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On the occasion of our release of the highly-anticipated 2010 vintage of our client-favorite Don Zofanor Meritage, it’s worth exploring together what makes wine so special.
Certainly wine is nothing less than what’s in the glass — and by that measure, the thoroughly delicious 2010 Meritage is very special indeed. But truly great wine is about more than just taste. It’s about terroir. It’s about tradition. And most of all, it’s about people.
It’s hard to forget this after a visit with Don Zofanor’s veteran winemaker Federico Benegas-Lynch, whose great-grandfather essentially founded modern winemaking in Mendoza in the 19th century. Spend a few moments with Federico, and you’ll see immediately that he’s the real deal. Spend an entire evening with him walking the vines and talking late into the night, as we did, and you’ll find yourself refreshed, challenged, and inspired.
Below is our account of that magical day in Mendoza and what it taught us. If you can’t find your way to Argentina just now, we recommend you find your way to a cache of the 2010 Meritage before it’s gone and taste for yourself the passion of Federico.
Intimate Asado Dinner with Federico Benegas-Lynch & Don Zofanor
History. Tradition. Family. You’ve probably noticed that these words get thrown around a lot in the wine industry. These days, everyone seems to be claiming that they’re family-owned and family-run, that they are tapping into a tradition as old as the sun, that they use historical winemaking methods.
It’s easy to tune out this sort of rhetoric as marketing-based background noise. And as merchants who are barraged by wineries who want us to introduce them to our clients, we at Montesquieu Winery know how critical it is to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. To determine whether there’s real history and tradition in play, and whether it matters to the quality of the wine, we have to do more than just scratch the surface. We have to dig deeper, to pull back the veil to see whether these buzz words reflect something real and unique, or whether they’re merely a marketer’s fancy.
The best way to do that, of course, is to visit the property in person. Go to the vineyards, inspect the winery, taste the wine in its place of origin. Are the vines really old and gnarled? Are they tended naturally and by hand with no trace of chemicals or machine work? Do the grapes taste fresh and vibrant off the vine? What kinds of barrels do they use, and how do they use them? Is the facility clean and pristine? Is the winery a tourist showpiece or a place with real history?
And most of all – who’s there to greet you? Is it a salesperson or hospitality manager? Or is it the owner, the winemaker, someone who pours his or her heart and soul into the winery’s work? What stories do they tell? Are they personal stories, family stories, tales full of history and tradition? And can you feel their passion for the vines as they talk?
Our Gracious Host Federico with Fonda
Do this enough, and you’ll get pretty good at sniffing out empty rhetoric – and you’ll know the real thing when you see it.
Let us give you an example. A small group of Montesquieu wine brokers were in Argentina along with our buying team visiting with our favorite producers and investigating new opportunities. (For more about our trip, including our harvest experience at Michel Rolland’s winery, look here and here.) One Tuesday afternoon, on our way from the Uco Valley to Mendoza proper, we stopped at a winery (which shall remain nameless) that wanted to do a project with us. When they reached out to us initially, they had said all the right things, but we were there to find out for ourselves.
Good thing, too. We were hosted by their director of sales (the owner was nowhere to be found). The tour was nice, and our guide was informative. But there was a problem, the kind of thing you only learn if you’re there in person. It was the middle of harvest, and as we walked by the grape receiving area, we saw stacks of bins full of grapes sitting in the scorching sun while the workers took a lunch break. We would never let this happen to our grapes at such a critical moment when they are most vulnerable. When harvesting in Napa, we work through until the grapes are entirely in, or we store them in a cold locker to preserve freshness. The skins of a grape give it most of its tannin and acid – indeed most of its character – and letting these brittle berries bake in the sun, off-the-vine, is the worst thing for them. It can cause the skin to crack and shrivel, violating the integrity of the wine and robbing it of vitality.
As our tour continued, the more we looked the more we noticed how huge the operation was, how they were pumping out large quantities of wine without the care and attention we expect, how their techniques were oriented more toward volume and style and the market rather than expressing terroir. We tasted through their wines, and there was nothing wrong with them per se. But in a word, the operation was commercial, not artistic, and we could tell that many of the decisions in the vineyard and cellar were driven by sales and financials, not by an abiding passion for the life of the vine.
We had another appointment later that day in Mendoza, and the difference could not have been more stark. Federico Benegas-Lynch, of Don Zofanor fame, is the owner and genius behind this estate begun by his great-grandfather. Along with his right-hand-man Andres, Federico spent all evening with us, walking us through his vineyards, tasting the grapes off the vine, showing us his ancient stone cellar and impeccable winery facility, talking of his passion for Mendoza, telling us stories from his family history, and sharing a long traditional Argentine meal with us.
But it didn’t take all night to realize what we were experiencing. After moments with him, we knew: this is the real deal.
Maybe it was when he took us to his cherished 110-year old Cabernet Franc vines (yes, you read that right: 110 years old!), and the juicy, rich, fresh, ready-to-pick grapes tasted unlike any other Cab Franc grapes we’d had.
Or maybe it was observing how he frequently stood in the vineyards in silence, breathing in the dusk air, gazing over the vines to the Andes Mountains in the background. In those moments, it was if he was alone out there, in his own world, just Federico and his beloved terroir. His passion was palpable, and contagious.
Or maybe it was when he showed us the winery records book begun by his grandfather, in which the first handwritten entry was dated 1918 – and then told us about how his great-grandfather settled in Mendoza in 1883 when it was only a cattle center and hand-carried cuttings from Bordeaux, helping to launch the Mendoza wine industry.
You can’t fake this stuff. And the quality of wine that results from true tradition, history, and artistic passion is unmistakable. We experienced that over the course of our dinner together, as he poured some of his best cuvées for us – wines with distinctive personalities that were elegant, full of character and life, each more fascinating than the one before. The meal – a traditional Argentine asado with various cuts of fresh meat roasting on a massive fire just behind our 40-foot long wooden table – went late into the night. We talked, laughed, and cried (literally!) while reflecting on our shared love for great wine and the human stories behind it.
So this is what we seek for all of our Montesquieu wines. Authenticity. Personality. Passion. And yes – real history, tradition and family. The kind that Federico and his wines have in spades.
We’re thrilled to be able to bring back to our clients the fruit of our relationship with Federico by way of the 2010 Don Zofanor Meritage. This stirring blend of classic Bordeaux varietals Malbec, Cabernet, Cab Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot is inspired by Federico’s great-grandfather, who aspired to follow the example of the world’s most famous growing region in building the Mendoza wine industry. It’s an homage to this vision and to the tradition and values he has passed down through the generations, culminating in Federico’s passionate work.
The Douro Valley in Portugal is rich in history, romance and stunning scenery, and is home to one of the most distinctive wines in the wine world—Port. This fortified wine is revered for its ability to age as well as having an unequaled range of flavor and style profiles, which makes Port a valuable addition to any well-rounded wine cellar. Every wine tells a story, and the story of Port is quite unique!
The History of Douro and Port
Declared a World Heritage Site in 2001, archaeological finds date winemaking in the Douro back to Roman times. However the development of fortified Port wine occurred during the second half of the 17th century. In 1678 Britain declared war on France and blockaded French ports, and in doing so created a wine shortage in England. In 1703 Britain and Portugal signed the Methuen Treaty that established the supply of cloth from England in exchange for Port wine, among other things. View Full Post
The splendor of St. Emilion viewed from one of its crown jewels, Pavie Macquin
“Is this the hanging tree?” I asked.
I stood on a grassy path flanked by vines on both sides, staring up at a tall tree with large branches spreading wide. Oak? Elm? I wasn’t sure, and it didn’t really matter. All that mattered was whether this was THE tree, the one that – according to legend – the townsfolk of St. Emilion used for executing criminals many years ago.
We had broken free from our tight tasting schedule in order to take up this quest. That Tuesday, our first day of 2010 tastings at Primeurs, we did Cheval Blanc and the Rolland Collection at Le Bon Pasteur, followed by Michel Rolland’s consultancies at Chateau Soutard and then Stéphane Derenoncourt’s consultancies at Chateau La Gaffelière. Wednesday brought a full morning of tasting biodynamic wines at Ch. Fonroque followed by a cross-river haul to take in the wines of St. Julien, St. Estephe and Pauillac at Ch. Branaire Ducru, and then a dash to Ch. Lascombes to sample Margaux before the day’s tastings closed. We began Thursday morning early with the St. Emilion tasting at Ch. La Couspaude before heading back to the Left Bank for Graves and Pessac-Leognan – both rouge and blanc – at Ch. Malartic-Lagravière, and then back again to La Gaffelière to finish tasting Stéphane’s wines and chat with some of our producer friends there.
If you’re counting at home, that’s over 500 wines tasted in three days, not counting bottles we enjoyed during our dinners or at the late-night producer parties we attended. This kind of professionalized indulgence is par for the course during Primeurs week, but still, by Thursday afternoon we needed a break that didn’t include swirling, sniffing or sipping. View Full Post
It’s no secret Montesquieu Winery is fond of exploring wine regions off the beaten track, inspired by the thrill of adventure and discovery as we seek new and exciting sources for our international portfolio of Montesquieu Wines.
That being said, we also relish the wealth of experiences one finds traveling to classic destinations such as Paris, Rome, New York, London, Barcelona and the like. Even though these cities are not wine regions, and not off the beaten track, the opportunities to be immersed in fine food and wine are great with an abundance of world-class dining and top-notch wine lists, plus in many cases wonderful wine regions nearby! Add the museums, shops, and cultural treasures galore, and you have all the ingredients that most consider essential to the art of living well. View Full Post
Spend a little time in the Uco Valley in Argentina, and it doesn’t take long to realize that not only is Michel Rolland one of the most accomplished winemakers of our time – he’s also a true visionary.
That’s a bold statement, perhaps. But once you’ve seen Bodega Rolland firsthand, situated at an elevation of 3,300 feet in the shadow of the snowcaps of the Andes, the conclusion is inescapable. The proof of Michel’s vision is everywhere you look.
You see it in the in the vineyard’s rocky, arid soils where the vines’ roots burrow deeply in desperate search for nutrients. You see it in the rugged, barren terrain that surrounds the vineyards as in every direction, offering no evidence of life beyond the occasional desert flower. View Full Post
Argentina was destined for wine greatness—with terrain that the world’s best wine growers and wine makers have fallen in love with, accentuated by the vibrant cultural mix of Spanish, Italian and Amerindian influences. Wine lovers have responded to this region and its star Malbec with fervor, which has spurred even more investments in the area with an expansion of varietals along with it. It is not surprising that Argentina is now the 6th largest producer of wine in the world, and the largest producer in South America.
The heart of Argentina’s wine country is Mendoza, known by locals as “la tierra del sol y del vino” or “the land of sun and wine” where the country’s most famous wines are produced. Mendoza is both the name of the province and its capital city which is the case for all of the provinces in the country. The name Mendoza is a Spanish surname of Basque origin meaning cold mountain, an appropriate name as Mendoza sprawls along the eastern foothills of the dramatic Andes Mountains which are snow-capped all year long. View Full Post
Known by locals as “il cuore verde d’Italia”, or the “green heart of Italy”, Umbria is a land full of lush rolling hills, ancient medieval villages, distinctive regional wines and delicious traditional cuisine, all set in a gorgeous backdrop rich in art, culture and history.
Bordered by Tuscany, Marches and Latium in the heart of the country, Umbria is the only region in Italy to be completely surrounded by Italian land. Although long overshadowed by its more famous neighbor Tuscany, the wine world is starting to take notice of Umbria and its many treasures, much in the same way that the nearby Marche region has gained attention recently. View Full Post
With En Primeur week just around the corner in Bordeaux April 4-8, it seems a good time to share one of our favorite regions for wine lovers who relish exploring a bit off the beaten track—the Dordogne in the Aquitane region of southwest France.
This charming area, just inland from Bordeaux, is a treasure trove of remarkable beauty, historical sites, lovely cuisine and the interesting lesser-known local wines which include Bergerac, Monbazillac and Pécharmant. If you base your stay in the area surrounding Bergerac, you can easily reach the En Primeur tastings in Bordeaux. Just follow the road west that hugs the Dordogne and you will pass through Côtes de Castillon and St. Emilion. These right bank gems—with their delectable wines and rich history—are not to be missed, so make sure to allow ample time to explore! View Full Post
Architectural Treasure Santa Maria della Rocca in Offida Pecorino
Imagine yourself on a white, sandy beach admiring the view of a rocky coast dotted with quaint fishing villages and weathered trading posts. Looking away from the water, your gaze turns skyward to catch a glimpse of the green, rolling hills covered with patches of Cyprus trees, ancestral vines and olive trees. These picturesque hills seem to protrude straight out of the Adriatic. Everywhere you look as you stroll leisurely through these coastal towns, you see a population committed to preserving a local culture centered on the pleasures of food and wine. This is the essence of the Marche region, an unspoiled Italian treasure brimming with culinary delights and a kaleidoscope of wine styles – red and white, traditional and modern. Wine critics and writers have long ordained this micro-region the ‘next Tuscany.’ However, a closer look reveals this magical food and wine culture is happy just being itself, and is just the kind of hidden treasure that Montesquieu loves to share with fellow wine lovers. View Full Post
It is no secret that Montesquieu has long been enamored with the Rhône Valley, a classic destination for wine lovers boasting an abundance of charm and diversity. A journey to the Rhône offers a rich tapestry of experiences, spanning from the village of Vienne just 20 miles south of Lyon, to Avignon in Provence. It is home to some of France’s oldest vines and most interesting history which has been greatly influenced by the extensive trade and transportation on the Rhône River, dating back to Greek and Roman times.
The Rhône River has shaped the entire region and beyond, with its wares and stories meandering up and down for century upon century. It seems that the rich gastronomic influence of Lyon just to the north trickles south through the Rhône, imparting luxury and finesse as it flows, and in turn the relaxed, sunny demeanor of Provence has made its way north adding a rustic and approachable ambiance to yield a very pleasant balance of refinement and warmth all throughout the valley.
At Montesquieu, we bring you the finest hand-crafted wines from the best boutique vineyards in the world. We believe that winemaking is an art. Through every wine we source for our clients, we celebrate the diversity, character and tradition encompassed within each bottle - the true spirit of wine.