The Mendoza terroir: Malbec as a place

December 11, 2014 Leave a comment
The Zuccardi vineyards in Mendoza lie in the alluvial soils at the foot of the Andes.

The vineyards of Bodega Famila Zuccardi in Mendoza, Argentina, lie in the alluvial soils at the foot of the Andes.

Three months after meeting Sebastián Zuccardi at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen (noted in a previous post), three friends and I jumped the border from Brasil to the Uco Valley of Argentina, just outside Mendoza, dodging rainstorms in a land resembling the high-desert terrain of western Colorado.

Except, that is, for the Andes, looming on a close horizon and towering thousands of feet up.

Despite its modest appearance, Mendoza, which sits at 2,500 feet elevation on the east slope of the Andes, is one of the great wine cities of the world, where even modest restaurants unblinkingly serve world-class Malbecs, Syrahs, Petit Verdots and other varietals.

Malbec is the both the workhorse and the star of the Argentina wine industry, and according to the website Wines of Argentina, the country has 76,600 acres of Malbec vineyards, the most anywhere.

Our first morning found us headed to Bodega Familia Zuccardi in the Uco Valley, where Julia Zuccardi had arranged us a tour.

Julia and her two brothers, Sebastian and Miguel, compose the latest generation of Zuccardis to be involved with a winery established in 1963.

Sebastián Zuccardi, winemaker and head terroirist at Bodega Familia Zuccardi.

Sebastián Zuccardi, winemaker and head terroirist at Bodega Familia Zuccardi of Mendoza.

Each has their niche – Sebastian is the winemaker and responsible for the vineyards, Julia does the marketing and tourist development and Miguel has developed the bodega’s compelling olive oil market.

The Uco Valley resembles my home valley in western Colorado: High elevation, semi-arid climate, heavy alluvial soils watered by irrigation, mountains on the horizon – familiar indeed, except for the snow-covered Andes, including the impressive 22,837-foot Aconcagua looming over the region.

Irrigation from Andean snowmelt is key to Mendoza’s agriculture, and 50 years ago Sebastián’s grandfather Alberto Zuccardi developed an irrigation system that soon became a standard of the local wine-making industry.

While the system was a success, Alberto found his true calling in making wine from the grapes he was watering.

Today Zuccardi makes around 20 million liters (about 25 million bottles) a year, most of which is Malbec with smaller bottlings including Bonarda (which Zuccardi and others think may be the Malbec of the future), Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranilllo, Torrontes and Chardonnay/Viognier.

One thing a visitor to Mendoza quickly learns is there is no shortage of Malbec in Argentina.

“Everyone in Mendoza makes a Malbec of some sort,” said Zuccardi spokesperson Monserrat Porte, who gave our small group a personal and insightful tour of the Zuccardi winemaking facilities. “What sets Zuccardi apart is its insistence in quality.”

Perhaps a translation is needed, since every winery around the world likes to say it emphasizes quality.

Carlos Gloger of Curitiba, Brasil, tests the inside of the 10-foot concrete egg used for a moderate and controlled fermentation at Zuccardi.

Carlos Gloger of Curitiba, Brasil, tests the inside of the 10-foot concrete egg used for a moderate and controlled fermentation at Zuccardi.

What Porte was responding to was the question, “With so many Malbecs to chose from, and so many that taste similar, what sets Zucccardi apart from the rest?”

Consistent quality, of course, which stems from Sebastián’s belief in the terroir of individual vineyards.

‘I’m always talking about the origins of the grapes,” Sebastián said in Aspen. “Each region, each sub-region offers something different.”

He said walking through the vineyards and tasting the grapes will reveal the individuality of the vines.

“You can taste the individual terroirs and that is what we are promoting,” Sebastián said, waving his hand at the selection of Zuccardi wines near him. “You will notice I am always talking about the origin of the grapes, not just the fact they are Malbec.”

Which also means Malbec is more than a grape: it’s also a place.

“It’s that origin that we must promote to ensure our future.”

Which entails using sustainable and organic agricultural practices, and focusing on micro-climate terroirs in the various vineyards and soils of Maipu and Santa Rosa along the eastern foot of the Andes.

Every wine is estate grown, hand-picked and estate produced in a modern, state-of-the-art facility.

Not too modern, though: Scatttered through the fermentation are several bunker-like concrete fermentation tanks and 10-foot concrete eggs scattered around the winery. So strong is Sebastián’s belief in terroir he uses only local concrete in making the amphora-shaped eggs and the concrete tanks in which he uses to age specific varietals, including Bonarda.

Bodega Zuccardi produces three lines of wines: the premium Zuccardi; Julia (named after Julia Zuccardi); and the Malamado line of fortified wines.

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December 10, 2014 Leave a comment
Eames Petersen and his son Devin, who has taken on the role of partner and winemaker at Alfered Eames Cellars.

The 2014 holiday season is bright for Eames Petersen of Alfred Eames Cellars in Paonia, particularly with the continued emergence of his son Devin as partner and second-generation winemaker. The winery’s annual holiday open house and barrel tasting drew a lively crowd this past weekend. Photo by Jim Brett

PAONIA – The holiday season officially began here last weekend with a rousing chorus of Jingle Bells resounding through the  barrel room at Puesta del Sol and Alfred Eames Cellars, the vineyards and winery south of Paonia, Co.
Here, on the flank of Mt. Lamborn, Eames and Pam Petersen, along with their son Devin and daughter Lais, hosted their annual holiday open house and barrel tasting with friends sharing wine, good food and the locally renowned Madrigal Choir.
There is much to celebrate this year at the winery, although some things you might not notice unless told.
Eames has two new knees, the latest (his right) being installed less than a month ago to balance his new-found gait with the first transplant from 6 months past.
The thought of unencumbered movement significantly brightens his aspect on life, especially life hiking and climbing the mountains he loves.
“I’m already thinking about Gunnison lakes,” said Eames, speaking of the trek to the lakes half-hidden on the upper shelf of 12,725-foot Mt. Gunnison in the West Elks Wilderness.
“Last time I went, I made it about halfway and had to stop,” recalled Eames. “Devin kept going but I had to come back down.”
There’s also the not-small fact that Devin, whose name means “poet” in the original Gaelic, is fitting comfortably into the life of a second-generation winemaker, a move that pleases Eames as much as his two new knees.
“He added 10 years to my life,” said Eames, watching Devin easily haul three cases of wine to a guest’s car. “He knows everything I do, probably more. We’re partners but he’s taken on a huge responsibility for the operation of the winery.”
Devin, 30, admitted to a bit of indecision a few years back but now he’s solidly committed to being the resident winemaker.
“I’m excited about being here,” he said. “This is my home, now.”
Which is more good news. Like many Colorado winemakers, Eames and Pam spent years building their business and faced an uncertain future if and when it came time to retire.
Now, listening to Devin talk easily with guests enjoying the barrel samples in the cement-lined, cave-like barrel room, it seems the winery’s future is assured.
“We built this to be like a cave, with thick walls and buried in the ground, to maintain a near-constant temperature,” Devin, pointing around the expanse while speaking to a few listeners. “It fluctuates less than 10 degrees though the year.”
During a brief break in his wione-pouring duties, he mentioned the winery is a cross roads.
“I’d like to grow the business but we’re so limited in what we can expand into,” he said, lifting his hands to the solid walls of the winery around him. “Not just as far as building sales and increasing capacity but finding the resources to make more wine.”
That last part is key in a business where weather makes half your business decisions for you.
“We’re limited both by our physical space but also the supply of fruit,” said Eames with a laugh. “You have to learn to adjust.”
Getting bigger could mean losing some “intimacy” with the business, Devin said.
“It’s really about where we want to be, both in the quality of our product and in our way of life in doing it,” he said.
For now, that way of life continues unchanged. There is wine to rack and bottle, cases to move and the myriad other tasks that take up a winemaker’s winter.
Well, maybe for Devin to move.
“I just shuffle around and do quality control,” said Eames, laughing again. “Now, I have time to sit down with my guitar and watch Devin.”

It’s a small world: Politics, strange bedfellows and a three-legged dog

December 9, 2014 Leave a comment
Curitibanos display their political affiliations before the October presidential elections. The red shirts are supporters of incumbent Dilma Rousseff and just behind them are the white tentsand banners of Aécio  Neves' fans.

Curitibanos display their political affiliations before the October presidential elections in Brasil. The red shirts are supporters of incumbent Dilma Rousseff and just behind them are the white tents and banners of Aécio Neves’ fans.

The U.S. off-season elections came and went uneventfully, at least if you won.

No so in other countries, especially South America where elections and unrest go hand-in-hand. Watching the elections in Brasil, one get struck at the similarities in fervor between the U.S. and Brasil, although I don’t remember seeing in the U.S. fans of one party (in this case incumbent Dilma Rousseff) yell obscenities and throw objects out the windows of high rises at the supporters of challengers (and eventual runner-up) Aécio Neves.

It was a frequent occurrence in Curitiba, particularly in the chi-chi bairro of Bigorrilho, where supporters of Rousseff and her center-left Workers’ Party envision themselves as freedom fighters, conveniently forgetting their maids often ride two hours on the bus to clean kitchens and toilets.

It’s sad to see Uruguay president José Mujica step down. Despite the widespread corruption and bigotry in other countries’ politics (see Andrew Downy’s account here of politics in Brasil or Mexico and the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students) Mujica, a former revolutionary who still professes anarchist ideals, lives in a tiny house rather than the presidential palace and gives away 90% of his salary, once telling Al Jazeera that “I make more than I need.”.

He’s said to be the world’s “poorest president”, regularly appears in public driving a 1987 Volkswagen bug, legalized marijuana and gay marriage, and says too much attention is paid to his his simple lifestyle.

But Uruguayan presidents are term-limited, so now the country is preparing for president-elect Tabaré Vazquez, who was president from 2005-2010. He’s expected to continue Mujica’s policies, but we’ll miss the rumpled, politically adept Mujica, the well-worn VW and his three-legged dog named Manuela.

Chinese millennials using internet savvy to learn about wine

December 1, 2014 Leave a comment

Before I continue with my posts on a recent trip to Mendoza, Argentina, I wanted to share a thought from Stevie Kim, the very smart and very talented managing director of Vinitaly International.

With the opening of the initial wine2wine on Dec. 3, the first event in Italy entirely dedicated to the Italian wine business, Kim re-emphasized the importance of fostering the Chinese wine market and particularly that of Chinese millennials, those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s.

This age group is also known as the “Net Generation,” based on its increasing reliance for knowledge about wine (and many other topics) on social contacts through the rapid proliferation of smartphones, Internet and wireless communication.

This reliance on the personalized message of social media is something shared by all young people, said Kim.

The Chinese “are not very different from their counterparts in other parts of the world,” Kim said. “The main difference, however, is the fact that in China wine knowledge and consumption is still at its early stage but social media will foster to bridge this gap.”

Her remarks appeared in a story titled “Are Chinese Millennials any different from others with regard to wine”? on the PRWeb site.

Apparently not, said Kim, because it’s this younger generaton who “will become opinion leaders in lifestyle trends, including wine choices,” noted Kim.

According to Vinexpo Projections,  Chinese wine consumption will grow by nearly 34 percent in the next three years, reaching 230 million, 9-litre cases by 2017.

The entire article may be seen here.

Zuccardi plan eyes regionality to distinguish family’s wines

November 21, 2014 Leave a comment
The Zuccardi vineyards in Mendoza lie in the alluvial soils at the foot of the Andes.

The Famila Zuccardi vineyards near Mendoza, Argentina, lie in the alluvial soils at the foot of the Andes.

Sebastian Zuccardi, the 38-year old winemaker for Bodega Familia Zuccardi of Mendoza, Arg., was a bit distracted when we met last summer at the Food and Wine Magazine classic in Aspen. Seems his nation’s football team was facing Iran and, well, even one of the best young winemakers in the world has his priorities.

Sebastian Zuccardi, winemaker for Bodega Familia Zuccardi of Mendoza, Arg.

Sebastian Zuccardi, winemaker for Bodega Familia Zuccardi of Mendoza, Arg.

As the evening passed, and Argentina won thanks to a goal by the stellar Lionel Messi, Zuccardi freely talked about his family’s wines, reflected on his winemaking philosophy and discussed the state of wine consumption in Argentina.

“Today, wine consumption in Argentina is 28, 29 liters per person (per year),” he said. “In the ’70s, it was 90.”

That was a different generation, he said, one still full of immigrants who considered wine a part of everyday life.

“We still are like an Old World in the New World,” Sebastian said, referring to the legacy left by immigrants from Spain, Italy and elsewhere that built the country’s wine industry.

One of the grapes they brought with them was Malbec, and today the nation’s wine industry is awash in Malbec.

Years past, when wine consumption was high, the quality was poor, Zuccardi said. In the 90s, when Argentina finally opened its doors to the rest of the world, winemaking took a turn, becoming modernized and seeking to attract international palates.

Today, 70 percent of the wine made in Argentina today is sold in the country, he said.

His family wants to change that, and today they sell 45 percent of their annual 20-million bottle production out of the country.

“My father (company director José Alberto Zuccardi) always tells me it should be 50/50,” said Sebastian, who at the 2013 Gaucho awards celebrating Argentina’s wine industry was named the “Winemaker’s Winemaker of the Year”.

The family’s largest international markets are, in order, Canada, the U.S., the UK, and Brasil.

Sebastian Zuccardi hass a light touch of a variety of French, American and Slovenian oak in his winemaking.

Sebastian Zuccardi has a judicious touch of a variety of French, American and Slovenian oak in his winemaking.

Like many other companies, the Zuccardi brand wants to grow, but in price, not volume.

“We want to keep the company this size,” Sebastian said. “The big companies are so huge and our plan is not to play in this market.”

He said the plan is distinguish his wines from the countless other Malbecs produced in the country is by pushing regionality and terroir-driven differences, focusing on the various microclimates to offer different expressions of Malbec.

He also has lifted the company image by discontinuing the low-priced wines they previously sold to supermarkets.

“Now, we don’t sell anything without our brand.”

That drive has paid off. In 2007, Decanter named Sebastian and his father José Alberto as among the five most-influential people in Argentina winemaking.

Awards are numerous, including the 2014 Gold medal from the Decanter world wine awards for the 2011 Zuccardi Z, a blend of 83 percent Malbec, 17 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from estate vineyards in the Uco Valley.

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Chill out – Saké education starts on World Saké Day

September 29, 2014 Leave a comment

A friend from Quito stopped in Grand Junction a few weeks ago and we ended the first day by dining at No Coast Sushi, the original (there’s now two) sushi and contemporary Japanese restaurant owned by Chis Boyd, who started his sushi apprenticeship at 16 (he’s now 42).

Premium sakés, such as the TY KU coconut-infused (left) and TY KU Silver, are best enjoyed chilled. Both are available in Grand Junction andelsewhere. Japanese tradition says you never pour your own glass.

Premium sakés, such as the TY KU coconut-infused (left) and TY KU Silver, are best enjoyed chilled. Both are available in Grand Junction and elsewhere. Japanese tradition says you never pour your own glass.

Every town, even those in the middle of fly-over country, has a place that claims it’s a sushi restaurant and you can find hand-made sushi in the deli at the local market. But Chris Boyd’s mom brought sushi and traditional Japanese dining to Grand Junction 25 years ago with the opening of Suehiro Japanese Restaurant and today the family is still at the top of its game when it comes to fresh fish and Japanese dining.

But this isn’t a restaurant review; instead it’s a reminder that Oct. 1 is Nihonshu no Hi, or World Saké Day.
Most Americans pay little heed to saké except for the occasional encounter at a Japanese restaurant where their meal is accompanied with hot saké served in a small white pitcher.
Sadly, that’s also where most Americans end their saké education.
“I think education is the key” to appreciating a drink that may go back to 300 B.C., said Boyd, who takes pride in the premium sakés he pours. “I’m trying to get more people interested in saké and showing them how easy it is to match saké with food.”
If that sounds like something you’d hear from a sommelier, it’s because saké reflects the same sense of terroir as does fine wine.
However, instead of discussing weather patterns, rainfall and soil types, when saké tojis (master brewers) get together they talk instead about strains of rice and yeast and the all-important (and often closely guarded) water sources they use.
Water, which makes up 80 percent of saké, and the type of rice contribute to the terroir of saké, with some sakés showing softer, fruity undertones while others are sharp and clean, Boyd said.
The four main types of saké differ mainly in how much milling (or polishing) the rice undergoes while being prepared for steaming and brewing.
Polishing removes the husk, fats and proteins, which may cause off-flavors, and prepares the rice for brewing.
More polishing is said to make a more refined saké, and different types of rice add different flavor components to the finished saké.
Junmai and Honjozo sakés use rice milled at least 30 percent; Ginjo has at least 40 percent polished away; and Daigin (often the most expensive because it uses more rice) may have as much as 75 percent of the grain milled away.
One source I consulted said most saké produced for everyday consumption in Japan is the lowest grade futsu, where less than 30 percent of the rice grain has been milled away.
In brief, sake is made when rice is polished, washed and steamed and then mixed with a special yeast and koji, which is steamed white rice cultivated with a specific mold that changes the starches to sugars needed for fermentation.
The entire batch ferments for four days (with gradual additions of more rice, koji and water), after which the mash sits undisturbed for up to a month.
All saké has a bit of distilled brewer’s alcohol added to the fermented mash (the amount is strictly controlled by law), a technique that pulls desirable flavors from the mash and retains them in the finished saké.

A worker at Ota Brewery in Iga, Mie prefecture on the main island of Honshu, Japan, hjandwashes the rice use in Ota saké. Their sake Hanzo is named after the great ninja Hattori Hanzo.

A worker at Ota Brewery in Iga, Mie prefecture on the main island of Honshu, Japan, hand washes the locally grown rice used in Ota saké. Their sake Hanzo is named after the great ninja Hattori Hanzo. Photo courtesy Ota Brewery

Then, the mash is pressed and the resulting saké has water (again, the role of good water) added to cut the alcohol to around 14-16 percent.
Because saké has no sulfites or tannins, it is pasteurized prior to storing and shipping.
Boyd said people who drink only hot saké are missing some of the true essence of what saké can provide when it is served cold.
“With cold saké, the flavors are so pure,” he said. “I like warm sakés during the winter, it warms your stomach and creates a nice mellow feeling.
“The hot saké is really popular – in the winter our saké sales soar – but I prefer chilled saké, because it shows a higher quality of saké making.”
As part of World Saké Day on Oct. 1, which also is the traditional start of the saké brewing season, both No Coast Sushi restaurants will offer 50 percent off all premium bottled chilled sakés.
Additionally,  those premium sakés will be 20 percent for the rest of the month.
Boyd also is offering a free Saké 101 class at 5 p.m. Oct. 24 at the No Coast Sushi in Grand Junction, 1119 North First St.
Information at 255-1097 and in Fruita, 229 East Aspen Ave., at 639-8271.

Check your local Japanese restaurants for similar deals.

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Saving Prosecco – One man, one wine, one vision

September 2, 2014 1 comment

I’m climbing the stairs into the granary, the hand-cut stone building housing the major portion of winemaker Alois Lageder’s Renaissance complex in the Alto Adige hamlet of Magré.

Once I’ve reached the doorway, the first stop is to visit Primo Franco.

It was Day One of Summa 2014, the two-day tasting event last April hosted by Lageder that serves as a well-focused run-up to VinItaly.

This year Summa celebrated its 15th anniversary of featuring several hundred select wineries from around the world and as expected, the maze of rooms and floors are filled with winemakers of every ilk.

But for now, it’s Primo Franco I’m here to see.

Or more rightly, it’s his Prosecco, which Franco has elevated to levels previously unseen in Italian wines.

There are other great Prosecco makers – I immediately think of Bortolomiol, Drusian, Bisol, Bonotto and others who deserve mention – but today it’s Primo Franco I want to visit.

Primo Franco at Summa 2009, with his wife AnnaLisa and daughter Silvia, and a selection of their Prosecco.

Primo Franco with his wife AnnaLisa and daughter Silvia and a selection of their Prosecco.

I met Primo, his wife AnnaLisa and daughter Silvia at Summa 2008 and after missing a few years didn’t expect them to remember me. But Primo, either a very good diplomat or simply very accomodating, greeted me as if he recognized me and immediately shared his wine and his immense insights into the World of Prosecco.

I’m certainly not the first to write of Primo Franco – thanks to recent posts by Susannah, Alfonso, DoBianchi and Charles Scicolone – so anything I can tell you about the Franco family history and winemaking, and the struggle to retain Prosecco’s integrity and identity, is repeat news.

I tasted through his wines, including the Nino Franco Brut (named for his father), the Vigneto della Ria di San Floriano and the Primo Franco and was impressed by them all – bright, fruitful, satisfying wines that sit light on the palate.

I especially liked the Cartizze Superiore, produced from the tiny vineyards in the vertiginous hills of the exclusive Cartizze DOCG hills of Valdobbiadene, where land prices are as steep as the topography.

The Cartizze was more restrained than the other wines, a symphony of green apple, honey and lemon, underscored by the brilliant minerality character of fine Prosecco.

Primo didn’t have much time to chat – this year’s Summa was popular and busy – but he talked briefly about the struggle to retain the purity of Prosecco at a time when nearly everywhere, even Brasil, claims to produce a Prosecco.

The new regulations adopted in 2009 focused the Prosecco DOCG in and around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene and established a penumbra of nine Treviso provinces that would become DOC.

The precipitous hills of the Cartizze DOCG, with Valdobiaddene far below.

The precipitous hills of the Cartizze DOCG, with Valdobiaddene far below.

All the rest, that ocean of lesser sparkling wine taking advantage of the work, the heritage and dedication of such people as Primo Franco, would now be called Glera, after the grape, and all would be IGT.

The laws, Franco said as he eyed the small crowd building behind me, would preserve Prosecco’s identify and integrity.

“People will know that Prosecco, true Prosecco, comes only from” the DOCG/DOC zone, he said. “I owe it to my family, to my history, to the people who live in the (Prosecco) hills and work the land like their fathers did.”

He inclined his head toward Silvia, who seems quite capable of filling some very big shoes. “How could I not?”

He turned to another visitor and I moved on.

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