Literally in the middle of nowhere,Bodega del Desierto -La Pampa, Patagonia
Picture it: Sicily, 1920, an Italian peasant, boarding the boat for a new life in the new world, all his worldly possessions in a beat-up old suitcase, cradling a tiny vine in his pocket, nurturing it, taking care that nothing happens to it on the long voyage across the sea. Finally, he arrives in the port of Buenos Aires and makes his way across the pampas to the province of Mendoza where he finds a beautiful plot of land beneath the Andes. Here, here is where he will plant his carefully tended vine and make wine.
If only that´s the way that Bodega del Desierto was founded. Instead, what started out as a gas company looking to diversify it´s investments in the La Pampa region of Argentina has turned into a labour of love. Originally, the gas company was looking to grow grapes and sell them onward but the vines transfixed the family behind the company and before they knew it, they were pouring money and manpower into transforming the Patagonian desert into a vineyard. Helped along early on by expert winemakers, the desert has now produced a vineyard of very high quality.
Famed Argentine wine maker, Mario Toso was brought on board to develop the project and he in turn brought on California winemaker, Paul Hobbs, once he realized the potential of the area. At first, Hobbs was reluctant to take on a winery that had only produced one vintage but Toso convinced him that the area was capable of producing high quality grapes and after a bit of persuasion, Hobbs agreed to contribute his expertise. The first thing they did was decide to make all the vineyard decisions while the vines were being planted and growing. Thus they knew they could get the best quality out of the grapes according to how they raised the vines from the very beginning.
The vineyards are literally in the middle of nowhere, 160 kms from the nearest human settlement, the area was virgin desert land, not having been exposed to pesticides or chemicals. As they are in the desert, they have to rely on irrigation, as all the wine producing regions in Argentina must, to water their vines. La Pampa where the vineyard is located gets about 180 mm of water a year! The desert is also a fairly antiseptic environment, they don’t have issues with weeds or competing plants because the desert is such an inhospitable climate and the wind that blows constantly ensures that no nasty insects can harass the vines. The wind, actually, is the biggest challenge they face. It can get so windy that they have contemplated bringing in netting so that the berries don’t blow away. The wind is, however, beneficial in that it makes for a clean and healthy environment and causes the grapes to grow thicker skins which in turn produces the unique wines of Patagonia.
Despite the fact the vines are young, average age between 7-9 yrs old, the wines they are producing are intense but not too intense, delicately balanced fruit flavours and excellent structure along with natural acidity. They’ve already won numerous medals in competitions, including Top Value Wines awards from the Wine Spectator several years running. Although it can get up to 40C in the summer, or more, one of the defining characteristics of the region is the excellent degree of acidity that the grapes retain.
I didn’t get to visit Bodega del Desierto while I was in Patagonia but Maria Loson, Executive Director invited me to their offices in central Buenos Aires to taste. The Bodega produces 2 whites, a chardonnnay, a sauvignon blanc and a viognier. The viognier got in there by mistake, they thought they were receiving sauvignon blanc but got viognier instead. As so often seems to happen here in South America, “if you get lemons, make lemonade” is their motto. They planted the viognier and came up with a late harvest viognier. The 2007 Late Harvest viognier was full of tangerines, clementines and honeyed tones, the biggest surprise being the kick of mouthwatering acidity. At first I thought it was a bit flabby but literally after 3 seconds, the mouthwatering qualities of the wine flooded my mouth.
I tasted through their red wines as well. They produce two lines the 25/5 and Desierto Pampa, both of which deliver far over their price points. The 25/5 retails for $15US and the Del Desierto $30US and honestly I thought they were much more expensive. Definitely quality wines: malbec, cabernet, syrah and pinot noir all are part of their stable. The wines were all balanced with excellent structure and acidity, fruity but not fruit driven. The knockout wine for me however, was the 2006 Desierto Pampa cabernet franc. Here is my note:
“DP ’06 Cab Franc – paprika, perfumed, 19 mo in oak very distinctive nose , black fruits underneath, again with the chocolate fruit covered flavours, very impressive round tannins, excellent acidity, tobacco notes on the nose and palate – more oak and vanilla on the second , velvety mouth, the star for me, fallen in love with it…” The winery itself produces rather whimsical tasting notes, preferring the philosophical route. Here is their tasting note for this wine: “We do not remember the days, we remember the moments…” (Cesare Pavese). I wish I was that poetic. But since I’m not, you’ll just have to suffer with my notes…
I could just keep on gushing about how much I love their wines but better yet, go out and pick up a bottle, if you live in the States. The wines of Bodega del Desierto are not yet available in the UK but they are hoping to crack the UK market in the near future. I hope they do because Patagonia is producing some absolute gems and I’ve already drunk the cabernet franc they gave me….