COST: $12-$14, $19-$21
WHAT: Grapes grown on the side of a mountain seem to bring a little something extra to wine. Whether it’s the soil or the weather conditions or the altitude, mountain wines often have distinguishing characteristics that make you take notice. That was brought home to me again with these two malbecs from Graffigna. The wines are made in Argentina from the same grape, but grown in very different vineyards. The results are dramatically different.
I like both wines, but you would not mistake one for the other.
The Centenario comes from grapes grown in the Pedernal Valley at 4,600 feet elevation and grapes from the Tulum Valley at 2,300 feet. It is a more relaxed, easy going wine than the grand reserve.
Graffigna head winemaker Ignacio Lopez calls it his “rock and roll wine. It is a teenager, a rebel,” he said during a wine tasting and interview we conducted online. “We want the fruit to be as loud as possible. The grand reserve is more sophisticated. It’s something you might drink when hanging out with friends.”
Ignacio said the lower Tulum Valley has heavier soil such as clay and sediment brought down by snow melt from the Andes Mountains. That creates round wines with refreshing acidity and a warm body.
The rounded character of the Centenario begins with lush fruit aromas that come out of the deep red wine with some purple and violet tints on the edges. The first sip tastes like a mouth full of fruit salad, bursting with ripe plums and dark berries. There is a sweet spice note and a hint of black pepper leading to a long, smooth finish.
After the grapes are picked they spend 15 days in maceration on the skins followed by seven days of fermentation. There also is a malolactic fermentation and 12 months of barrel aging in French and American oak.
The grand reserve wines come from selected clusters from specific vineyards in the Pedernal Valley. The high altitude gives the grapes more intense flavors.
“When you go high in the Andes you get more tannins and more concentrated flavor and aroma,” said Ignacio. “All aromatic compounds are in the skins of the grapes. Go higher and the skins are thicker. They want to protect the seeds. There are more UV rays so thicker skins protect them.
“Right there is where the magic is. This wine has huge aromas and concentrated flavors.
“With cooler nights the vines can breathe easy. They can rest. They keep the natural acidity better.”
The Graffigna grand reserve malbec has an intense purple color with bluish black hints on the edges. The aroma is plums, cherries and blackberries with some floral notes. Those fruits are also in the taste, which is opulent and silky. You can feel the mature tannins, structured and soft at the same time. The aftertaste keeps going strong long after you swallow the wine.
The grapes macerate on the skins for 20 days with seven days fermentation and a malolactic fermentation. The wine is aged 12 months in new oak barrels. This wine could age 10-12 years in the bottle.
Ignacio said he drinks a couple of glasses of wine a day, and he recommends it.
“It keeps your arteries clean,” he said. “It helps prevent aging. You’ll be superman.”
He also recommends letting his wines breathe to help the tannins mellow.
“Big red wines need more breathing,” he said.
WINERY: Don Santiago Graffigna followed his uncle Don Juan Graffigna from Italy to Argentina in 1865. Juan had worked in the wine industry and brought some European grape vines to Argentina.
Santiago came to Argentina to discover new and uncharted wine terroir , trying to make his mark on the industry. After working with his uncle, he founded his own winery in 1870 in San Juan province.
“(Santiago) was a very personable guy, a real person,” said Ignacio. “He was the first to sell wine in a bottle instead of in bulk in Argentina. He also was the first to create a radio station and the first to do a show about drinking wine and culture.
“We’re trying to keep that fire alive. We try to push the boundaries a little bit.”
Uncle and nephew planted vineyards in the Tulum and Pedernal Valleys of San Juan, which have a climate as dry as the Sahara desert with more than 300 days of annual sunshine and great temperature swings between day and night. These conditions create wines that are full-bodied, elegant and aromatic.
Besides malbec, Graffigna makes three other wines under the Centenario brand: cabernet sauvignon, pinot grigio and a red blend. The winery makes two grand reserve wines from Pedernal Valley grapes, malbec and cabernet sauvignon. The Santiago Graffigna label is a tribute to the winery’s founder. It is a blend of the best malbec, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz grapes from selected vineyards in San Juan’s Pedernal Valley. Aged in new oak barrels for 18 months, this is a complex and elegant wine.
In 2009, Graffigna was named “Winery of the Year” by the Critics Challenge in the United States.
The Graffigna family sold the winery in 1980 and it is now owned by Pernod Ricard, a French premium spirits and wine company.
Ignacio said he and his team don’t do much in the winery. “The real stars are the grapes,” he said. “There is less overextracting. We don’t want to be the leader. We want to show the characteristics of the grapes. Our philosophy is we want the wine to be food friendly, not harsh. We are not looking for contest wines that might get a good score.
“We work really hard in the vineyards. We try to put the characteristics from the vineyards into the bottle. The only thing we have to do its not spoil what the vines have done all year.”
During our interview, Ignacio seemed as easy going and affable as his Centenario wine. He has a great deal of experience making wine all over Argentina, but continues to expand his knowledge, spending time in Australia and Sonoma in recent years.
GOES WITH: We had these wines with enchiladas, corn chips and salsa and a tossed salad. I also tasted both wines with cheese and crackers and some pretzels during my interview with Ignacio.
The lively, fresh flavors of the Centenario were perfect with the enchiladas and the accompanying spicy sauce. I enjoyed sipping the more elegant grand reserve by itself and with the pretzels.
I also had a glass of the Centenario with a slice of pizza at lunch, and that might have been the best pairing. The fresh fruit flavors paired well with the tangy tomato sauce and sausage on the pizza.
You could drink the Centenario with lamb or grilled beef, spicy food and poultry. For the reserve I would go with heavier meals, such as grilled red meats, empanadas or aged cheese.
Ignacio said you could pair either wine with whatever makes you happy.
“In Argentina you know we eat a cow every day,” he said with a laugh. “Just keep the pairing simple. Beef is good.”