When I was packing for my trip to Argentina, I never stopped to consider the proper clothes for hopping into a pit dug in a vineyard. Luckily, things are generally casual there & pit hopping is a definitely a casual experience.
Last week I made a super quick trip to Mendoza Argentina to visit Chakana Winery. Sometimes you plan these trips so that you can visit local attractions. Sometimes they are a mini vacation with some wine tasting along the way. This wasn’t one of those trips. We got on a plane in Los Angeles at 3:45 PM on Wednesday, arrived in Santiago Chile at 7 AM the next day, got on a plane to Mendoza & arrived there around 10 AM. Juan Pelizzatti, owner of Chakana Winery and Ed Fields, owner of Natural Merchants Importing picked us up at the airport & we headed to the Intercontinental Hotel. By the time I got to the hotel & gratefully took a shower, it was lunchtime a day after we left. That gave me less than 48 hours for the visit before heading home at 7:50 Saturday morning.
We went to lunch at Cavas Wine Lodge in Luján de Cuyo. It is a boutique hotel surrounded by their own
vineyards. They have a spa & a number of adobe style villas. They also have an excellent restaurant that serves wine made from their vineyards. While there, we met more of Juan’s team: winemaker Gabriel Bloise and viticulturist Facundo Bonamaizon. We also tried through a number of their wines while eating way more delicious food than was reasonable.
After lunch, we took some time to look at the vineyards on the property. Most of them are planted in the pergola style (sometimes called a tendone style).
This is an ancient method, used by the Romans, that is now found primarily in Argentina, Brazil, & Italy. In this system, the vines are trained high off the ground. These were maybe 5 feet high. In some places this is used to plant other crops between rows. It is also used for arid climates to preserve moisture. That applies to Argentina for sure because the Andes create a rain shadow. Mendoza receives less than 9 inches of rain per year & anything less than 10 is considered a desert.
After lunch we drove out to Chakana Winery. Despite the desert climate, it was a beautiful drive. I hadn’t realized how many gorgeous roses were planted in Argentina. Everywhere we went over those couple of days, we saw roses.
When we reached the winery, the first thing that we saw was a pond. The pond is the source of water for the vineyards on site at the winery. Almost every winery has a similar pond. They are created with snow melt from the Andes. The water is regulated by the government. There are valves that control the release of water into the pond & government agents have the keys to them. One of the big challenges of starting a winery in Argentina is getting access to this water. Dry farming is extremely difficult in the area, particularly when starting a new vineyard. Even with the ponds, water is limited & the vines receive less water than in many other parts of the world. That means that site selection is extremely important.
At the winery we checked out the tanks & barrels. They have a wide array of options. They are always experimenting to find the best process for each grape. Depending on the grape & the vineyard, the wines might go into stainless steel, or concrete tanks (20,000 liters/over 5,000 gallons), or a large concrete egg (which has some interesting convection properties during fermentation).
For wines that see oak at Chakana, the current choice is 100% French oak. They are looking at buying some Hungarian oak for experimentation. Having 100% French oak doesn’t mean that there isn’t any diversity. They primarily use standard size Bordeaux barrels, but also have some large barrels that hold over 900 gallons. They also use their barrels for a number of years. The theory is that some wines work well with a strong flavor from the oak & some do better when the barrel is essentially neutral. Then it allows the wine to breath & age slowly. That breathing adds complexity to the wines. It isn’t free though. They actually top off their barrels every 10-15 days. They lose approximately 10% of their total volume of wine on wines in oak. There aren’t a lot of other businesses where it is a standard business practice to lose 10% of your product off the top.
We finished up the afternoon in the vineyards around the winery. The vines there are planted north to west to give them shade in the afternoon. The ozone layer is thin over Mendoza & they have particularly long days during their summer. Long, cool days are good for producing phenologically ripe grapes that retain their acid. The downside to that is that with the thin ozone layer & long days, it is possible for the grapes to get sunburn. They are mitigating the possibility by the angle of planting & by leaving more leaf cover than you might in other growing regions. The other thing that you notice about vineyards in the area is how many of them have netting for hail protection. It doesn’t rain much in Argentina, but when it does, it can come in the form of severe hail storms. This link takes you to a truly amazing hail storm from a month ago.
This vineyard tour started our clinic on the 4 horizons of soil (topsoil, subsoil, parent material, & bedrock). At
Chakana, they dig pits in various places in each vineyard. This allows them to see what they are actually working with in the vineyard. We visited a pit in the vineyard at the winery. This pit showed that the soil is sandy with some clay & loam. The wines made from these grapes tend to be lighter. That’s great for some grapes, & not for others. We tried a wine sample made just from grapes from the vineyard. It was solid stuff, but seemed like it might be best in a blend with grapes from a vineyard that contributed more structure.
We also checked out their long line of compost material. The winery switched to biodynamic farming a few years back & that compost is an important part of the process. For those who aren’t familiar with biodynamic viticulture, here’s a super quick explanation. Biodynamic viticulture is an organic farming concept that looks at the entire farm (& the earth) as a living, interconnected organism. In theory, it is about 100 years old because it grew from the teachings of Rudolph Steiner in the 1920’s. In reality, much of it is based on the concepts of farming from ancient times. There are a number of things that have to happen based on the position of the moon & stars. That sounds a little hippy dippy to some people, but realistically, that is the way farming was done for thousands of years. Neolithic farmers couldn’t check the Farmer’s Almanac or use their computers to find the best time to plant or harvest. There are a number of organic solutions produced to improve the soil of the vineyard & the health of the plants. I don’t understand exactly why biodynamic farming works, but I have seen that it does. I think part of it is that in biodynamic farming requires the viticulturist to pay extremely close attention to the vineyard & the soil. The end result seems to be extremely healthy soil, which makes for high quality, healthy grapes. It is a lot easier to make good wine when you start with good grapes. Juan says, “even if we do not understand how the relationship with the cosmos works, I think paying attention to it is a very interesting thing.” For those that are inclined to think this is a marketing gimmick for new age wines, it is worth pointing out that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of the most prestigious, most expensive wines in the world uses biodynamic production techniques. Juan added, “In regular agriculture, the idea of having high yields & lowering the cost still makes some sense because you need to feed the world & all of those things, but in viticulture, where you want to make quality wine & rally yield is not a factor… what really people are paying the price of good wine, not for the cheap wine…then the yield is not relevant, so why would you use conventional agriculture?.”
Chakana has a real commitment to biodynamics. In fact, they will be hosting the 7th South American Biodynamic
Conference later in November. They are also certified with Fair for Life, which is a fair-trade certification. Many wineries in Argentina use child labor & they don’t, so that is part of the certification. Another part of the certification is that they must create a fund from their income that contributes to the community. Juan said “We are trying to create an environment where labor is well paid, & somehow we contribute to the society where we are & to the local community we are in.” They are also the only non-GMO certified winery in Argentina.
After about 6 hours of sleep, we were ready for day two with the Chakana team. Mostly ready, might be more accurate. Nonetheless, bolstered by large quantities of terrific Argentine coffee, we set out to visit more vineyards.
We drove from the winery to Tupungato. Tupungato has a few different meanings. The base for it all is the Tupungato volcano. It is one of the highest mountains in the Americas. It is also a stratovolcano. I had no idea what that was, so I looked it up. It turns out that it is a volcano built up from successive eruptions over the ages. They tend to be extremely steep. They are the most common kind & my quick google search was happy to tell me that famous stratovolcanos include Krakatoa, Vesuvius, & Mount St. Helena. It looks fairly safe though unless you have to climb it. Tupungato is also the name of a town of about 30,000 people around 40 miles from Mendoza. Finally, it is the name of a wine region. It is the northernmost sub region of the Uco Valley of Mendoza. It is marked by volcanic rocks, basalt, granite, & calcium carbonate. The average vineyard in Tupungato is at 4,200 feet (1300 meters) above sea level. The sunlight exposure is more intense then at lower elevation, but because of that elevation, you get a big diurnal shift (difference between day & night temperature). There are also cool breezes from the Andes. Putting those elements together is a prescription for quality wine with grapes that hang for a long time, slowly building sugar without losing acid.
When we got to their Tupungato vineyard (Gualtallary sub appellation), Tupungato Winelands, we learned the
somewhat odd story of its creation. The area was designed to be a resort/second home destination. A real estate development company bought the land & sectioned it off. They have built polo fields, a golf course, & a hotel with a spa. The idea was for people to build a second home on a plot there & then have a vineyard on their property. They could then have the grapes made into the wine. It is an appealing thought to have your hacienda looking out at the Andes over your vineyard while sipping wine from that vineyard. So far, not that many people seemed to have agreed with me though. As it is, these developers seem to have stumbled onto one of the best vineyard sites in the area. Juan explained to us that he paid real estate prices for his 8 hectares of vineyard property. That’s about 3 times the going rate for traditional vineyard land. I think he may have gotten a bargain though. It is a fantastic rocky area. There really isn’t much soil to speak of. It is mostly rock, ranging from small stones, to huge boulders that must have made it miserable to plant.
We immediately went to one of their pits. That’s when I had to hop in to see just how big some of these rocks were & to see the roots weaving down among the rocks. The vineyard is filled with basalt, granite, & calcium carbonate. When you turn over a rock, you see the calcium carbonate on the bottom. Micro-organisms (microbes) pull the calcium carbonate from the basalt.
This appears to be virgin soil. As far as anyone knows, nothing was ever cultivated here previously. After looking around at the rocks piled everywhere in the vineyard & right below the surface, I can see why it wouldn’t be anyone first choice to grow crops. The fact that it is virgin, rocky, deprived soil, makes it a great place for them to plant own rooted vines. Most vines planted today are grafted. The roots are from American vines (vitis labrusca, vitis riparia, etc.), while the part that produces grapes is from vitis vinifera (with common names like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.). This is because of a tiny louse commonly called the Phylloxera aphid. It eats grape vine roots & kills the European varieties. The American roots evolved with it, so they are resistant. Since the bugs aren’t in this particular area, it is possible to plant vines that are ungrafted. It is a bit of a risk, but some believe that you get better, healthier grapes that way.
After looking at vines & climbing in the pit, we headed over to the hotel/spa for some lunch. It is named the Auberge du Vin. It is part of the Starwood Preferred Guests program, so if you have extra Marriott points to burn, check it out. We ate at their restaurant, which was Epic. I mean it is named Epic. The food itself is actually extremely good, if not epic. After eating way too much food & trying some terrible Argentine beer (Cerveza Quilmes seems to be the Argentine equivalent of Miller lite), we were sufficiently fortified to visit another section of the same vineyard.
This section included some of the original area & an area that they are planning to plant. In the unplanted area it is easier to see the structure of the land. Once upon a time, there was a river flowing through the area. The river is long gone, but you can see its path on the surface. Gabriel & Facundo showed us that the real difference is actually below the surface. We looked at two different pits. They were dug on opposite sides of the old river bed.
On one side of the long-gone river, there was a relatively thick layer of topsoil. The water seems to have pushed the sand & clay up onto the bank. There were still plenty of big rocks, but it looked a little more like something you might actually use for farming. On the other side, there was virtually no topsoil. The ground seemed to be not much more than big rock piled on bigger rock, piled on boulder. There was much more basalt, & much more calcium carbonate.
We opened 2 bottles of wine. One was from one side of the river bed & one from the other. The old river bed wasn’t more than a few feet wide, but there were miles between the two wines. The wine from the side with sand & fewer rocks was a good Malbec. It had most of what you want in an Argentine Malbec. The wine from the stony side was a revelation. It was a massive wine with plenty of spice, layers of blackberry & plum & that almost indescribable taste that we call minerality. They were both good wines, but one was a world class wine.
To keep those grapes separate requires a lot of work. The grapes from the sandier side are ready to be picked earlier than the grapes from the rockier side. Facundo & Gabriel go through each row of vines & mark the spot for the pickers to stop on their first pass through the vineyards. They have to watch to make certain that no one picks grapes from the wrong vine, because even though it might be right next to one that they are supposed to pick, that vine won’t be ready for a week (or more). It is a difficult job, but it means that each grape is picked at the correct time to make the best wine. We discussed their plans for additional planting. This time, they will have breaks at what was the river bank & the rows will follow the river rather than trying to have a clean alignment. That will mean more work for them in the vineyard in many ways, but it will make picking easier & will ensure the best quality fruit.
We visited one more vineyard site. There they were experimenting with closer planting of the vines to stress them a bit because the soil was perhaps a little too fertile. We also checked out their piles of wood. The piles are set up along rows, ready to be lit if there is a risk of frost. Frost is the other big issue for Argentinian grape growing.
After all of that wine & viticulture it was time to head back to the winery to crack a beer & have an asado. It was about a 40-minute trip. We stopped along the way at a little shop to pick up meat for the asado. Gabriel explained that the butcher there got meat fresh daily & did his own work. It was slow when we got there, but a line quickly formed while we waited for the butcher to be available. Gabriel appeared to buy at least one of everything. We passed many other vineyards, lots of barren land, beautiful roses, & a large pen full of llamas. Once we got to the winery, Gabriel passed out some of the beer that he & his wife make. These beers are about to enter commercial
distribution in Argentina. If you see a wine labeled Lunatica, you are in for a treat. The guys at AmBev should just go ahead & buy Gabriel & his wife out now because their beer is so much better than something like Quilmes that I can’t see how anyone could drink Lunatica & go back to the other stuff.
While we drank beer & ate cheese & prosciutto, Gabriel & Dario, the operations manager set up for the asado. An asado is an Argentinian barbecue & it is the epitome of low & slow grilling. There are professional looking setups, but this was a low-tech version. Starting at around 6PM, they got a fire going on the ground out in front of the winery. The wood was a mixture of wood from a tree & vine cutting from that year’s trimming.
Once the fire was roaring, which is pretty quick when you have grape vines, Gabriel had a big grill surface that he stood up against the flames to clean. Then he set up bricks at 4 corners & set the grill on top of that. Once the fire died down to embers, he slowly took coals from the fire & placed them under & around the grill. He used a device that looked a little like an 8 iron to scoop up individual coals & place them. Once that was just right, he started adding meat.
The idea is to add the meat in stages until everything is on the grill. Then everything slowly cooks & is ready in a sequence. He didn’t pull the first item (chorizo sausage) off the grill until around 9 PM. During those 3 hours we talked, snacked, & watched the sun set behind the Andes. It was still somewhat light once the sun went behind the mountains & you could really see the snow on the peaks. During the day, it was really too bright to see. As it got dark, the only lights besides the winery were from the fire & from fireflies. I love fireflies. We used to watch, them or chase them & catch them all of the time in the summer when I was a kid, but I never see them anymore. Juan told me that before they went organic in the vineyard, they didn’t have fireflies, but now they do. There is probably a lesson in there somewhere.
Finally, we sat down to eat & have some wine. Dario or Gabriel would go outside & bring in one piece of meat, slice it, & then pass it around while the rest of the meat stayed outside. It is amazing that nothing got over done. Each piece seemed to come in at the perfect point. It seems like there is a real art to the asado & Gabriel has mastered it.
Speaking of Gabriel mastering a difficult art, we got down to some serious wine tasting. We were tasting through the Inkarri line of wines. We had tasted them earlier, but tasting them with dinner is always best. Inkarri is the newest line of wines from Chakana. This first shipment was on the water when we tried them & they just hit the warehouse this week. The name comes from the Argentinian myth of Inkarri. According to legend, when the Spanish conquistadores executed the last ruler of the Incas, he said that he would return one day to avenge his death & reclaim his land. The Spanish supposedly buried him in pieces around Argentina. The legend is that he will grow larger & grow together until he can return, take back his kingdom, & restore harmony in the land. The idea behind the wine name is that at Chakana, they are trying to reclaim the land from chemical, industrialized, wine production. The symbol for Inkarri is an Inca symbol of the 4 dimensions of the world coexisting. Viticulture for the future is the tag on their wine boxes.
I have tasting notes for the wine below. One thing that was particularly interesting was blending components of the wines. As I mentioned earlier, they keep the grapes from the different vineyards, & sometimes even rows, separate. We had bottles of wine from some of these different sites.
I tried a sample of 2017 Malbec from the Paraje Altamira vineyard. The wine is very much still a work in progress, but here’s what I noticed: It had a big mouthfeel, with dark plum & red plum, blackberry, & other black fruits. This was a good, full bodied wine, but I felt like it was missing something. I feel like it was a bit of a donut with big fruit at the beginning & the end, but somewhat lacking in the middle.
I then tried a sample of the 2017 Malbec from the Gualtallary region (the stony Tupungato Winelands vineyard). This wine had massive mineral notes on the nose. It had meaty notes, an almost chunky texture, huge tannins, & plenty of spice. It was a powerhouse wine.
I blended the two with 90% Gualtallary & 10% Paraje Altamira & it was amazing. It brought out an intense menthol note. I tried a couple more blends before I decided to just drink the finished wines upon which Gabriel had already worked his blending magic. These wines are well balanced & delicious across the board & I highly recommend them. I’m not the only one. They mentioned that Tim Atkins had been at the winery recently to sample the Chakana wines. He asked about trying a couple of the Inkarri wines that weren’t quite finished. Despite the wine not being ready for release at that time, he tried the red blend of Tannat, Cabernet Franc, & Petit Verdot & gave it 92 points. The Chardonnay received 93 points.
We finished the meal by trying their Chakana Straw Wine 2013. That was a late harvest viognier where the grapes were dried before vinification. It is a delicious sweet wine. It has the high acid to balance the sweetness. It seems full of honey, floral notes, lemon zest, & nuts. It was a tremendous way to finish a meal.
By this time, it was midnight. It was time to call it a day. Juan took us back to the hotel. We got back at 1 AM. That gave me almost 3 ½ hours to sleep before heading to the airport for an early flight to Lima Peru & then another to Los Angeles. It was both a short & a long trip. I would love to go back some time with a little more time to spare. Next time I might wear work boots instead of wingtips.
Chakana sparkling wine (50/50 blend of Chardonnay & Pinot Noir)
This is made using the tank method. It is a pale wine with crisp peach, melon, & fig notes & some golden apple notes. I think it is an interesting wine that expresses some different aspects of the grapes than I might have expected.
Chakana Sparkling rose’ (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay & a touch of Malbec for color)
This is a mineral focused sparkling rose’. It also shows melon, which is somewhat unusual for a rose’ & some classic strawberry. The strawberry lingers on the long finish along with the high acid. Some of the mineral notes linger as well on this complex sparkler.
Inkarri White Blend 2016 (60 % Sauvignon Blanc, 20 % Chardonnay, 20 % Viognier)
60% of the wine is aged in 225L French oak barrels for a minimum of 8 months. 40% of the wine is aged in concrete vats without epoxy sealing. The alcohol is 13.5%. Acidity is 4.86g/l. Residual sugar is 3.75g/l.
This is a solid white blend. It has notes both on the palate & in the mouth of nut, toffee, lemon zest, pineapple, honeysuckle, & apricot. It has a medium body & a medium finish. It would be nice paired with seafood, pork, or slightly spicy Asian food.
Chakana Torrontes 2017
This is an aromatic wine with intense floral, peach, & melon aromas. It is a clean, simple, intense wine. It has pure melon & peach. The high alcohol doesn’t show in an aggressive manner.
Chakana Chardonnay 2016
13.5% alcohol. This wine shows honey, pear, & green apple on the nose. On the palate, I tasted cream, baked golden apple, ripe pear, peach, & honey along with some nice baking spice. This is an easy wine to pair with food. It has enough acid to stand up to food with a creamy texture. This is a very good white wine for many occasions.
Inkarri Chardonnay 2016
This is a tasty chardonnay. It has sweet spice, with some nice golden apple notes. It has a creaminess, but it isn’t over the top. This is an easy drinker, but it has enough acid to pair well with food.
Chakana Rose’ 2016
95% Malbec & 5% Syrah blend. 13% alcohol.
This is a simple, but enjoyable rose’. There isn’t a lot more than strawberries & cream going on her, but that is pretty nice on a hot day.
Inkarri Bonarda 2016 (for California wine drinkers, I should mention that this is the same grape as Charbono)
13.5% alcohol. Residual Sugar 2.30 g/l · Acidity: 5.79 g/l. 40% of the wine is aged in 225L French oak barrels for a min. of 8 months.
The nose shows earth, black cherry, plum, & baking spice. It has sweet tannins, baking spice that blends well with the fruit, sweet spice, red cherry, black cherry, & plum on the palate. While this is a single varietal wine, I think it would appeal to fans of reds blends.
60% of the wine is aged in 225L French oak barrels for a min. of 8 months, 40% of the wine is aged in concrete vats without epoxy sealing. Alcohol 14 %. Residual sugar 3.75 g/l · Acidity: 4.86 g/l
On the nose, this shows plenty of spice, both pungent & sweet. It also shows tobacco, blackberry, black fruit, lavender, plum, & black cherry. On the palate the flavors on the nose come through along with some added leather & pepper notes. This is a fairly complex wine with medium plus acid & a long lingering finish. This is a great food wine. It really opened up after a few minutes in the glass. It might not hurt to decant this wine if you have time.
Inkarri Malbec 2016
20-30% of the wine is aged in 225L French oak barrels for a minimum of 8 months, 70% of the wine is aged in concrete vats without epoxy sealing. Alcohol 13 % Residual Sugar 1.87 g/l · Acidity: 5.10 g/l
This is a fresh & fruity approach to Malbec. It is more about the blackberry, red cherry, & blueberry fruit & sweet spice, but it has complexity, with hints of leather & tobacco towards the back. There are hints of soil. The tannins are integrated & sweet. This wine has a lot going on, but it doesn’t make you think about it. This is an easy drinking wine.
Inkarri Cabernet Franc 2016
100% of the wine is aged in 225L French Oak new and used barrels for 12 months. Alcohol 13% . Residual sugar 2.23 g/l · Acidity: 5.46 g/l.
This wine has a pronounced nose, with toasted nut, coffee, herbs, & forest floor notes. The rich coffee & dark roasted green herbal notes on the nose are rewarded with rich, dark fruit, dark herbs, coffee, & a certain meatiness on the palate. The tannins are high, but well integrated. The finish, with coffee & black fruit rolled in herbs. Some blueberry appears towards the finish. This is a very tasty wine.
Inkarri Winemaker’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
100% of the wine is aged in mostly new French oak for 12 months. Alcohol is 13.5%, Residual sugar 1.93g/l, Acidity 5.46 g/l.
This is clearly Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignon. If you are expecting Napa, you may be disappointed, but if you approach it on its own terms, it is an elegant wine. The nose has floral, herbal notes before you get to the fruit (blackberry & plum). There is also a beautiful mineral note to the nose. On the palate you get more of the herbal notes & some nice spice to go with the blackberry & plum. The oak shows as nut & coffee, but it doesn’t overpower the more delicate flavors of the wine.
60% of the wine is aged in 50hl French oak barrels for 12 months, 40% of the wine is aged in concrete vats without epoxy sealing. Alcohol 14 %. Residual sugar 1.67 g/l · Acidity: 5.4 g/l.
The wine has a pronounced aroma, with meaty, leathery notes combined with blueberry, black cherry, & coffee. The tannins on this wine are high & may need a couple of years to settle down. The medium plus acid & big fruit balance it out nicely though. The fruit has clean notes, but also has a roasted note, perhaps like ripe fruit in coffee. There are leathery, meaty notes as well. This is a well-designed wine that is nice on its own, but could really use some grilled lamb to show its best.
Inkarri Red Blend 2016
50 % Tannat, 30 % Petit Verdot, 20 % Cabernet Franc
Aged in a 35hl (924 gallon) French oak barrels for 12 months. Alcohol 13.5 % Residual Sugar 2.33 g/l· Acidity: 5.16 g/l.
This is a deep dark wine. On the nose there is oak, black cherry, mineral notes, with earth. On top of all of that, there are beautiful floral & rose notes. On the palate, the floral notes come across as lavender. There is pencil lead, blackberry, forest floor, fresh fruit, including red cherry. This is a complex wine. It has delicate floral, lavender notes on the nose, but it isn’t a light wine. The football analogy for this wine would be a great left tackle. It is big & strong, but light on its feet. The wine has strong dry tannins, but they are supple & integrated. This has a long-lasting finish with long lasting tannins. This is an elegant, but huge wine.
Chakana Straw Wine
100% Viognier. 16.5% alcohol
That was a late harvest viognier where the grapes were dried before vinification. It is a delicious sweet wine. It has the high acid to balance the sweetness. It seems full of honey, floral notes, lemon zest, & nuts.