Truth in Wine: Uncovering the Real Deal in Mendoza

April 16, 2014, by: Montesquieu

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.


Telling It Like It Is: Stephane Derenoncourt Calls Out Bordeaux’s 2013 Vintage

March 17, 2014, by: Montesquieu

On the heels of strong reviews of their 2012 wines, Napa winemakers are giddily predicting another outstanding vintage in 2013. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Bordeaux.

Bordeaux’s 2013 harvest saw its share of problems, and in the months since, many chateaux seem to have projected a cautiously optimistic attitude while saying as little as possible — perhaps to avoid deflating demand.

Not Stephane Derenoncourt, though. The world-renowned winemaker who consults for a number of Bordeaux properties has now delivered an early assessment of the region’s 2013 vintage, and he’s done so with refreshing candor.

“There will be some good wines, but it’s a s— year,” Stephane told recently.

Stephane Derenoncourt in his natural habitat -- tending vines

Stephane Derenoncourt in his natural habitat — tending vines

This isn’t the sort of thing we’re used to hearing from winemakers on either side of the pond. After all, they make their living on producing marketable, desirable wines, and you could forgive those who seem to keep quiet or downplay criticism when the outcome isn’t what they’d hope.

But Stephane isn’t your average winemaker. He calls it like he sees it. He abhors marketing-speak. He knows that at the end of the day it’s all about what’s in the bottle, and we can’t make more out of a vineyard than what nature gives us – to try is pure folly.

“We can’t do anything against the whims of the sky, a tsunami, a storm, a terrible spring, a lack of maturity,” says Stephane. “Nature is neither kind nor forgiving. Our job is to understand it, outwit it. Sometimes, it is too powerful and we have to submit to it. 2013 teaches us humility.”

Stephane’s honesty about such things is one reason we at Montesquieu Wines love working with him and our clients adore the wines he’s made and sourced for us. If a wine doesn’t live up to his standards, even if he made it himself, he’ll tell you. And conversely, if he tells you a wine is great, you can take that to the bank.

The Bordelaise have perfected the skill of telling us their wines are great. They’ve made three different “vintage of the century” announcements in the past eight years alone (2005, 2009, 2010). But like many other winemakers, they’re far less eager to admit when their wines are subpar – perhaps out of a fear of losing profits and market share in the hyper-competitive global wine market.

In Stephane’s case, the owners of Chateau Malescasse are putting their money where his mouth is. The 110-hectare property in the Haut-Medoc, where Stephane is winemaking consultant, has announced that in 2013 it will not make a first or second wine, but instead will sell all of the juice to negociants. The decision is expected to cost them at least 800,000 Euros.

Chateau Malescasse's wines are not up to Stephane's in 2013, so they're skipping the vintage entirely

Chateau Malescasse’s wines are not up to Stephane’s standards in 2013, so they’re skipping the vintage

“I’m not saying that the wine is bad,” Stephane told Le Figaro when explaining the decision, “but it does not measure up to our ambitions. Rather than squeeze something out of a wine we don’t like, we prefer to cut off our own arm and move on.”

Talk of severing limbs and moving on to the next harvest isn’t what the Bordeaux wine associations want to hear as they gear up for the annual Bordeaux Primeurs trade tasting in a couple of weeks. But it’s exactly what discerning wine lovers need to hear – a frank assessment from an expert who isn’t afraid to tell us like it is.


Stéphane Derenoncourt Shines Even Brighter with New 2012 Saint-Émilion Classification

September 25, 2012, by: Lisa Duff Khajavi

The new classification for Saint-Émilion was announced on Friday September 7th by the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine). There were four wines promoted to the top level — Premier Grand Cru Classé – three of which are made by Stéphane Derenoncourt: Château Larcis Ducasse, Château Canon la Gaffelière and La Mondotte. As a result of this re-classification, Stéphane is responsible for seven out of the eighteen Premier Grand Cru Classé wines. This impressive achievement underscores why many – including we at Montesquieu Wines – believe that no one knows the Right Bank quite like Stéphane.

One of Stéphane’s most famous wines, La Mondotte, skipped the Grand Cru Classé category entirely, jumping from AOC Saint-Émilion Grand Cru to Premier Grand Cru Classé, which is a rare feat. For those familiar with the famous garagiste wines such as La Mondotte and Valandraud (also promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classé), these promotions were well-deserved and not entirely unexpected. La Mondotte has been considered among the greatest Bordeaux chateaux for years, a collector’s gem and fetching prices that one would expect from the top level. View Full Post


Pierre’s Little Piece of Paradise

February 15, 2012, by: Stephen George

Pierre Bernault with his windmills

Pierre Bernault with his windmills

Anyone who knows much about winemaking knows that the romantic stereotype of life in the vines is just that – a stereotype. Winemaking can be romantic, of course; but it can also be risky and fraught with uncertainty. After all, Mother Nature has a long history of being a fickle master.

Consider Pierre Bernault, owner of an ancient chateau and plot of vines in Montagne Saint Emilion where he and Stéphane Derenoncourt craft Montesquieu Winery’s Moulin du Paradis blend: “You can lose an entire year’s income by surprise in the course of three weeks because of weather,” says Pierre. “But I like to take risks.” View Full Post


Winemaker’s Dinner with Thierry Haberer: Montesquieu Winery Celebrates Release of Juntarse

December 2, 2011, by: Lisa Duff Khajavi

Winemaker's Dinner with Thierry Haberer

Just before the release of our groundbreaking 2010 Montesquieu Juntarse at the end of October, we had the pleasure to reconnect and share a great meal and wines with Thierry Haberer, winemaker for the renowned Michel Rolland.   Thierry oversees wine production for the international Rolland Collection including the Mariflor wines from the Uco Valley, which we represent exclusively here in the U.S.

Thierry is also an integral part of our collaboration with Michel in our new project together, a series of co-branded wines from Mendoza’s Uco Valley crafted especially for our Montesquieu clients. The Juntarse– a maverick blend of Cabernet, Syrah and Malbec from some of Michel’s top vines – is our first release from this venture. Throughout the process, Michel and Thierry worked closely with our team to create a wine of exceptional quality and singular character. View Full Post


The Search for Great Terroir: Insight into California with Stéphane Derenoncourt

September 16, 2011, by: Lisa Duff Khajavi

There are few names in our industry that carry as much respect as that of Stéphane Derenoncourt and with good reason—with almost 30 years experience from literally the ground up, he is one of the great growers and winemakers of our time. Although he is modest and soft-spoken and consequently does not seek media attention, the wine world cannot help but take notice of his achievements in the vineyard and in the cellar.

At the heart of all this success is a genuine and passionate person, driven by his goal always “to make wines I love; elegant, balanced, respectful of the fruit.” The wines Stéphane loves are terroir-driven showing typicity specific to their place of growth. Stéphane strives for the ideal balance between the land and the wine which assures harmonious development of the vine and its capacity to mature the healthiest possible fruit. View Full Post


Stéphane Derenoncourt’s Window on the World of Wine in Saint-Émilion

August 27, 2011, by: Lisa Duff Khajavi

Stéphane and Manu

During En Primeurs this April in Bordeaux we had the pleasure of attending the exclusive preview of Stéphane’s new wine shop in Saint-Émilion, aptly named “ Terres Millésimées”. Terres means land, which can also mean terroir, and Millésimées means vintage or year. He had been wanting to do this for years, an idea that grew out of constantly being asked by friends, colleagues and fellow wine lovers how to find the wines of his eclectic consultancies, as well as other wines he loves and recommends.

As inspired projects go, ones that involve great passion, Terres Millésimées grew into an ambition to be more than a wine shop, a place where wine lovers can gather, both locals and tourists alike, to experience selections from “d’ici et d’ailleurs”—meaning “from here and elsewhere”—wines “des terroirs et des hommes” or “wines of the land and of man”. View Full Post


Livia Fontana: Heart and Soul in Barolo Country

August 21, 2011, by: Lisa Duff Khajavi

Montesquieu wine broker Jonathan Hetz with Livia Fontana, happy among the vines!

One of the most rewarding aspects of working directly with small producers to source the very best wines for our clients is the privilege of getting to know the winemakers, the talent and conduits of inspiration behind great wines. One of our favorites of all time is Livia Fontana—who we have worked with since 1997—a sixth generation winemaker and matriarch of the 180 year-old Cascina Fontanin in the heart of Barolo country.

Picture yourself perched high on a majestic hillside, overlooking lush steep vineyards to the point where the ancient villages of Barolo, La Morra and Monforte meet below. It is here, atop the famous tiny commune (population 637) of Castiglione Falletto, that Livia and her two sons Michele and Lorenzo tend to every detail of making wines at the family’s estate —from working in the vineyard to bottling and labeling and everything in between! View Full Post


Finding Federico: Montesquieu Winery in Search of the Real Deal

August 10, 2011, by: Stephen George

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 vineyard techniques or winemaking methods or what have you.

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 Wines know how critical it is to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. To truly 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. View Full Post


Michel Rolland and Montesquieu Winery: Joining Together in Pursuit of Perfection

May 26, 2011, by: Stephen George

The Uco Valley in all its splendor

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


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