The French Connection

FRENCH-FLAGGraham Cox looks into the French influence in Argentine winemaking and that little je ne sais quoi that it brings.

The New World is a mixed bag of references. In Argentina, Spanish and Italian roots make up the bulk of the country’s Old World heritage. The language has obvious origins, and the cuisine certainly puts both Spain and Italy on the plate. However, turning towards Argentine wine, that’s where things move away from the influence of just two countries and involve a third – France. One walk around a wine shop can tell you that. French grape varieties abound: Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Argentina’s beloved celebrity, Malbec. And considering the massive production and consumption of wine in Argentina, a bit more of France is brought to the dinner table each night than you would think.

Of course, it’s not all about grapes. French know-how and passion for wine came along with the people who left behind the land of bons vivants to work the vines in Argentina. The French agronomist Michel Aimé Pouget started it all by bringing the first Malbec vine cuttings to grace the Argentine soil. He stayed to aid the cultivation and teach scientific methods to improve the production.Other varieties from France slowly made their way here, not necessarily directly by French hands, but like Pouget other French did arrive to bring more to the land than just their hometown vines.

Alta Vista wines 2What these winemakers could not ignore was the importance of terroir. The knowledge of how the aspects of soil composition, altitude and exposure influence the qualities of the grape has been a dominant part of wine production in France for centuries. Now that expertise is being put to use here. Visiting Alta Vista Bodega and witnessing winemaker Matthieu Grassin’s efforts prove just that. Born in Angers, Matthieu is one of the French vignerons who has helped bring this aspect of wine production into focus in Argentina. After having completed a Master’s in Agriculture specializing in viticulture and oenology and working in a Bordeaux Château, Matthieu came to Mendoza to put his knowledge to work. With his help in the early 2000s, Alta Vista was one of the first bodegas to assess their vineyards and apply terroir-style zoning to his winemaking process. With the vineyard’s different zones plotted out, he can separate the grapes and test the qualities of each to know what he has on his hands.

“The difference among the zones is an advantage,” he said. “I can control the quality and ensure the wine’s consistency. That way I can make sure that the wine has same quality through all the years of production.”

After tasting the pure grape from the different zones, it’s easy to see what he has to tinker with in order to perfect Alta Vista’s bottles. Even between just two of the zones, each planted with Malbec, there is a marked difference: one is round and supple; the other sharper, hinting at flavors of the earth. That is the influence of terroir at work, and thankfully Argentina has the French presence to bring it to light.

Where the technical expertise ends, the passion picks up. Spend enough time speaking with Matthieu and you’ll notice behind his wealth of knowledge is great love for what he does. When you taste his wine in front of his eyes, he’s searching you to see if you see what he sees.“I’m not trying to make the best wine in the world,” he went on. “I’m trying to make the most consistent.”

The love for the profession is also found at Carinae Bodega in Maipú. The owners Phillippe and Brigette Sobre dived straight into winemaking ten years ago without any experience, just the verve to do it.

“We bought the winery in February 2003,” Phillippe said. “The vines had been maintained and we had to take in the harvest in March. The wine that first year wasn’t very good.”

Needless to say, it’s gone up from there, way up. Their story is different. After coming from Toulouse to Argentina for work, they looked around for a small home where Phillippe, an amateur astronomer, could keep an eye on the skies. The property came with a vineyard and a dilapidated winery. Instead of ignoring the potential in the back of their house, they decided to make the most of it.

carinae“It was either go to Paris for another post in the city or stay here and make wine,” Phillippe said. The decision couldn’t have been simpler in their eyes. Carinae’s inauspicious start soon changed with the help of famed French oenologist Michel Rolland’s viticulture consultants, Gabriella Celeste and Juan Manuel Gonzalez. But of course, most of the credit falls on the Sobre’s own hands-on hard work and intimacy with their production. A small boutique bodega, visiting Carinae feels more like you’re walking into their house.

“Back in France, some couples choose to spend their retirement running a Bed & Breakfast out of their home,” Brigitte said. “It’s like that for us when it comes to our visitors. We just welcome them at our winery instead of a house.”

It’s not far off. They have pictures of their grandchildren on the wall, and the usual jar of homemade preserves just happens to be a bottle of wine. Among the half dozen wines they produce, Octans is their hobby blend. Available only at the bodega, it is the product of Phillippe and Brigette’s personal tastes and choices. This wine is the essence of DIY, the romantic vision of making your own wine put into practice. It’s impossible to say exactly what the blend is because it changes each year. “If it’s a really good one, then we might keep in the line like we did with La Cuvée de Brigette. That was an early version of Octans we decided to continue.”

If that is the criterion for making a certain Octans blend a permanent presence then the current offering from 2011 is a sure contender. A well-tempered medley of Syrah, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon that is smooth and finishes easy without sacrificing complexity, it does justice to the centuries of French winemaking know-how and gusto behind it.

Like other cultures that made it to these shores and went through transformations, the French influence certainly has its own Argentine twist. Adapting is easy when you see part of where you came from in your new land and for the French here, the difference isn’t so drastic in terms of wine. When asked about making the jump from one wine culture to another, Matthieu didn’t need to pause and reflect, “Well, the ratio between wine consumption and population is about the same between Argentina and France. So, it wasn’t a big change.”

France and Argentina share the love and in doing so some of this land becomes like some of that land and vice versa. You can find it right there in the bottle. When asked about the emergence of Pinot Noir in Argentina, that famously fussy grape from Burgundy, Matthieu made sure the explanation was clear.

“It’s important to note the frame of reference. A Pinot Noir from Argentina will never be good if your looking for the taste of a Burgundy Pinot. Here, that grape variety becomes a different thing. There’s really great Pinot Noir here, but it’s important not to compare it to a Burgundy. It’s an Argentine wine.”

That’s how France has set roots down here so far from home, still French in origin but just little different now that it’s on foreign soil.

“Oh, the Pinot Noir from Argentina is great,” Phillippe said. “Yes, I really like the Pinot you can find here,” Brigette added.

Phillippe and Brigette didn’t need to explain why. Their enthusiastic responses said it all. France is present in Argentine wine, but it doesn’t need to wave its flag. They brought the vines and the knowledge across the ocean and after that, the sun, soil, and snowmelt worked its way in to bear fruit that’s a little French and a little Argentine and ultimately wonderful.