South African novelist Nadine Gordimer once said that “A desert is a place without expectation”. A photographer who has caught vast desert landscapes and breathtaking sunsets might disagree, as would any camper set underneath a canopy of stars on a desert night. But to most–and certainly to any winemaker–Gordimer’s words ring true.
Unless, of course, your name is Paul Hobbs and you are crazy enough to plant a vineyard in the middle of nowhere.
In Argentina, where most of the country’s wine is produced in Mendoza, the high altitude vineyards of Salta (and, particularly as of late, in the country’s southern region of Patagonia) a desert winery 160 kilometers from the capital of Buenos Aires is a bit of an anomaly.
For a wine nut like myself, the initial draw to Bodega del Desierto was of course the location: I was fascinated at the thought of wines growing, as the name suggests, in the desert (Bodega del Desierto translates to “winery from/of the desert”). Once I learned that BDD’s winemaker is Paul Hobbs, a man once famous for his California wines but who has recently crafted some beautiful Argentine vinos, I was all the more intrigued. Would the wines reflect the style of Hobb’s other Argentine wines, or showcase a different style and region?
My quest to learn more about this winery and its endeavor to produce quality, affordable wines in the most unlikely of regions led to discoveries about the history (and future!) of wines in Argentina, a glimpse into the work of acclaimed American winemaker Paul Hobbs, and a lesson in “less is more” that I sometimes wish more wineries would live by.
The Middle of Nowhere
As most who visit Argentina quickly realize, the majority of the country’s population resides in its capital; outside of Buenos Aires, the country is vast, expansive, and… well, pretty darn empty. It came as no surprise that winery representative Nathalia Farallo called the 160 km drive from Buenos Aires to the winery’s region, La Pampa, “not much to speak of”: having ventured outside Buenos Aires myself, I had seen the (albeit beautiful) nothingness that is the country outside of the capital.
What I didn’t expect was to hear that this area: dry, windy, and completely dependent on the Rio Colorado which runs through the area, actually neighbors one of the first wine producing regions in the country: Rio Negro. As it turns out, growing grapes in this area isn’t so crazy after all: it has been done for years. In fact, winery consultant Mario Toso had actually visited the region 30 years before the winery was founded to scope out the area, and he recognized the potential even then.
Why did it take 30 years to put the region on the map? According to Farallo, the main reason Rio Negro failed to “take off” as Argentina’s primary wine producing region (a title given to Mendoza) not because of quality, but quantity: vines growing in such stressed conditions while battling high desert winds and low irrigation produce less grapes, resulting in lower yields, less wine, and therefore, less profit. Combined with the long distance necessary to travel to any decently-populated city, the area didn’t stand a chance. Winemakers simply couldn’t compete with areas like Mendoza, whose vines are watered from Andes mountain runoff and whose wineries are accessible from the beautiful city of Mendoza, and the region failed to gain the acclaim that it may perhaps deserve.
Decades after eying the Pampa site, consultant Mario Toso was finally able to see the area produce wines. Starting first as a vineyard that sourced grapes to winemakers, the project (spearheaded by Farallo’s brother) teamed up with Paul Hobbs. Hobbs is best known for his lush California Cabernet blends; however, in the last decade he has produced several award-winning and beautiful wines in Argentina, including the affordable El Felino and the “I wish” Vino Cobos. Reluctant to sign on to the project for the same reasons others hadn’t produced wines in La Pampa–distance and climate–Hobbs eventually signed on, with one condition: the grapes not be used to source to other vineyards, but instead, to be used in the winery’s own label. Bodega del Desierto was born.
Today, a decade after the initial 2001 and 2003 plantings, the winery is celebrating the success and acclaim of their two lines: the premium Desierto Pampa line and the 25/5, a tribute to the city closest to the winery named the 25th of May (or, 25/5) which received its moniker from the date of Argentina’s independence.
I was lucky enough to be invited to sample both lines at their beautiful office in Buenos Aires and am happy to share some of my tasting notes.
Brief Tasting Notes
Great mineral and acidity. According to Farallo, the white wines of La Pampa come from grapes with thicker skins to withstand the high desert winds, resulting in white wines with surprising backbone and aging ability (they are still drinking their ’05 and ’06 Chardonnays!). I found the Sauvignon Blanc to be very citrusy and full-bodied.
Another full-bodied white wine, this Chardonnay had a beautiful hazelnut quality and a long finish.
Those tired of chewy, oak-laden Chardonnay will enjoy the body and flavor of this wine.
A beautiful raspberry nose with other bright berries quickly proved to me how versatile Hobbs can be. The wine is a far cry from the more lush, jammy Hobbs wines I have tried in the past, proving that Hobbs isn’t just a one dimensional winemaker.
Argentina has produced several beautiful Cabernet Franc wines, and this one is no exception. A floral nose, surprisingly big and lively tannins, high acidity and a long, smooth finish leave me wondering why Cab Franc so often plays second fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Bodega del Desierto 25/5 Malbec 2007
Ironically, Argentina’s trademark grape is actually the one which might need the most improvement, but this has not fallen on deaf ears: Farallo admits that the Malbec is an “experiment” and that they have been toying with this wine for a while (they actually had a bit more success with their ’06: I am interested to see where the ’08 falls on this “scale”). While completely drinkable, I found the Malbec to be a bit thin with a bit too much oak presence. I am excited to see it transform from vintage to vintage and turn into something they are proud of.
44% Cabernet Franc, 44% Malbec, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon
I am always a fan of blends: they allow the winemaker to craft a wine exactly as he or she wants it to be, without the restriction of being limited to the qualities and characteristics of one varietal from one particular vintage. This fruit forward, lush wine with a LOT of tannins is delicious now, and will benefit from a few years of cellaring.
Pinot Noir is growing in popularity in Argentina, but predominantly in southern regions like Patagonia, so I was ecstatic to see a Pinot from the Pampas. This wine had a beautiful vanilla nose, had Pinot-typical high acidity, and was a bit thin… Farallo admits that this wine will also need a bit of work, but is very promising.
Eighteen months in first use French oak have given this wine a full body and calmed down the massive tannins. I love the big fruit alongside the BIG structure of this wine. It is a delicious product, perfect with roasted meats and veggies, and I’d bet money that it would be a crowd-pleaser at any dinner party.
The 2006 Malbec uses the premium Malbec grapes from the vintage, and truly showcases the Malbec of this region. Rich, opulent, full-bodied, with a hint of vanilla… again, a great wine to try when venturing away from the more typical regions of Argentina, and an example of what the Pampas have to offer.
With the winery situated so far from the majority of Argentina’s population, I had to wonder how little tourism affected the winery’s business. Does Bodega del Desierto receive many visitors? Have Hobbs and his partners invested money into their facilities, mirroring some of the impressive bodegas in Mendoza? Could I come visit the winery, if I was crazy enough wanted to?
Farallo laughed. She told me that the facilities at Bodega del Desierto are actually from an old tomato factory, and joked that the public is always welcome, but that if I came to visit, there “wouldn’t be a mint on the pillow”. Sincerely, she admits that they have “thought” about putting money into the facilities, but it “hasn’t been a priority”.
All the more reason for me to love the winery. In an age where wineries “woo” their customers with expansive bodegas, stunning views, high-tech storage facilities and gift shops filled with wine trinkets, I can’t think of a better breath of fresh air. What matters to anyone who truly loves wine is one thing: the wine. Bodega del Desierto left me enamored with their varieties in style and structure: I had expected something different than the Argentine wines I was used to; something bolder, something a bit more concentrated. What I didn’t expect such elegance and structure, the fascinating story that is behind the wine, or how impressed I would be with their approach to winemaking. A mint on a pillow couldn’t make me love them more.