Mendoza, Argentina is a land of loveliness and lore, enoturismo and earthquakes, fiestas and Fernando Fader (1882-1935): The first post-impressionist painter in South America.
The area surrounding Mendoza is also the largest wine producing region in Latin America. With an ambiance nearly ideal for wine grapes, there are few seasonal temperature swings and most vines are planted at sun-sodden elevations that are among the world’s highest. The only natural drawback to these vineyards is a climate where it rains, on average, only two days a year with a total accumulation of around eight inches. But that’s an engineering eye-roller, and Mendozan wine country has been irrigated with Andes meltwater since the 19th century.
In Maipú and Luján—the two main departments of Mendoza’s wine producing areas—the most widely planted grape is cereza, a varietal indigenous to Spain and brought to Argentina by Spanish settlers, possibly as early as the 1700’s. Cereza is Spanish for ‘cherry’, and the pink-skinned grape produces a prodigious payoff, although often of questionable quality.
Criolla, a.k.a. ‘mission’ (because it was often grown at Spanish missions as a base for sacramental wine) is the second varietal that forms the backbone of the Mendozan wine industry. And like cereza, the wine that results from criolla often lacks breeding and character, and is far more suited for a jug than a bottle.
Malbec, of course, would be the king of the jungle if Mendoza had jungles. Sultan of the semi-arid desert, then. A bit late to the banquet, malbec was introduced to Argentina in 1868 by Frenchman Miguel Pouget, hired by the Mendoza’s Governor Domingo Sarmiento (who later became president) to do something about all that flabby cereza. Pouget imported 120 varietals and planted them in what he called a ‘test farm’, the Quinta Normal. Of them, malbec—an under-producer in the damp climate of Southern France where it is subject to a smorgasbord of sick, from frost to mildew to coulure (a metabolic condition that prevents grapes from setting)—was the most successful. In fact, malbec was so grateful to put down new roots in hot, dry Argentina, where none of the French climatic conditions are an issue, that it proliferated with an ease that was almost embarrassing.
Gascón and Ón and Ón and…
The reason I brought up Señor Fedar in the first sentence is that despite never being directly involved in the wine trade, he was born in Bordeaux and likely had it running through his veins.
But more to the point, Fedar’s family emigrated to Mendoza in 1884—a significant date because it was the year that Bodegas Escorihuela Gascón was established. Its founder, Don Miguel Gascón, a 23-year-old wanna-be entrepreneur from Aragon, Spain had hit the streets of Argentina four years earlier without a peso in his pocket. Like many a self-made muchacho, Gascón’s ingenuity, hard work and single-minded goals led to the next phase of the story.
With the completion of the national railroad in 1883, the opportunity to open a winery in previously-inaccessible Mendoza presented itself, and Gascón purchased 42 acres of arable, high-elevation land in an area where the peaks of the Andes held the rains from the Atlantic at bay but provided irrigation via melting snow.
Here, many thousands of feet above sea level, there is less filtration from the atmosphere, and mechanisms are triggered that thicken grape skins and create more phenolics and esters. Chilly nights fix acidity while warm days build sugars; wine color is clearly more intense and the wine itself more concentrated, due in part to a long, slow growing season. Not only that, but the dry, sandy soil where Gascón planted is inhospitable to phylloxera.
Malbec, nearly banned in Bordeaux, had found its Shangri-La.
As had Don Miguel. He built a winery in the center of town in the same spot it can be found today, and for the next hundred years, Familia Gascón forged a reputation for elegance, finesse, color and class—much like the paintings of Fernando Fader.
Today, Gascón is owned by the extended Familia Catena—a group of investors led by renowned Argentine winemaker Nicolas Catena (winner of Wine Spectator’s 2012 Distinguished Service Award) who purchased the holdings in 1993 with the intention of preserving, celebrating, and where required, improving the historical winery, the oldest in Mendoza.
So, no tears for Argentina, my friends. They are at the top of their game.
Don Miguel Gascón Colosal Red Blend, Mendoza, 2011, around $15: Although Gascón was the first winery in Argentina to produce a 100% malbec, this particular blend balances the somewhat fierce tannins that the varietal may kick out with bonarda (the most widely planted red wine grape in Mendoza), syrah and cabernet sauvignon. Each varietal was cold-soaked for a few days to maximize flavor extraction and fermented separately for a week prior to blending. The wine then saw 15 months on oak.
The result is a violet-colored wine of considerable depth, with blackberry jam and coffee on the nose. The mouthfeel is strikingly textured—malolactic smooth and creamy, while flavors range from malbec’s quintessential Damson plum and sweet spice settling among bonarda’s leathery notes. There’s chocolate behind cherry along with touch of coconut, and soft, round, approachable tannins leading to a velvety wrap-up.
A compelling bevvie for the bucks.