Patagonia Extrema. I recently wrote about the new wave of wineries springing up in the province of Chubut in Argentine Patagonia, but the one I visited, Casa Yague, sits in the ‘north westerly’ Andean part, and the newest star is from even further down, almost into the province of Santa Cruz. It’s called Otronia, from Sarmiento in the deep deep south.
The first vines were only planted in 2010 and the inaugural chardonnay vintage was 2017, so this really is a start-up. To get you into the mood, this would be a 2,000km drive south from Mendoza so you can understand why the winemaker Juan Pablo Murgia (who also makes Argento wines up in Altamira/Agrelo etc in Mendoza) commutes by plane, not road. At latitude 45.33S, it is now the most southern commercial vineyard in the world, knocking Central Otago in New Zealand off its pedestal. A skip and a jump and you are in Tierra del Fuego and the next stop is Antarctica.
Extreme? In the winter it drops to -15C, the limit for even dormant vines to survive, and in spring when they are budding it can be -7c, thus exposing the fragile young shoots to the same frozen death that we seem to get every May now in Chablis and Burgundy. Even in summer, it can be zero in the morning and then 30C in the afternoon. The growing season is a lot shorter than up north in Mendoza, winter’s bookends being closer, but you get an extra hour of light every day, so a long hang time. Even so, the average yearly temperature is down to 11c, about 3 degrees cooler than Mendoza, a fact that limits the potential alcohol levels and boosts the acidity, two positives for me in a world of global warming and critical palates that love rich, ripe fruit bombs.
When they planted this experimental, slightly crazy project, they expected to make sparkling wines as they doubted that they’d be able to achieve sufficient sugar and alcohol levels for still ones. Wrong - the long days, endless light and piercing winds (up to 100kms an hour or more) lead to low yields of grapes with very thick skins, so lots of extract and solids and, happily, enough concentration and alcohol. Less juice, more pulp.
The wind and cold are the two potential killers, so they have installed water protection (as in some vineyards in Burgundy/Chablis now) whereby you spray the vine with water if a severe freeze threatens and the cold will encase the delicate green matter in ice, a sort of igloo as Juan Pablo says in a fun interview with Amanda Barnes of the South American Wine Guide. That, at precisely zero degrees, is a sort of chilly insulation – the plant cells can withstand zero so it can be -7C outside, but not inside. Eskimo grapes in a nice thick fleece of ice.
The wind is the other scourge and they have planted rows of trees between the vines, but they will take a decade to grow strong and high enough to offer much cover, so they have built nets to stop the prevailing gale from eroding the soil, ripping up the vines and tossing them into the South Atlantic. Believe me, when wading in rivers, I have been blown off my feet in Patagonia and watched very well tethered tents sail into the air in Chubut and Santa Cruz.
The question is whether these truly extreme elements make wines that are worth the bother and the huge commercial risk. The pundits would have you believe the answer is a resounding yes. Tim Atkin MW puts the chardonnay as one of the best in the whole country and the US critics, and Decanter magazine in UK agree. And for the moment the wines cost less than the iconic and established Patagonia winery Chacra, which is well further north.
If you believe in the concept of terroir, I guess here you have it in spades. It used to be an orchard of cherry trees. The vineyards sit between two interconnected lakes on what was an old lakebed, so the soil is sandy, littered in places with alluvial stones and, especially, clay from the ancient lake bottom. It is this clay that forms the basis for blocks III and VI for the chardonnay and block I for the pinot, their signature wines and soil. They also produce a cornucopia of other varieties and blends covering gewurztraminer, bubbles, merlot, malbec and even some sweet wine that must be Patagonia’s only answer to icewine. Add in the light, the short season, long days, huge temperature swings and grapes with super thick skins and, yes, you have an interesting terroir to examine.
The consultant winemaker is the renowned Italian Alberto Antonini, a master of Argentine malbec. There is no malolactic fermentation for the chardonnay, and the oak is untoasted and I think some concrete eggs used too. Apart from the wind defences, the vineyard is covered in snow the winter and local herbs such as thyme and mint the summer. Oh, and just to get you back to that extreme wild west setting, there are lots of rabbits frolicking around which I presume are lunch and dinner for the resident pumas. If that seems a bit far-fetched, I have seen the remains, or skulls, of pumas in Chubut and know they roam in the Andean foothills behind Casa Yague and other vineyards.
So, with big cats, the deepest latitude, crazy wind and ice, what on earth does an extreme Patagonian wine taste like? As said, the scores for the inaugural 2017 vintage were super high, so when I saw the 2018 Block III & VI Chardonnay at 65 euros in France, I thought I’d better try it. I have spent a lot of time in ‘Welsh’ Chubut and have many friends there, so I was eager to taste what is now their premium local chardonnay, and one that instead of Casa Yague at 11.5% comes in at 13%, a more ‘serious’ bodyweight you might say, despite having its toes in the permafrost.
The winemaker talks of the specific chardonnay clone and its distinctive taste, and he did say that the 2018 has a strong caramel flavour. Indeed, on the nose you get butterscotch. To be honest at first sniff this was worrying as it reminded me of the over-oaked over-ripe and alcoholic chardonnays of Napa/Australia etc in the 90s, but on tasting the wine that was definitely not the case. Nice ripe green fruit (greengage?) and then, yes, that hallmark striking acidity. The wine ends up being tooth coating and finishes lip-smackingly fresh.
Considering the youth, location and extreme conditions, a remarkable effort. I can’t agree with he US and UK critical experts who score it about 95, but grade inflation in wine ratings is rampant. If you think about it seriously for a second, the world’s largest source of top tier chardonnay is in Burgundy and a genuine 95 score puts you straight into the grand cru slope, and to expect, or pretend that a 7 or 8 year old vine, 2nd vintage at the end of the world is going to miraculously peer group Batard-Montrachet at seven times the price is a bit of a stretch?
I think we should forget scores as they are so subjective and frankly pointless, pun intended. No, judge the wine and the place and the frontier spirit and then, yes, you have a lot to cheer about.
I look forward to future vintages and to seeing how it ages.