The local bus was taking forever. On the map there looked to be about 40 kms between Neuquen and Rio Negro, not far, there in half an hour. However, I forgot that I was traveling in South America and nothing is ever quick or fast on a bus, even if it was the “express” bus, it’s a term used very loosely in this part of the world. I swear we stopped at every other street corner along the way.
I was in Patagonia and to get here it takes 15 hours on a bus from Buenos Aires, down a lonely 2-lane highway. It really did feel like the bottom of the world. Isolated, windswept desert vistas as far as the eye can see, with the occasional tiny settlement on the Patagonian steppe. While it may not look like the ideal place to grow grapes and is hundreds of miles away from any “real” civilization, Patagonia has proven to be the place to go for adventurous wines makers. I had been alerted to the vineyards of Rio Negro from the winemakers of Neuquen, which I had been visiting. Go there if you want to try wines from old vines, they said. It was just a short drive away, 40 kms. “That’s nothing”, or so I thought, to the Rio Negro Valley.
The Rio Negro Valley is 625 miles south of Buenos Aires but it was one of the first regions to produce wine on a large scale in Argentina. As a matter of fact, 100 years ago, it was the place to go for quality Argentine wines. Over the years, though, farmers found it more profitable and easier to grow apples and pears and most of the vineyards were grubbed up and replaced with fruit orchards. There are still a few wineries in the area and the land is quite suitable for viticulture, being in an irrigated oasis in the Patagonian desert. As the vineyards are in the desert, there are very few, if any, pests or diseases to impede the growth of the grapes. The oasis is in a valley that was created by the Rio Negro and Limay rivers which flow from the Andes Mountains. It was the British who originally discovered the valley and created the oasis by digging channels to irrigate the valley.
After an bus journey that took roughly 2 hours to cover 40 kms, I found myself at the vineyards of Noemia. Although it is a new winery, the vines themselves date back to the 1930′s and 1950′s. Danish winemaker Hans Vinding Diers and his Italian wine producer partner, Countess Noemi Marone Cinzano stumbled upon the neglected malbec old vines when they were looking to set up a winery in Patagonia. Those vines are pre-phylloxera and date from the 1930′s. They were also fortunate enough to discover another plot of abandoned vines of malbec and merlot mixed up together, dating back to the 1950′s. Hans and his team painstakingly brought these derelict vineyards back to life and are now producing very small batches of wine.
The winery only produces about 50,000 bottles a year which is small by Argentine standards. What sets it apart from other boutique wineries of Argentina is that everything is done by hand. From the picking, to the sorting and de-stemming, they even crush by foot and the bottling is done by hand with the assistance of gravity, no heavy machinery is used in the making of the wine. The winery is certified organic and biodynamic as well. This attention to detail has not gone unnoticed and Noemia’s wines not only command high prices but have also been recognized with various gold medals in competitions and high scores.
I sat down with the Vineyard Manager Oscar Ferrari for a tasting at the small guesthouse Noemia has amongst the old malbec and merlot vines. Their top two wines come from these vines, the Bodega Noemia from the 1933 malbec and the J. Alberto from the 1955 malbec and merlot. The 2009 J. Alberto was first up and was a refined and complex mouthful. Although it is still quite young, the wine had round, sweet tannins, rich ripe fruit and striking mineral notes. Oscar noted that the wines from this region are known for their mineral qualities. Although young, it was an elegant wine with great aging potential and is a prime example of the concentration and intensity that can be derived from old vines. Only 11,000 bottles are made so it may be difficult to find a bottle to age in your cellar. Happily, the wine can be drunk now but your patience will be rewarded if you decide to wait.
If you think the J. Alberto is hard to find, the Bodega Noemia 2008 will be even more difficult. Only 3,000 bottles along with 30 magnums can be found on the marketplace. The Noemia 2008 comes for the vines planted in 1933 and is 100% malbec but unlike it’s cousins to the north, it is a far from jammy. The old vines have worked hard to produce this complex and concentrated wine. The nose was full of ripe strawberries and red fruits, with notes of vanilla, toast and a slight smokiness emanating from the glass. On the palate, bursting with generous fruit while at the still time showing some restraint, not an all out fruit bomb but a robust balance between fruit and acidity, a wine with bonhomie. I could imagine drinking this with an prime cut of beef, around the dinner table with good friends who appreciate quality wine. This is a wine that will only improve with time but only 3,000 bottles of this gem were produced so if you see a bottle, I suggest you snap it up.
It is fantastic what they are managing to produce at the bottom of the world from old vines in the middle of a desert oasis. Luckily for us, we don’t have to go all the way there to enjoy the fruits of their labours.
I originally wrote this post for Michael Green’s website. Michael is formerly the Wine and Spirits Consultant of Gourmet Magazine and now President of Liquid Assets Consulting Group. He has set up a website for all things gourmand and you can find my contributions there from time to time.