Height can make a huge difference.
In measuring mountains.
And also when it comes to making great wine.
That’s what one French winemaker discovered when he started Terrazas de los Andes winery in Argentina.
“That was the vision,” Herve Birnie Scott said during a recent one-on-one online interview and wine tasting.
Scott moved to Argentina three decades ago and soon started growing grapes at dizzying heights (as high as 1,650 meters or more than 5,400 feet in elevation) near the foothills of the Andes Mountains near Mendoza, the Argentinian city now famous for its world-renowned vineyards. But it wasn’t always that way, Scott explained.
Moet & Chandon (whose parent company owns Terrazas de los Andes winery) approached Scott about starting a winery in Argentina. The famous French Champagne company had been making sparkling wine in Mendoza since 1959. But the company wanted to do something different in Argentina, Scott said.
“They were looking for a winemaker oenologist to start a brand new initiative for still wine that was worth exporting,” Scott said. “At the time, Argentina was producing a lot of wine but exporting zero.”
So in 1991, Scott moved to Argentina with the goal of starting a world-class winery. Terrazas de los Andes (which officially opened in 1996) refurbished an old winery built in 1898. But Scott didn’t stop there.
Soon after he moved to Argentina, Scott saw something many other winemakers hadn’t noticed before – the potential of the area’s dry, high-altitude climate.
“I quickly realized we are in a desert,” Scott said. “It rains only six inches per year. Water is scarce.”
“What I discovered also as a newcomer is this plateau near the Andes,” Scott added. “When you get closer to the Andes, you have this amazing variation in elevation… The soils in the lower elevation area are heavier and they produce a lot of grapes, a lot of table wine that Argentinians used to drink a lot.”
But it was the higher elevation areas that intrigued Scott as a winemaker. Most winemakers at the time didn’t see what Scott envisioned. Many of the high-altitude vineyards that produce Terrazas de los Andes’ grapes weren’t even vineyards in 1991.
“I got lost in the mud, stuck in dusty roads looking for places to grow grapes at higher elevation where they had never been planted before,” Scott said.
What was it about the higher elevation vineyards that intrigued Scott so much?
“High elevation, cool climate, gravity soil,” Scott said. “All this soil we have here is erosion from the Andes through rivers that change their flows over time. The heavier sediments, the bigger rocks settle at higher elevation. When these rivers go down, you only have silt and clay at lower elevations.”
“The higher you go, the cooler the climate,” Scott added, noting that he believed the rockier, higher elevation soils were ideal for growing high-quality grapes.
“After five or six months, I was sure that we would have to start from scratch with our own vineyards in order to produce international quality wines from cold climates,” Scott added. “I arrived in August (which is wintertime in the southern hemisphere) and the harvest was in February 1992, I spent nearly five months looking at all the statistics of climates available from Mendoza and different elevations… I realized if I drove 40 miles south, down the slope, we had average temperatures similar to the south of Spain. The opposite way, we go to an elevation of 1,000 meter (3,000 feet) more to 5,800 feet where the temperature more or less is similar to northern France, to Champagne.”
A native of France’s Loire Valley, Scott felt right at home making wine in this type of cool climate.
However, Scott added that there are challenges to growing wine at higher elevations. For example, dry creek beds in high elevation vineyards can quickly become raging rivers in the spring. “You have to respect these dry creeks that can become very, very strong,” Scott said.
In addition, spring frost can be more severe at higher elevations. “Everything above 3,300 feet gets frost basically,” Scott said, adding that some years they have lost 80 percent of the grapes. However, he did add that one year, “the 20 percent left was beautiful.”
“We had so much to learn,” Scott added. “However, we can say that after 30 years, we can finally say we’re experts at high altitude viniculture. Frost, big rainstorms, the orientation of the rows, the water you need in very rocky soils – all of that has been a lot of learning.”
But while growing grapes at high elevation can be challenging, it’s worth the effort since the grapes grown there produce “amazing” wines, Scott said.
“Altitude brings you something very, very interesting, which is slow ripening,” Scott said. “Basically, you have three maturities for red wine. You have the aromatic maturity, from green pepper to red fruit and black fruit. You have (another) maturity, where you start to have more sugar and less acidity. And you have the tannins.”
“When you have a warm area… the sugar goes too high too fast,” Scott added. “You have a lot of sugar, a lot of alcoholic wines but you don’t get the time for the skin to ripen and you have very alcoholic (wines) and very harsh tannins.”
“But when you have a cold area, the vine synthesizes the sugars slower,” Scott said. “It keeps its natural acidity much more balanced…. and also keeps the aromatics quite fresh. The higher (the vineyards), the lower the alcohol, the higher the natural acidity, the fresher the fruit and the riper the tannins… It (the altitude) changes completely the profile of the wine.”
WINES RECOMMENDED THIS WEEK
2017 Terrazas de los Andes Grand Malbec ($47 Suggested Retail Price)
2017 Terrazas de los Andes Grand Cabernet Sauvignon ($45 SRP)
WINE TASTING NOTES
(Scott’s descriptions of the wines in Italics.)
2017 Terrazas de los Andes Grand Malbec
(“We decided to not be a single vineyard (wine). We used to be a single vineyard wine for the best expression of Terrazas de los Andes’ vineyards. As these vineyards from the Uco Valley really start to get mature, we realized we had to blend terroir to get the most complete expression of Malbec. This wine has a lot of soft tannins, a lot of silkiness, a lot of floral character, violets… Freshness is key to us. No oak. Nothing overcoming the fruit. Just elegance.”
Writer’s Tasting Notes – Dry, intense fruit flavors with a long, powerful yet subtle finish. Distinct, light raspberry fruit flavors add another layer of complexity. The second day after opening the bottle, the fruit flavors are even more intense yet subtle, with a flintier finish. Absolutely magnificent.
2017 Terrazas de los Andes Grand Cabernet Sauvignon
(“You will see with the Malbec and the Cabernet Sauvignon, these are two, high altitude areas that express the cold climate. And you can really see the difference with the type of grapes. It’s not overripe, it’s not excessive alcohol. When it’s overripe, everything is the same. You can’t tell the difference between a Malbec, a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Syrah. It just tastes like crystalized fruit. When it’s not overripe, you don’t overload with new wood. You keep that fruit forward expression. You can really see the difference in the type of grapes and the terroir, of soil expression… We could have huge wines, very tannic, but it’s nonsense. If you have a huge wine, you lose all the dimension, finesse and elegance that we want to maintain in our wines.”)
Writer’s Tasting Notes – Dry, well-balanced wine with a tight, intense finish. This wine definitely has a rockier, flintier, more mineral-like finish with hints of granite. There are also wonderful fruit flavors, especially hints of dried blackberry. The second day after opening the bottle, the wine tastes even flintier, rockier and earthier with beautiful sharp edged flavors balanced by a wonderful, vivid fruit notes. Truly impressive.