Living La Vida Argentina: Montesquieu, Mariflor and More
April 16, 2011, by: Stephen George
This is a story about Argentina. But like so much in the wine world, this story starts in France, one year ago.
During last year’s Montesquieu Winery trip to Bordeaux to taste the 2009 vintage en primeur, Michel Rolland invited us to his house to spend the evening. He lives in a beautiful old farmhouse on a hill overlooking the Fronsac appellation, just outside of Libourne on Bordeaux’s Right Bank. Not surprisingly, he makes a wine there too – a terrific Merlot/Cab Franc blend sourced from the vines surrounding his home.
The dinner was an intimate affair. The six of us – Michel, his wife Dany, their son-in-law David, Fonda, Hélène, and myself – ate together in the Rollands’ elegant dining room talking about the wine trade, telling stories and, of course, drinking wine. Over the course of those three or four hours we enjoyed a several special bottles, including some older selections from Michel’s cellar (1982 Le Bon Pasteur anyone?). But the most unique wine we sampled was the very first one they poured into our glasses – a delightful and vivacious white from Argentina of all places.
It was called Mariflor. It was a Sauvignon Blanc. And it was delicious. We were already familiar with the wonderful flagship red wines that come from the Mariflor vineyards that Michel planted in Mendoza’s Uco Valley in 1999. But we didn’t realize this region was capable of making such exciting white wines until we tasted this one.
Almost no one realized it, in fact. When Michel and Dany first decided to plant Sauvignon Blanc vines in this rugged, rocky, desert soil, people thought they were crazy. But Michel saw immense potential in the land, and he bucked conventional wisdom by crafting a delicate, energetic, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc.
This sort of thing is not unusual for Michel. He has always turned common counsel on its head, seeing opportunity for growth where others see impossibility. He bucked convention by expanding his personal vineyard holdings beyond Bordeaux and identifying the Uco Valley as a region with potential to produce great wine. He even convinced six friends to join him in a venture to create seven wineries at the base of the Andes Mountains. Today, Clos de los Siete as it’s called is a thriving winemaking community, and Michel’s Mariflor is its flagship vineyard.
We were enamored with that Mariflor Sauvignon Blanc Michel poured for us, with its beguiling aromas and flavors and with the spirit of adventure it embodied. We knew we had to bring it into the U.S. for our Montesquieu Winery clients. And we knew we had to go to Argentina – we had to see the Mariflor vineyard ourselves, to feel the crisp mountain air while digging our hands into the rocky soils and tasting the grapes off the vine.
And just one year later – just last week! – there we were flying over the spectacular Andes snowcaps from Santiago to Mendoza, on our way to spend three days at Bodega Rolland. Michel had arranged for Thierry Harberer, his right-hand-man who oversees winemaking at all of Michel’s properties around the world, to host us for a weekend of tastings and work in the vineyards and cellar. April is autumn in South America, of course, so we were excited to experience the Mariflor harvest firsthand by sampling the ripening grapes, picking and sorting, and assisting with the early stages of fermentation.
We were quite the sight: nine Americans descending on the decidedly non-touristy town of Vista Flores, an hour south of Mendoza. Fonda, Hélène, and I were joined by six Montesquieu wine brokers, each of whom has a special affection for Michel’s Mariflor wines. The trip began in a bog of disorganization – par for the course in Argentina, we discovered. Our car rental agency had unilaterally cancelled our reservations some weeks before without bothering to tell us, forcing us to scramble to find replacement vehicles. Soon we loaded up our suitcases into the back of a monster pick-up truck and an SUV with doors that wouldn’t lock, and we roared south to meet Thierry in the Uco Valley.
Our lunch pit stop at the a local café, Lo Del Dante, turned into a leisurely meal thanks to the warm sun resting on our sidewalk table, the gentle autumn breeze, and several plates of French fries to die for. Before we knew it, we were running behind, so we raced off.
Our haste was quite unnecessary, as it turned out. We would soon learn that there are a good many things to worry about in Argentina – hail, for example, or the intense Zonda winds, or incompetent car rental agencies – but sticking to a schedule isn’t one of them. We arrived late, but Thierry couldn’t have cared less. He was waiting for us on the shaded patio of a local restaurant several kilometers from Bodega Rolland, a wine glass in hand, a cigarette in another, chatting with friends and colleagues. Living la vida argentina.
He invited us to join him at his table and asked if we’d like some wine (yes, please). A familiar gray capsule jutted out of an ice bucket. I hadn’t seen this capsule in a year, but I recognized it immediately. The Mariflor Sauvignon Blanc. From the rolling hills of Fronsac to the rugged terrain of the Uco Valley, we had come full circle.
Later that afternoon Thierry would explain to us in detail how he made the Mariflor wines. That evening we would visit the winery and see how they ferment the Sauvignon Blanc partially in oak barrel (for depth), partially in stainless steel tank (for freshness), and partially in cement “eggs” (for richness – the egg-shape allows lees to collect on the sides of the tank, increasing contact with the juice, giving a creamier texture). The next day we would walk the Mariflor vineyard and perform batonnage on the fermenting 2011 Sauvignon Blanc juice (more on that later).
But none of that could quite compare with the sublime simplicity – the near perfection – of sitting on that shaded patio with the Andes in the background, slaking our thirst with that crisp, lively Sauvignon Blanc just a few kilometers from where the grapes were grown.
I thought back to my first encounter with this wine at Michel’s house in France a year ago. And I kept thinking about it later that evening after our traditional Argentine dinner as we sat outside with Thierry and the Bodega Rolland team talking the night away and sipping Mariflor until 2am. The promise we had glimpsed when first tasting the wine was now being fulfilled before our very eyes. This was how the Mariflor was meant to be experienced: around a table, with friends old and new, chatting late into the day. Living la vida argentina.