It is a great honour to serve as the Academy Chair for the UK and Ireland of the World’s Best Vineyards awards organised by William Reed, which are designed to celebrate and promote the best wine tourism experiences in the world. To achieve this, there are 21 regional panels, each of which has 36 members, who annually vote for their top 7 winery/vineyard experiences. Membership of these panels changes each year, with a constant rotation of new members rotating onto them. In this role, I have very much tried to ensure that our panel represents the rich diversity of the countries of the UK and Ireland, different wine sectors (including importers, retailers, sommeliers, writers, and consultants) and varied personal characteristics including gender, ethnicity and age. This is by no means easy to achieve!
The annual awards ceremony for the top 50 winery/vineyard experiences is hosted by a different country each year. The 2021 ceremony was thus hosted at Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau in Germany, and this year’s ceremony was held in late October at Zuccardi, Valle de Uco, in Mendoza Argentina. The Academy Chairs along with a select group of other leading figures in the wine tourism industry are invited to these awards, and this year a spectacular progamme of winery visits was arranged in Mendoza in partnership with The Government of Mendoza.
We had the privilege of visiting the following wineries, where we also had comprehensive tastings:
- Catena Zapata
- Anaia Wines
- El Enemigo
- Huentala Wines
- Zuccardi (where the awards ceremony took place)
- Durigutti Family Winemakers
- Cheval des Andea
- and althogh we did not visit Bodega DiamAndes, they hosted a welcome dinner and tasting.
I have long wanted to explore Mendoza, and the beauty of the mountains and vineyards, the commitment and expertise of the wine-growers, the winery architecture, and above all the generosity and expertise of all of our hosts went far beyond any of my expectations. I hope that the slide-show below (in approximate order of visits) captures something of my enthusiasm and excitement. Especial thanks are due to the team at William Reed, and to Dr. Nora Vicario, Minister of Culture and Tourism of the Province of Mendoza, for supporting this event, and for her constant energy and enthusiasm.
It would be invidious to pick out any one wine or winery as being somehow the “best” – they were all so interesting and different! The following, though, are among my lasting memories:
- The land appears so flat – but terroir matters! Most of the vineyards are laid out for mile upon mile (or kilometre upon kilometre) across the alluvial plain at the foothills of the majestic Andes. However, although appearing very flat it is actually gently sloping, and there are indeed important difference in terroir. These depend particualrly on altitude, but also on soil depth and charactistics (not least depending on the balance between clay, sand, and stones).
- The nets. Many vineyards are swathed in black plastic netting (clearly shown in the image at the top of this post) which is particularly intended to protect the young shoots from being harmed by hail, but it also helps shade the vines from the intense sunlight that prevails here. It nevertheless adds significantly to the costs of production.
- The architecture. I don’t think I have ever visited a wine region with such a wealth of recent architectural creativity. The level of financial investment in these wineries, restaurants, and hospitality venues is conspicuously high! While some of this investment comes from external sources and the proft generated from their owners’ other enterprises, I was also told that during the COVID restrictions they continued to have significant income from wine sales at a time when their costs were actually reduced, thus enabling them to invest further in their wineries.
- Innovations in the wineries – and the music. It was fascinating to see the new wine making equipment and innovations in all of the wineries we visited (very visible in the images above). Egg-shaped and rounded fermentation tanks were very evident, and the novel mate-shaped tanks designed at Anaia have pushed the boundaries of vinification yet further. Concrete was dominant everywhere, but it was also interesting to learn about ongoing various micro-vinification trials. Several wineries nevertheless continue to use oak barrels extensively. It will be several years before the influence of these different methods on the wines produced will be fully understood. It was also fascinating to see how many wineries placed an emphasis on the connections between music and wine – even with tango on top of the concrete tanks at Zuccardi!
- Irrigation everywhere – almost. The plains below the Andes in this part of Argentina are dry and arid. Almost all of the visible vegetation has thus been planted through the use of extensive irrigation; drip irrigation in the vineyards is ubiquitous. However, on being asked, several of the vitculturalists with whom I spoke mentioned that they are beginning to explore dry farming nearer the Andes mountains where water is more plentiful. The challenge here, though, is the danger of the much colder weather in the higher areas nearer the Andes. I look forward, though, to the results of this experimentation, and suspect that they just might produce even higher quality wines.
- The wines. I have always enjoyed Malbec (or Cot as it is known in the Loire and Cahors), and recall that years ago we published a fascinating paper in the Journal of Wine Research in 1991 by Angel Gargiuolo that explored how quality and quantity could be combined in Argentina through careful selection of vines and appropriate crossings that would achieve optimal yelds and quality in this environment. Ever since then, I have wanted to visit Mendoza to taste for myself the results of this research (as well as the early work by Nicolás Catena Zapata) that helped to lay the foundations of the modern Mendoza wine industry. The red wines that we tasted (mainly Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon – although also including less familiar Italian grape varieties and others as well) were almost all of very high quality, with the Malbecs at their best combining real elegance, rich blackberry and plum flavours, and fascinating herbal and spicy overtones. However, I also learnt much more about the different characteristics of the wines made from grapes in the region’s various subdivisions (often reflecting differences in altitiude). I particularly enjoyed, for example, the elegance of the wines from grapes grown in Gualtallary (at up to 1600 m) in the Uco valley, especially the Malbecs and Cabernet Francs (as well as blends between them) – although this might have been in part infleucend by my enjoyment of Malbec (Cot) and Cabernet Franc blends in the Loire Valley the previous week! While it is indeed possible to find very good Malbec on the shelves in UK outlets, it is clearly necessary to visit Mendoza itself to taste the very best!
- The hospitality and culture. I was blown away by the generous hospitality of all our hosts. It was such a privilege to learn from so many hugely experienced and knowledgeable wine-growers, and to taste the complex nuances in their wines. Beyond that, though, the professionalism, knowledge and warmth of welcome from all those who helped show us around was truly impressive – everyone I met, from the chefs and those pouring the wines, to the hospitality staff and the winery owners, went out of their way to help us understand their many cultures of wine. It was very humbling to experience the generous warmth of their welcome.
If I had to choose my favourite experience it must have been the opportunity we had at Catena Zapata to make our own blends of wine from different districts – mine was, though, very different from their official blend: yes, you’ve guessed it, I had a much larger proportion of Gualtallary! Thanks so much to Ernesto and Alejandro for guiding us through this (and to Alejandro for his wonderful wines at El Enemigo).
It has been so sad to read recently of the heavy frosts that hit Mendoza the week after we left – very much hoping that the impact will not be as serious as at first it appears.
Thanks again to everyone at William Read, the Government of Mendoza and all of the wineries that we visited for making this such a memorable journey of discovery