Argentina's New Guard Winemakers
Photos by Martin Orozco

They grew up in Argentina’s vineyards, at the heels of their grape-growing and winemaking fathers and grandfathers. With wine in their blood, becoming winemakers was never seriously in doubt. Today, they comprise Argentina’s new guard, making some of the country’s best wines and sharing much in common: age, background, experience and outlook. They are the “Now Generation” of winemakers in a nation with a long, rich vinous history that continues to evolve.

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    Alejandro Vigil | Bodega Catena Zapata and El Enemigo

    When one considers how far Argentinean wine has come over the past two decades, much credit goes to Nicolás Catena, who had the vision and commitment to plant Malbec and other grapes at high elevations and pursue making world-class wine. Behind the scenes, however, Alejandro “Ale” Vigil, (pronounced Vee-heel) chief winemaker at Bodega Catena Zapata and co-owner of El Enemigo, played a major role in the rise of Mendoza’s wines.

    Vigil, 42 and a native Mendocino, has been around wine as long as he can remember.

    At first, I was a grower and a student of agricultural engineering. But the Catena family gave me the opportunity to understand and work with one of our greatest assets: terroir.

    “I must have been four years old, and since those days with my grandfather I’ve never not been around wine,” says Vigil. “At first, I was a grower and a student of agricultural engineering. But the Catena family gave me the opportunity to understand and work with one of our greatest assets: terroir.”

    Early on at Catena, Vigil worked under José “Pepe” Galante, who’s now the chief winemaker at Bodega Salentein. But it has been under Vigil’s guidance that the winery’s single-vineyard and blended high-end wines—Adrianna, Nicasia, Argentino and Nicolás Catena Zapata—have achieved icon status.

    “I was taught by Dr. Catena to question myself every day, really every moment,” says Vigil, a proponent of open-top fermenting in small bins as well as wines of strength, structure and full extraction.

    “I like to drink wines like Burgundy, Condrieu and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but to make wine here in Mendoza I need to live with the plants, breathe the air, feel the soil under my feet, and experience the summer heat and winter cold,” says Vigil. “So I’ve never actually made wine overseas.”

    On the rare occasion that he’s not working or tweeting about wine, what does Vigil enjoy, besides watching national hoops hero Manu Ginobili play for the San Antonio Spurs? “A choripan [the classic Argentinean chorizo-in-a-bun] and grilled mollejas [sweetbreads] with Malbec,” naturally.

    Wine to Try

    El Enemigo 2013 Malbec (Mendoza); $30, 91 points. Stout, bold berry aromas come with a hint of bacon. Condensed and tannic, with flavors of plum and wild berry that are tightly wound and long on the finish. Drink through 2020. Winebow.

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    Paula Borgo | Bodega Séptima

    It’s hard to find a contemporary winemaker in Argentina who wasn’t taught the craft by their father or grandfather. In that sense, Paula Borgo, winemaker for Bodega Séptima in the Agrelo section of Mendoza, is not unusual.

    Born in Chacras de Coria, a tree-filled suburb of Mendoza, Borgo, 39, spent her youth “in the vineyards and vegetable gardens,” learning how to make wine from her grandpa at the age of nine. Educated locally in biology, but with a masters degree in winery management from Francisco de Vitoria University in Madrid, Borgo functions as the main bridge between Codorníu, the Spanish owner of Séptima, and her native Mendoza.

    “I look at each wine as a child that is conceived in a cluster, that grows to maturation, and then finds liberty in the mouth of the consumer.”

    “I am a person with a passion for art,” she says. “I consider myself outgoing, and winemaking uses all five senses to express different attributes, sensations and characteristics. This is a job that’s mostly about perseverance and having passion for what you do.”

    Now with 19 harvests under her belt, including two in California and two in Spain, Borgo says her winemaking style leans toward “modern.” Relying on the ripe Malbec and other grapes the Agrelo zone tends to produce, Séptima’s wines are generally dark in color, lavishly oaked and soft in terms
    of tannins.

    “I look at each wine as a child that is conceived in a cluster, that grows to maturation, and then finds liberty in the mouth of the consumer,” she says. “Like with children, I have no preferences among my wines, but I do pamper Gran Reserva,” the winery’s Malbec-led blend.

    As for where in the world she’d go on a culinary adventure, Borgo doesn’t hesitate: “Spain—without a doubt. The level of detail and the different expressions of flavor in their dishes, accentuated by regional diversity, make it my favorite place in the world for gastronomy.”

    Wine to Try

    Séptima 2012 Gran Reserva (Mendoza); $35, 89 points. This blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat smells earthy, leathery and nutty prior to airing. Almost oversaturated, this tastes of loamy berry and raisin, while the finish is dense and rich. Drink through 2018. Aveniù Brands, Inc.

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    Matías Riccitelli | Riccitelli Wines

    The cheeky name of one of Matías Riccitelli’s Malbecs says it all: The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From The Tree.

    Indeed it doesn’t. Riccitelli, 35, is the son of Jorge Riccitelli, one of Argentina’s most accomplished winemakers and the longtime chief winemaker at Bodega Norton in Mendoza. In 2009, Matías founded Riccitelli Wines, his own boutique operation. It only produces Malbec—and not that much of it.

    Born in Cafayate in Argentina’s northerly Salta region, Riccitelli grew up both in the north and in Mendoza, where he lives today. In addition to learning from his dad, Riccitelli spent 10 years as the chief winemaker at Fabre Montmayou, a French-owned bodega in Mendoza, where he still consults.

    “The biggest thing I learned from them [his father and Hervé Joyaux Fabre] is that winemaking is not for cowards.”

    “Cafayate, where I grew up, is a small town, with everybody related to wine,” says Riccitelli. “My father worked at one of the two big wineries there, so my life began with wine, guitars and asados [Argentinean barbecues].”

    Learning from his father and Hervé Joyaux Fabre, Riccitelli absorbed lessons from two worlds. His dad is a master of the lush, robust style for which Argentina has become renowned. Fabre, being French, has long pursued a more European style.

    “The biggest thing I learned from them is that winemaking is not for cowards,” he says.

    As for Riccitelli’s wines, they are now becoming more available in the United States; from Hey Malbec (89 points; $20 for the 2014) to República del Malbec (92 points; $75 for the 2012), quality is palpable.

    “In 2007, I traveled through much of the wine world,” says Riccitelli. “When I came back, I had doubts and certainties. One certainty was that I wanted to make my own wines. Another was that Argentina has the potential to make excellent wines.”

    Wine to Try

    Matías Riccitelli 2013 The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From The Tree Malbec (Mendoza); $30, 91 points. Generous on the palate, with well-oaked blackberry flavors. A touch of heat lends sizzle to the finish. Drink through 2020. Guarachi Wine Partners.

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    Santiago Mayorga | Nieto Senetiner

    Fortunately, in winemaking, nice guys do not always finish last. A case in point is Santiago “Santi” Mayorga, one of the kindest souls you’ll ever meet in the wine business. The fact that he’s a talented winemaker who learned from one of Mendoza’s living legends, Roberto de la Mota, only makes him more compelling.

    An engineer agronomist with a postgraduate degree in winemaking, Mayorga, 35, is yet another Mendoza winemaker who was raised in and around grapes. Since 2013 he has been making the wines at venerable Nieto Senetiner, where he is also in charge of developing CADUS as a high-end brand.

    “While I am probably too skinny to be a good source, I think there is nothing better than our asados paired with Malbec.”

    “From childhood, I would regularly go with my father to visit my grandfather’s vineyards. But I wasn’t exposed to professionally made wine until 2003, when I took a trip to South Africa with my dad. On that trip, I met Roberto [de la Mota], and when we got back home, he invited me to work with him at Mendel,” a winery de la Mota owns along with Anabelle Sielecki. “I was only 23, with no experience. Let’s just say Roberto’s phone was always on fire.”

    Modeling his current wines on the Australian and Napa Valley models, which Mayorga describes as regions with “temperature conditions, long hang times and a need for irrigation like we have in Mendoza,” Nieto Senetiner wines have leaped in quality over the past few years.

    “From my first vintage at Mendel, I realized how much I enjoy the labor and the transformation from the vineyard parcel to final wine,” says Mayorga. “And while I am probably too skinny to be a good source, I think there is nothing better than our asados paired with Malbec.”

    Wine to Try

    Nieto Senetiner 2012 Don Nicanor Malbec (Mendoza); $19, 91 points. Aromas of plum, cassis and prune set up a powerful palate with core acidity. High-energy plum fruit blends with prune and beef jerky flavors in front of an easy finish. Drink through 2019. Foley Family Wines.

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    Sebastián Zuccardi | Familia Zuccardi

    Sebastián Zuccardi is the face of the third generation at one of Mendoza’s power names, Familia Zuccardi, where he has been instrumental in shifting the focus of his family’s winery to Valle de Uco, the acclaimed winegrowing area located south of Mendoza city’s satellite wine communes.

    Known to most as “Seba,” Zuccardi, 35, is making head-turning wines from high-elevation vineyards in Altamira, La Consulta and elsewhere in the Uco Valley.

    “I’m seeking wines that are not too concentrated, but instead are elegant and textured. Wine should change in the glass and challenge you.”

    “Right now, I’m super excited about Finca Piedra Infinita from our new D.O. called Paraje Altamira. The vineyard is at 1,100 meters, with rocky, calcareous soils.”

    Taste this muscular yet refined Malbec (92 points for the 2012; $120) and other new-blood Zuccardi wines like Aluvional or Tito, and it’s clear that Familia Zuccardi is moving in the right direction.

    “I like wines that express a place, that have personality, that make you want to drink them,” says Zuccardi. “I’m seeking wines that are not too concentrated, but instead are elegant and textured. Wine should change in the glass and challenge you.”

    Growing up in a family whose winery is better known for value than artisan bottlings, it could have been difficult to move away from the tried and true. But after spending 2004 through 2010 working in places like Champagne, Tuscany, Douro, Spain and Sonoma, Zuccardi and his father, José Alberto, were ready to take the company on a new path. So far, the results have been impressive.

    In addition to his work at Familia Zuccardi, Zuccardi is a partner in Alma 4, which produces Champenoise-method sparkling wines. He also co-owns Cara Sur in San Juan province. There, says Zuccardi, “We found 80-year-old Criolla and Bonarda grapes that were really important years ago, but now there are just a few vineyards like these left in Argentina.”

    Wine to Try

    Zuccardi 2012 Tito (Uco Valley); $38, 92 points. This blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Ancellotta and Caladoc is intense, with chewy depth. Meaty, ripe flavors of boysenberry and blackberry finish with creaminess and herbal notes. Drink through 2020. Winesellers Ltd.

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    Valeria Antolin | Piattelli Vineyards

    According to her winemaking father, the first word Valeria Antolin uttered as a baby wasn’t “papa,” but “papam,” the word Mendocinos use for a glass of sparkling wine.

    “My father was a well-known winemaker in his day, but so was my uncle, while my Italian grandfather made his own wine,” says Antolin, 37. “There has always been a bottle of wine on the family table.”

    Born in Mendoza, Antolin originally wanted to be a doctor, “but I soon realized that I would be happier working with nature and making wine like my father,” she says. “He’s the reason I’m in this industry. He taught me all the basics.”

    “There’s a piece of my heart somewhere in Italy; I think our wines go well with Italian food because they’re balanced, with good acidity.”

    Today, Antolin is the winemaker for Jon and Arlene Malinski, the Minnesota-based owners of Piattelli Vineyards, which produces affordable, high-quality wines in Mendoza as well as in Salta province, in the north. Her primary guide is the consultant Roberto de la Mota, a co-owner of Mendel and one of Argentina’s leading winemakers for the past several decades.

    Among the array of wines Antolin makes, none of which sell for more than $30, she is particularly fond of Trinità, a Bordeaux-style blend based on Malbec.

    “Personally, I love pasta and Italian food,” she says. “There’s a piece of my heart somewhere in Italy; I think our wines go well with Italian food because they’re balanced, with good acidity.”

    When asked to recount a particularly embarrassing moment in her winemaking career, the lighthearted, exceedingly cheerful Antolin provided a vivid anecdote that captures her essence.

    “I’ve opened full tanks and sprayed wine all over myself. I’ve driven into a ditch in the vineyard. And last week an irrigation pump fell off the back of my truck on the highway destroying the car that was following us… and the pump, too.”

    Wine to Try

    Piattelli 2011 Grand Reserve Trinità (Luján de Cuyo); $27, 91 points. Warm, oaky aromas of pastry and blackberry set up a tannic, jammy, cheek-pounding mouthfeel. This is 75% Malbec and the rest Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark and chocolaty, with blackberry, prune and coffee flavors. Drink through 2019. Vinocopia.

Published on February 16, 2016
Topics: ArgentinaWinemakers