineyard in 2018 before being out-altituded by a Tibetan counterpart, though it still retains the South American distinction. (Apologies Colomé, you’re not the highest anymore…)
Reaching Finca Moya is a mission: it takes an hour to lurch seven km up into the mountain, a bone-shaking, teeth rattler of a rocky ride. “Constructing this path was one of the biggest challenges,” says Claudio. One minute you’re eye level with La Pollera, a scarlet and yellow mountain, the next, looking down at it with a genuine bird’s eye perspective.
Besides arriving at Finca Moya, other 3,329-metre challenges include hungry guanacos looking for grape-shaped snacks and harsh winds that rip vines from their roots. Oh, and a lack of oxygen for the uninitiated… But on the positive side, Claudio’s vines have no need for pesticides or fungicides and they are organic.
Besides his lofty vines, Claudio’s cellar is tucked inside a mountain in a disused mine at almost 4,000 masl, where you can enjoy a sky-high tasting of Uraqui in the clouds. That’s surely got to be a world’s highest...
He isn’t the only sky-high vintner who likes a challenge. Bodega Fernando Dupont pioneered Quebrada’s wine industry in 2003, and was followed up by Perchel, Tukma, Amanecer Andino and Don Milagro. Future projects include Huichiara, guided by winemaker Alejandro Sejanovich of Manos Negras, and a collaboration between Bodega Lagarde’s Sofía Pescarmona and her husband Lucio Boschi.