Hello from Argentina!

Calchaqui Valley, Argentina (9,000 feet above sea level)

Here in northwestern Argentina, the poplar trees are turning yellow. It’s the end of summer (we’re in the southern hemisphere), which means the local children must soon descend from their small, isolated family homesteads (called arriendos or puestos) to the rural boarding schools where they will sleep during the week.

Bad news for them, perhaps, but great news for wine lovers. The grape harvest – here known as la cosecha) – is beginning.

Picking the grapes by hand at the small Bonner family vineyard of Pucarilla, one of the highest in the world, will require every able-bodied male on the ranch to lend a hand.

The small vineyard at Pucarilla

It’s grueling work, even when the bees aren’t attacking you. So far, the rudimentary bee-traps – plastic water bottles with fruit at the bottom – seem to be effective. Down south in the small wine town of Cafayate, a good picker will fill 50 small tubs in a day. Here the number will be around 25, mostly due to the fact that the cowboys picking the grapes spend 11 months out of 12 chasing down stray cattle, goats, or sheep.

Still, we could have it worse – at least we have grapes to harvest! When it comes to high altitude vineyards, there’s a point of diminishing returns. The one or two vineyards higher than ours (note: exact altitude, like the quality of one’s BBQ in West Texas, is a fiercely contested matter here), are prone to freezing over or being destroyed by hail. Entire vintages get wiped out this way.

A couple hundred meters down, where most wineries are, everyone will soon be starting the first fermentation, sometimes called “carbonic” around here (not to be confused with “carbonic maceration” which is a fermentation used predominantly for Beaujolais). The grapes are crushed, then placed on their skins in large stainless steel vats where the yeast naturally present on the grape skins converts the sugars inside to alcohol.

Fermentation vats

There will be no whites bottled at this time. The harvest for torrontes, Argentina’s crisp, floral white happened back in February before the grapes were overly ripe and too full of sugar. Harvesting them later produces a sweet white cherished by Argentines but largely unexportable to the rest of the world.

After the initial fermentation, some of the juice will be ready to age in-bottle (generally the single vineyard wines like Tacana) while others may be aged in oak barrels from France (as is the case for Sunal) anywhere from 12 to 24 months. Oak barrels can be reused for up to eleven years, with the older barrels, from which most of the oakiness has been sapped, generally reserved for torrontes.

 

Oak barrels

Sadly, we won’t be around to see bottling day. In just a few days we are leaving Argentina for Verona, Italy, where Barry and Diego have already reconnoitered some prospective bottles for our second quarterly collection. We’ll send you an update once we put boots on the ground.

In the meantime, please enjoy your first weekly wine tasting with Julien. Simply click on the video and you’ll be taken to our website where you can watch it in full (as well as access your other content if you wish).

Hasta pronto…