The wine park

Portrait of a Genius Oenophile

Apr 23, 2014 12:05:49 PM

Argentina’s wine industry has come to be defined by its passionate oenologists that put her on the vinous map. And this holds truest for the widely recognised first lady of Argentine wine, Susana Balbo, notes Bhisham Mansukhani.

Argentina has earned its chops as a producer pushing the envelope on wine making and adapting French noble varieties to the new world. And this is most apparent when one shines a light on Malbec, its singular purple flake. This native of Cahors (France) has thrived in Argentine terroir and has come to represent undeniable proof of the South American wine producer’s ability. Mercifully too, Argentina has been exporting more of its wine today, which is a far cry from the two decades ago when most of it was locally consumed. On both counts the world has Argentina’s veritable first lady of wine to thank.

Susana Balbo

Argentina’s first female wine maker and perhaps one of its best, Susana Balbo mined and intimately understood Argentine region Mendoza’s terroir and experimented and toiled for many vintages to arrive at sublime ferment and lay the ground for Argentina’s ascendency as a wine producer. Susana is well noted for her stints at lauded Argentinean wineries, Cantena Zapata and Martins domestically and some international assignments in neighbouring Chile as well as France, Italy, Spain, Australia, California and South Africa.

And after 20 years as the country’s leading oenologist, Susana, along with viticulturist hubby Pedro Marchevsky, chose to drop anchor in Mendoza’s microclimate of Luján de Cuyo and founded a wine estate titled Dominio Del Plata in 1999. The region of Lujan de Cuyo, at an altitude of 1000 metres, is renowned for turning out the country’s best expression of Malbec and Torrontes. Susana also has vineyards in Mendoza’s Uco Valley which like Lujan de Cuyo sits at a high altitude. Both the sub regions abound in alluvial soil and enjoy low temperatures, all of which yields ripe fruit with good polyphenols. Her choice was not without its challenges though.These Mendoza sub regions are vulnerable to unseasonal hailstorms and other natural vagaries.

Dominio del Plata

Luján de Cuyo where Dominio Del Plata is based is incidentally where Argentina’s first AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlée) was created and unsurprisingly with some of the world’s highest altitudes for wine cultivation (2800 to 5000 feet) Lujan de Cuyo stakes a rightful claim at being the finest sub-region for Malbec. And while Susana believes that Malbec has thrived in Argentina’s dry, sunny climes, Susana is keen on Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah which develop an indigenous typicity in Mendoza.

 

BenMarco

Meeting Susana and having her guide me through an absolute masterclass of a tasting at her Lujan De Cuyo estate under the stolid, grand watch of the Andes, was a rare, indelible memory and in hindsight, her matter of fact demeanour and down to earth attitude betrayed her towering reputation as a champion of Argentine wine. Susana told me she believed that wine is the collective, natural result of soil and latitude coupled with the wine maker’s imagination and honest understanding of the terroir. Hence Susana chose to be a hands-on wine maker, literally. “I’m at the vineyard looking at canopy management and how the vines are responding to the soil and other natural elements and then in the winery where importantly all extraneous factors have to be consistent so that the final wine is a reflection of the fruit and terroir only,” she stresses.

Susana is rather modest about both her milestones and her views on the Argentine wine industry. She is credited with having created an entirely new style of indigenous Argentine white wine, Torrontes, earlier in her career and has championed the trend of blends which later when on to define the modern Argentine wine approach. Susana has also introduced Argentina to the science of convection toasting where in French barriques are toasted at a low temperature for longer than is typical at the cooperage resulting in an oak style that is light on the toasty aspect, allowing the wine to integrate the oak in a way to harmonise with the fruit without dominating it. Susana interestingly set a precedent by choosing to export 98 per cent of her wines and selling mostly to hotels and restaurants in Argentina.

Crios Malbec

Vishal Kadakia introduced Dominio Del Plata (DDP) to the Indian market in early 2014, beginning with two DDP Malbecs bottled under the Crios (drink now range) and Ben Marco (premium) label. The Crios Malbec is strewn with ripe fruit tempered by notes of coffee and vanilla while the Ben Marco Malbec is a jammier expression of the varietal, abounding in ripe red fruit and toasted coffee as well as impressive acidity given the fact that the Ben Marco is barrel aged.

 

Nosotros

Two of Susana’s most celebrated wines, though, are the Nosotros Malbec and Ben Marco Expresivo. The Nosotros Malbec is all about sublime balance of fruit, acidity and oak and savoury, intense notes of liquorice and baked fruit on the nose. The Ben Marco Expressivo on the other hand is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Bonarda, Syrah, Tannat and Petit Verdot, fronts a concentration of red fruits, chocolate and vanilla, highlighting balance and the unmistakable varietal characteristics of the grapes within this heady blend.