Putting Patagonia in its Place

Doug Frost, Master of Wine, Master Sommelier

April 2, 2021

“At the End: A Journey to Patagonia” was the first title of Bruce Chatwin’s 1977 famed travelogue/meditation called “In Patagonia”. It may have been as much an admission of the desperation of his journey as a description of Patagonia’s location. Chatwin had a short and very successful career at Christie’s, specializing in modern art and antiquities, then became a writer for The Sunday Times but, a driven man, it was never clear to what or where he was driven. 

To Patagonia, the end of the earth, where he found Butch Cassidy’s old 15,000-acre ranch (yeah, that Butch Cassidy, after escaping the Pinkertons) in Chubut, now a place of wine. Then, not so much. Patagonia has grown wine for well over a century but its importance for consumers is more current. 

It's a vast region covering more than 400,000 square miles (almost the size of the old U.S. Confederacy), shared between Chile and Argentina, most of it Argentine. Some of the most exciting new projects in either country are Patagonian, but there are reasons these developments are mostly recent. Through the 19th century, both countries struggled with control of the native peoples; there’s a reason the vast majority of the Chilean population lives in and around Santiago – for a time it was safety. On the other side of the Andes, the Tehuelche peoples were taller than most Europeans at the time, and in 1520 Magellan called them patagón, since he thought they were giants or at least they wore very big shoes (what patagón references). 

These places are remote and challenging to visit even today. Had the European settlers chosen to move there to plant grapes a century or two ago, around the time Chile and Argentina were establishing vineyards that thrive to this day, they would have found it forbidding – very cold, very dry and very, very windy. It still is, but there are other grapes to choose than the Bordeaux varieties that have till now been the raison d’etre for their industries.

A Chile Reception? 

The Chilean wine industry was birthed in the mid-19th century as mineral riches in the Atacama created an oligarchy that has troubled the country ever since.  Back then the children of those mineral barons were sent to Paris, the center of the intellectual universe for a time. They were taught to make wine by the French and, until a few decades ago, they were somewhat ill-served by those teachings. A reliance upon Bordeaux varieties, and a fundamental misreading of Chile’s unique climate, led to a wine culture based upon cheap knockoffs of classic French wines.

Things are so much improved today. Patagonia is only a small part of that advance; much of what is exciting about Chilean wine is happening at the coasts, but just as important has been greater understanding of the best grapes and practices for those coastal sites as well as the Andean vineyards and those in the Entre Cordilleras.

Patagonia nonetheless has commanded its share of the headlines. When Aurelio Montes planted vineyards on the cold and rainy Isla Grande de Chiloé, inches from the Pacific waters, that turned heads. The Keóken project at Lake General Carrera in Chile Chico is even more marginal, but it can capture media interest as the farthest south winery in the world (take that, Argentina or New Zealand!). These deep south projects may only be notional for now, but wines from the provinces of Malleco in Araucanía or Osorno in Los Lagos are demonstrable examples of cool climate excellence, whether sparkling wines, white wines or even lighter red varieties. Chardonnays from these sites are mind-altering, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling no less stunning and Pinot Noirs worthy of the world’s attention.

The Araucanía region’s two provinces, Malleco and Cautín, are living different lives. Malleco Valley was kicked into gear by Felipe de Solminihac of Viña Aquitania in 1995, though it was viewed at the time as a fool’s errand. Vineyards around the town of Traiguén, on well-drained, volcanic-origin soils, benefit from more than 50 inches of rain a year and Aquitania, with famed French assistance (Bruno Prats and Paul Pontallier, when he was still with us) is firing on all cylinders. Baettig, Clos des Fous, De Martino, Kofkeche, La Ronciere Selva Oscura, PS García, Tayu, Undurraga, Viña Capitán, Viña Aynco, Volcanes de Chile,  and William Fèvre Chile have proven adept in the region. Cautín Valley is still something more talked about than produced or consumed but Viña Aynco is active there and the valley already boasts two sub-regions: Perquenco and Galvarino. 

Farther south, though still north of the wilder goings-on in Aysén at Chile Chico, is Osorno, part of the Lake (Los Lagos) Region. Volcanic and sandy soils continue here, along with greater rainfall, colder temperatures and vibrant white and sparkling wines. In rapid succession, wineries like Casa Silva, Coteaux de Trumao, Ribera Pellín, Trapi del Bueno, and Miguel Torres have made lovely white and sparkling wines along the region’s lakes and rivers.

Patagonian viticulture, whether in Chile or Argentina, offers lower elevations than further north in the grander parts of the Andes and less sheltering in those mountains for vineyards. Excellence in Patagonia is happening because of ideal marriages between grape and place, benefit of proximity to rivers or to the oceans. So much of this is new.

Argentine Baggage

It was about ten years ago that I thought I would have to break up a fight between two friends, both well-known wine experts. One stated that there is no such thing as great Argentine wine; I’m not paraphrasing; that’s a quote. The other rose up in his seat and expanded his physical self in such a way as to appear threatening, like a lizard with an expanding neck sack. The first one got a bit smaller, but it was all bluster, I’m sure. No fisticuffs were involved.  Still, I was shocked that someone knowledgeable of the world of wines believed two disprovable things: that Argentina had no great wine and that, implied as it was in those days, Malbec could not produce such a wine.

Even more disturbing, that the uninformed (and herein unidentified) wine expert seemed to be unaware that Argentina and its vineyards were not one place but many. There is no single style when it comes to Argentina; it’s merely that most associate the country with one grape (Malbec) and one place (Mendoza).

What gives Mendoza its Mendoza-ness is undoubtedly elevation – proximity to the sun, as marginal as it might appear when comparing sea level to 3000 feet or more, is sufficient to alter grape chemistry. Simplifying things, we can state that grapes use anthocyanins (or coloring matter) to protect the seeds (their children) from harsh UV light. Mendoza Malbec has the reputation of vibrant purples, nearly neon, because of that color density.

There is another theory regarding phenolic development in high elevation sites, but data is weak. The same is true of phenolic understanding in general; there are thousands of phenolic compounds, but we don’t fully understand their sensory manifestations nor how they interact with each other. Yet we persevere, describing wine tannins as “chunky”, “blocky”, “silky”, “developed”, “unresolved”, “sandpaper” and all manner of metaphor though it is little more than tacit agreement that we are offering personal if collectively approved descriptors and not measurable matters.

Of Mendoza’s high elevation impact upon Malbec, we can clearly taste a difference between the way dusty tannins wrapped in voluptuous fruits exemplifies that wine, especially when we compare it to Malbec in southwest France, where the fruit and the tannins are rarely gentle and usually as voluptuous as Twiggy.

Up till now, most exported Argentine Malbecs are Mendozan in origin, but even here there are differences great and small. Most importantly, as we go up in elevation, temperatures drop. And yet. A long-time winemaker once told me that, assigned his dissertation years ago, he was to imagine what growing Cabernet in the high-up Uco Valley might be like (as in, too freaking cold). “Today”, he said, “I am growing Cabernet in the Uco Valley.” The climate here, as all around the globe, is changing.

And new areas within the Uco Valley, like Gualtallary, offer variant soils from the dominant Mendoza sandy alluvials, with Gualtallary’s ancient riverbed materials and its greater limestone/chalk content resulting in rather higher acids in the wines. Salta, far to the north, is elevated too, but offers yet another distinctly different style of Malbec. And Patagonia, far to the south, is as different from these other areas as chalk is from cheese.

In general, New World wine regions seem to begin by planting the easiest areas, where grape ripening is assured but wines tend to be blowsy and undifferentiated. With time, growers look for areas that can provide more nerve and acidity to their wines. This chronology has been demonstrated throughout the modern era, when central Napa was planted to all manner of grape, then Chardonnay was unhitched from Cabernet and planted closer to the Bay, and at present the regions with the greatest press are often right next to the coast. Argentina has trod a similar path but has steadily moved into the mountains in a parallel pursuit.

A Brief History

Though Norde Americanos are likely to think of Argentina as a former Spanish colony, its culture of wine has been more profoundly influenced by its Italian émigré population, the largest outside of Italy. Prolific consumption of everyday wines has until recently gained the country its reputation for being amongst the highest per capita consumption worldwide. In the U.S. wine drinking is associated with the upper classes; Argentine wine has generally been drunk by the working masses. Indeed, a century or two ago, the aristocracy often drank “wine” from Cuba – a product distilled there and then reconstituted by adding water upon its arrival in Argentina. True wine was made by and for the peasantry.

Of course, wine was required for the sacrament too. Churches were allowed to make the wine they needed; for a time, all others were constrained from competing with the home country’s fare. Research has shown that many churches made far more than they needed, and that wine simply “vanished”, at least from the tax rolls.

The mid-twentieth century was kind to Argentina’s financial fortunes, but that didn't last. A few generations were educated and cultured, but cruel dictatorships and floundering democracies have staggered the country – wine exports are amongst the few bright spots. The plunk from the plains has remained for the locals, with dwindling production and sales as wine consumption curtails. The more challenging areas in the foothills of the Andes have instead been a shot in the arm. But if elevation provides greater balance and exportability to the wines, why not move south or towards the coasts much as the rest of the New World has done?

In Patagonia, Argentine-style

It’s not all brand new. Many years ago, I was dining in a Buenos Aires restaurant with Andres Rosberg, then head of the Argentine Sommelier Association. He offered me the wine list and I noted that there were a few Pinot Noirs. I must have betrayed a chortle or two because he said, “we should try one.” I selected Bodega Chacra Pinot Noir “55” and, spotting another Pinot Noir with “32” appended to its name, stupidly asked, “What do the numbers refer to? He looked at me like I was pulling his leg and then said, “the year they were planted.”

A few years later, a group of us were motorboating down the Rio Negro and it felt more like southern Oregon than Argentina – something about the chill in the air, the bluest of skies and the proximity to the ocean. It was also quite different, aside from the South American flora and fauna; the sun was harder, more direct. One of my mentors, Brian Julyan MS, would say of Southern Hemisphere wines, that “they can see the sun.” To him, there was a exuberance of fruit, a forthrightness, that is of this place, and jetting down the Rio Negro, it felt just a bit more radiant. To Hans Vinding-Diers, who has led the charge at Humberto Canale, Chacra and now at Bodega Noemia (and consulting far and wide), it is the “luminosity” that counts.

Yet tasting through wines from among the more than 11,000 acres of vines in this vast place, the usual sunny disposition of Mendoza wines is more constrained, more controlled, slightly stingy at times. Even where there is exuberance there is restraint or, perhaps more a sense of focus. Across the vast area within the three Argentine provinces (Rio Negro, Neuquén and La Pampa), there is broad variance; the only common thread may be that winter is a more significant factor than farther north. Consider the change from winter in California and winter in eastern Washington and then up the ante again.

Elevation is a factor, and so too is proximity to the South Atlantic. Some sites, such as Chubut or its newly established GI of Trevelin, are cold enough that Riesling, Gewurztraminer or even sparkling wines are ascendant. But most Rio Negro vineyards are planted to warmer places along the river and, were it not for the challenging frosts and a shorter growing season, these areas might be considered to be insignificantly different than Mendoza, but it is the little things that matter in wine. Mendoza sees greater diurnal amplitude; elevation will do that. Temperatures are a bit more moderated here; it’s not as mountainous.

The pioneering Bodega Canale, founded in 1909, set up shop in the Alto Valle del Rio Negro. This dry and mild continental region offered clay, sandy loam soils and reasonable growing conditions; it remains the epicenter of activity. By the 1920s, there were hundreds of wineries in Rio Negro; today there are about thirty, among them, Aguijón de Abeja, Aniello, Bodega del Río Elorza Verum, Chacra (and its partnership project with Jean-Marc Roulet, Chacra Mainqué), Noemía, Riccitelli Wines, Bodegas Miras and Canale to claim its worth.

There are easier places to work but a wide variety of grapes have been traditionally and comfortably grown, including Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Trousseau, Semillon, Pedro Jiminez, and in the 70s, Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc and throughout, of course, the table grape (well, for a long time that’s what it was for) Torrontés.

Far downstream and only 25 miles from the Atlantic Ocean is Fincas Patagónicas’ Wapisa vineyards in San Javier, and they have the famed Jean-Claude Berrouet (ya know, from Chateau Petrus) as their consultant. Tangy, melon-scented Sauvignon Blanc and more ethereal Malbec should be enough to grab people’s interest but they’re also aging some of the wines under the ocean. They swear to distinct difference in the wines, but we shall all wait to taste and see.

Experimental underwater aging of bottles from Finca Patagonicas Wapisa Vineyards

Whether the Colorado, the Negro or parts thereof, the rivers have provided much of the soils, but glacial deposits are part of the mix as well, mostly higher above the rivers. Regardless, frost risk, aridity and winds are nearly always a part of the equation. Those hurdles have discouraged some; places like Neuquén or La Pampa are somewhat warmer and have attracted pivotal players – no less a figure than Paul Hobbs is assisting at Bodegas la Desierto in Colorado River Upper Valley in La Pampa, a sort of one winery proof of the region’s appropriateness.

Some of Neuquén’s vineyard areas were made possible by the Cerros Colorados Dam Complex, which started a century ago with the Ingeniero Ballester Dam but has grown and continues to provide opportunity for new planting. Still only around 1000 feet elevation, these can be well sheltered in the Limay River Lower Valley or around the town of San Patricio del Chañar for wineries such as Bodega del Fin del Mundo, Malma, Familia Schroeder, Patritti and Secreto Patagónico, each proffering intriguing wines.

Hundreds of miles to the south, Chubut has wineries Otronia, Bodega De Bernardi, Casa Yagu¨e, Contra Corriente and Viñas del Nant y Fall (each of which is active in the Trevelin GI) that have spilled onto the international scene.  Otronia is just outside the town of Sarmiento - Domingo Sarmiento is credited with bringing Malbec to Argentina in 1853. With billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni backing it, Bodega Otronia is creating lovely wines. There are more Chubut subregions to name: though the vine is still developing at 16 de Octubre Valley (around the town of Trevelin), Comarca Andina Paralelo 42, Piedra Parada, Paso del Sapo, Rio Pico Valley or Los Altares.

If we were to keep going we would find ourselves in Antarctica and, while global warming is real, we shouldn't expect any vineyards on that icy continent. If that should happen, much of civilization would probably have already collapsed. Before then, we would at least get to drink wines of a style, nerve and freshness that are only now being seen in South America, thanks to Patagonia.