Argentinian rollercoaster

22 June, 2023

Sorrel Moseley-Williams reports on a climatically challenging but surprisingly good 2023 harvest.

While hot weather in southern Chile sparked a wave of wildfires that devastated vineyards during the 2023 harvest season, unexpected cold snaps posed different problems for Argentinian winemakers on the other side of the Andes. It was an historic vintage in Mendoza, Argentina’s foremost wine-producing province, if for the wrong reasons. The ‘F’ word from the opposite side of the climate spectrum – frost – reared its ugly head during budding, leading to the lowest yield in history.

An elevated mountain desert with vineyards ranging from 650-2,000m above sea level (masl), ‘usual’ challenges in Mendoza include combating drought and hoping the Andes mountain range is covered in enough snow that the subsequent melt can be used to irrigate vines.

The 2023 harvest story kicked off at the end of 2022’s, according to enologist Susana Balbo, owner of Susana Balbo Wines. “We had an unusually early frost on 30 March, which undoubtedly did not influence wines from the 2022 vintage, but it did begin to influence what happened later in 2023,” she says.

That was the beginning of the rollercoaster ride. During the budburst season at the end of October, frost once again reared its ugly head, not just across Mendoza but the whole country. Balbo adds: “We also had late frosts at the end of October as well as on 1 November, and these frosts had a huge influence on the amount of grapes that were available to harvest. Until then, the 2016 and 2017 harvests had been the scarcest in our history.” At the time it was reported that wineries might see losses of up to 70% of grapes; fortunately it didn't become the norm.

Those first few days of November were the most detrimental in yield terms, with temperatures plunging to -6°C in some regions for between four and five hours, according to Alejandro Vigil, director of production, vineyards and wineries at Catena Zapata and president of Wines of Argentina. “As recently as 2016, that year broke the record for the lowest yield, while 1992 was also memorable for the same reason, but 2023’s harvest was even lower. While some areas lost up to 70% of grapes, the average loss was 27%, and 2023 ended up being the smallest yield in history.” According to the INV wine institute, Mendoza produced 23% less grapes than in 2022.

The unexpected cold spell also affected other grape-producing regions across Argentina. In the north west provinces of Salta and Jujuy, whose vineyard elevations start at 1,700masl and top out at 3,300masl, hot and cold fronts joined forces to wreak a little havoc and keep winemakers such as Alejandro Sejanovich, owner of Mil Suelos, on their toes.

He says: “Budburst came quite early and this was counterproductive when October’s cold front came in and swept across the country from one end to the other. We saw a year in which ripening was quite difficult as it came about more slowly and resulted in a later harvest. This occurred in all our high-altitude vineyards: Huichaira in the Quebrada de Humahuaca in Jujuy, Estancia Los Cardones in Tolombón, Salta, and Pucará and Cachi in Calchaquíes Valley.”

While the production side ended up being the lowest on record, 2023 proved to be positive in terms of quality, according to Sebastián Zuccardi, owner and winemaker at Zuccardi Valle de Uco. “Climate-wise, it is a harvest that we can consider acceptable, like 2020 and 2017. It was a dry harvest, causing us to start about 15 days earlier than usual, and that was due to the grape yield and the rapid changes in weather conditions.

“In other words, it was a harvest we’d call short. By the end of March, everything had already been picked, including in San Pablo, which is a region where we usually harvest on around 15 April. Generally, when we think of acceptable vintages, we consider them to be less interesting ones. But the truth is, when you taste the 2023 wines, they feel very good, full of energy, vibrant, fresh, which is to say, interesting.

“Frankly, I was quite concerned during the harvest, but when it comes down to it, I believe that the wines are very good – surprisingly so.”

Vigil reiterates Zuccardi’s surprise with respect to the 2023 vintage. “It’s an ongoing discussion that all of us enologists have been having, and we’ve all been surprised that, despite being a somewhat warm harvest, we’ve been able to maintain an important freshness in the wines. Most interestingly, in my case, is that I’ve managed to obtain low alcohol levels without losing concentration.

“In the beginning, there was nothing wonderful to be said about the harvest, but now I’ve come to find incredible wines. Without a doubt, that was our experience in Uco Valley, from where around 80 percent of our grapes have originated in the past 20 years. This year has presented us with a new experience that has altered our outlook and presented different possibilities for the warmer climate we expect.”

Exploring new regions

While climate change continues to present new hurdles to overcome, winemakers take them in their stride as they continue exploring terroirs. In some cases, it means striving higher in terms of elevation and cooler climes, heading south of Mendoza into Patagonia for the same latter reason or experimenting with varieties not usually cultivated in Argentina. In recent years, a cluster of Geographical Indications (IGs) has been approved by the INV wine institute, including Trevelin in Chubut, Pampa El Cepillo and San Pablo in Uco Valley, and Quebrada de Humahuaca, but winemakers are looking beyond those established zones in a bid to create wines with newer identities.

Matías Riccitelli, owner and head winemaker of Riccitelli Wines, has been producing Sauvignon Blanc cultivated at 1,600masl in La Carrera in the northern part of Uco Valley for several years and it is bottled under his Vinos de Finca line; Mauricio Vegetti of Lui Wines, meanwhile, barrel ages it for additional mouth volume. Known for being one of the coldest climates in Uco, these whites brim with high acidity and herbaceous notes thanks to soil diversity that includes elevated clay and limestone soils.

Riccitelli says: “In 2016, I started looking for cold-climate vineyards above 1,600masl, and La Carrera’s the coldest place in the Valley. I found an experimental vineyard at 1,650masl and, together with its owners, we began to develop Estancia de la Carrera.

“There’s more rainfall here than in the rest of Mendoza because, geographically, it’s located within the Andes, between the Frontal mountain range and the precordillera with Totoral Mountain that caps the northern end of the valley. As there are clay soils, that means cold soils in cold places allow short-cycle varieties to express themselves with elegance, impressive power and natural acidity.”

Known for producing the legendary White Bones and White Stones Chardonnays from the Adrianna vineyard at 1,366masl in Gualtallary, winemaker Vigil has long had his eye on even more elevated slopes in the same plot, and it’s finally coming to fruition.

He says: “We had this 1,500masl hill in Adrianna vineyard in mind around nine years ago and undertook soil studies while working on a way to incorporate it into our plans. We wanted to keep the hill’s native flora, planting vines on some but not all of it to ensure its sustainability. We always had south-facing Semillón in our sights, which would allow us to have half an hour less sun and a colder climate, and because of soils comprising almost 40% calcareous calcium carbonate, I believe we will achieve a very austere and powerful Semillón with an acidity and verticality that will allow us to see a new dimension in this white.”

While Sejanovich of Mil Suelos is one of Argentina’s most prolific winemakers in terms of terroir knowledge, given that he makes wine from Patagonia in the south to the Quebrada de Humahuaca, 125 miles from the Bolivian border, his bodega is physically located in Mendoza’s traditional Eastern Region, in Chachingo. This traditional corner of Mendoza is known for its Malbec and Semillón vineyards as well as fruit orchards, but it’s only in recent years that it has become appreciated for its production of quality wines, as evidenced by Sejanovich setting up shop with an eye to cultivating warm climate-loving varieties; Catena’s Vigil also operates his El Enemigo project here.

Sejanovich says: “Besides the Garnacha and Carignan planted around the winery, we recently bought land behind the San Martín channel and will plant four with Marsanne and Semillón. As it’s a hotter climate, Mediterranean varieties also do well here. This area’s conditions have high upper temperatures yet cool nights. Soils are shallow and heterogeneous, while the bottom is stony as it’s basically the bed of the Mendoza river and covered with alluvial rocks. Since temperatures are higher, Mediterranean varieties grow very well, that’s to say Garnacha and specifically Carignan; that’s why Marsanne also interests me. A conjunction of warmer temperatures, poor soils and well-balanced soils means we can make wines with a lot of personality as Mediterranean varieties are most expressive in warm places.”

Despite the inevitable yet still unexpected hurdles that climate change continues to present, Argentina’s enologists drive forward, using their creativity and knowhow to invest in their country’s winemaking future.

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