Sunday, May 02, 2010


Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down to taste wine with Argentine winemaker and Head Vinticulturalist at Doña Paula, Edgardo del Popolo. Argentina is now the fifth largest producer of wine in the world behind Italy, France, Spain and the US. Malbec is the grape best-known and associated with Argentina and the biggest driver of sales from the country.

Malbec can trace its roots back to France where it was primarily used as a blending grape. In Argentina, it is far from a supporting player. It is the iconic star and there is no equivalent anywhere else in the world for the high-altitude terrior in which it is grown.

At Doña Paula, Edgardo strives to capture the climate and essence of the land in all his wines. The South American wine category can be highly competitive for shelf space in the US, especially from Argentina's most famous winemaking neighbor, Chile. Edgardo must also compete within his own country with top brands in Argentina like Catena, Terrazas de los Andes, Alta Vista and Archaval Ferrer. Creating a quality, distinct "fresh-fruit" expression and consistent style within the brand is the primary objective at Doña Paula.

The first wine offered up for tasting was the 2008 Doña Paula Series Naked Pulp Viognier. Made from 100% Viognier from Vista Flores with 14.5% alcohol, the wine exhibited a nose of flowers, peach and orange rind with great acidity and minerality on the mid-palate. On the finish the wine takes on candied/caramel notes from the residual sugar and new French oak. For Viognier, this is a very clean and crisp offering with none of the oil or viscosity you might find in French or American variations. This is an 88 PT wine that retails for around $25 a bottle.

Next up was the 2009 Doña Paula Estate Torrontés. Golden color with a fragrant, powerful floral nose of acacia and jasmine, the wine is made from 100% Torrontés from the Cafayate Valley with 13.5% alcohol. Beautifully balanced with lively acidity, tropical and melon fruits on the palate, and a distinct, long bitter almond finish. Torrontés is Argentina's flagship white wine, and this offering is one of the best I've tasted in quite some time. It is one of those wines that once poured you'll find hard to put the glass down because the bouquet is so alluring. Retailing for around $16 this is a 90 PT wine that is a perfect summer wine and a great alternative to Sauvignon Blanc if you're looking for an exciting replacement.

As we tasted through a promising 2007 Doña Paula Series Alluvia Cabernet Franc (a modern-styled wine that I liked quite a bit with lots of baking spices and none of the stinky vegetable or green pepper driven characteristics best associated with the varietal), Edgardo spoke of his early attraction to wine. It was a grape, not a wine that first captured his love and attention. That grape, of course, was Malbec, which he used to taste straight off the vine as boy.

As he poured the 2006 Doña Paula Series Salix Tannat Malbec, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the best tasting grape on the vine could yield some of the most dynamic red wines in his portfolio. A unique offering, to say the least, the Tannat-Malbec blend is an inky, rich, muscular wine with dusty, chewy tannins. Dark fruits are extremely saturated and concentrated with tobacco and chocolate dominating the palate. With 14.6% alcohol, this is a big, powerful and complex wine, but it is very controlled. Tannat is a tough grape to introduce into a blend since it can often throw a wine out of balance and result in the wine being harsh with bitterness and overly dry tannins. Yet despite Tannat comprising 65% of the wine, the remaining fruit-driven Malbec provides a perfect balance. This is an impressive 89 PT wine that retails for around $20 to $25. If you've been turned off by some tough run-ins with French Tannat in the past, this will be quite an interesting and friendly reintroduction to the varietal.

The 2009 Doña Paula Estate Malbec is made from 100% Malbec from Alto Ugartech, Lujan de Cuyo y Tupungato and Valle de Uco with 14% alcohol. Although this wine has an excellent mouthfeel and a great tannic backbone, the alcohol has a strong presence. Rich with cocoa on the nose, black licorice and black fruits on the palate this $15 - $17 wine is an 85-86 PT wine. In the same price range, the 2009 Doña Paula Estate Malbec Syrah is actually a better wine. With plum, red and black fruits and mocha, this straight-forward value with 14% alcohol is a more harmonious wine for the price category. I'd give it around 87 PTS.

Last up was the 2006 Doña Paula Seleccion de Bodega Malbec. An intense artisan wine with great acidity and smooth tannin, Edgardo's objective was to illustrate the potential of Argentine Malbec by blending the best grapes from Ugarteche and Uco Valley. With 14.5% alcohol, this is a Single Vineyard wine aimed at producing a "fresh-fruit" styled wine. Black cherry, mocha and spice combine in a very layered Malbec. At a suggested retail price of $50 a bottle, this is the most expensive wine offered by Doña Paula. It is a collector's wine for the cellar that will improve with bottle age. Right now it is a very drinkable, deeply saturated, 92 PT palate-pleaser.

Never envisioning himself pursuing anything other than a career in the vineyard, Edgardo has embarked on a life long journey to make the best Malbec. He continues to learn more and more each year about the wine growing region and the potential of the grapes that grow there. He said in the near future he is looking to experiment more with Cabernet Franc and Shiraz, but in the meantime he is focused on growing the Doña Paula brand. As a relatively young brand in the marketplace, Edgardo and Doña Paula wines are worth keeping our eyes on as the attention and potential is warranted.


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