I hailed a taxi from Mendoza’s 6th section on a sun-filled winter day. The season had been mild, but the elderly women on Calle Olascoaga could be seen in puffy coats performing their driveway sweep routine, unfettered by passersby tracking through their dust piles. The drive to Luján de Cuyo, one of Mendoza’s highly touted sub-regions, could confound any visitor; despite the wine capital’s conspicuous fuchsia-splashed billboards, the city’s immediate surroundings are starkly desert-like. However, just fifteen minutes away, past big box supermarkets, turf soccer fields and a bit of nothingness, vineyards begin to appear like oases before a towering Andes backdrop.
I went to visit Alpamanta to learn from agronomist Pamela Federici how responsible viticultural methods translate into award winning wines. Their 35-hectare estate sits in the south of Luján in Ugarteche, which rests at a slightly lower altitude than its neighboring valleys. It is characterized by alluvial soils and stark contrast of hot days and cool nights, providing an ideal amount of stress on the vines while allowing a long ripening period for grapes. What sets this winery apart is a simple but strenuous homeopathic approach: the vineyard is farmed according to organic and biodynamic certifications and winemaking is conducted without cultivated yeasts and additives. Through its work with Alvaro Espinoza and René Piamonte, Alpamanta has honed in on essential farming practices that have transformed the estate into a flourishing ecosystem, yielding healthy fruit and increasingly popular wines.
Pamela Federici is in charge of day-to-day operations at the estate and, like other dedicated agronomists, practically lives in the vineyard. She boasts work experience spanning three continents, but decided to remain in her home region after a chance encounter with owner Andrej Ruzumovsky.
Alpamanta does all its farming in accordance with René Piamonte’s biodynamic calendar; a schedule set by the lunar cycle, revealing the optimal dates for pruning, picking, composting – every aspect of the harvest cycle. In compliance with organic and biodynamic teachings, the vineyard team refrains from chemical use in both the vineyard and winery, opting instead to let nature take its course. This approach is meant to allow a vineyard to remain in a harmonious state, with insect and yeast populations unharmed, but it can also leave crops susceptible to problems that a conventional winery could easily eradicate with chemical spraying. I asked if being biodynamic was worth the extra trouble.
“Overall I have seen a very balanced vineyard,“ said Federici. ”There is a very good relationship of leaf to fruit and the quality is outstanding. The plants have adapted very well to the natural conditions under which we grow; they fight for themselves against the odds of rain, heat, insects and fungal attack. Thanks to our minimal intervention and the greatly diverse microclimate, the plants have managed to survive and adapt.”
I was watched closely by a small heard of sheep, presumably waiting for me to leave their hangout. They do the dirty work around the farm, eating weeds and providing organic material that supports the life of the vineyard. Most people don’t like to talk about the behind-the-scenes aspect of farming, but it’s essential to the process. Like an unblemished apple, an organic or biodynamic vineyard without free-roaming animals is rather suspicious. Sure, some organic projects manage just fine by purchasing all their compost and manures, but it seems to remove some of the meaning. Alpamanta’s large animal population, plant growth and vegetable garden support Federici’s claim, “We believe in diversity, not monoculture.”
In following with biodynamic practices, Alpamanta does utilize some techniques to add nutrients to the soil and avoid undesirable outcomes in the vineyard. To learn more, we made our way down into a basement below a tasting room and stopped in front of two opened barrels laid down on their sides. They revealed various components of biodynamic preparations separated in clay and glass jars – chamomile, dandelion, oak bark, horsetail, eggshells, quartz, yarrow and manure. Each application is readied in a specific fashion - the oak is inserted into the skull of a domestic animal, then buried next to the vineyard, to be added to compost or used as a spray. These preparations are part of a homeopathic approach meant to improve the health of the ecosystem’s soil and crops; the belief is that they populate the soil with an abundance of microorganisms, aid the breakdown of manures/composts and prevent pests, fungi, molds and diseases.
We ended the day with a lengthy asado (Argentine barbecue) in a space carved out into the vineyard. There’s no better way to experience Mendoza than sitting for hours with old and new friends around a table of meat, cheese, salad and wine. Asados are fully engrained in the culture; on Sunday afternoons locals stay at home with friends and family, while the smell of caramelized fat flows into the quiet city streets. If someone eats or drinks too much and is feeling a bit sleepy, they are welcome to take a nap in the host’s bed. I managed to stay in my chair. Our asado was accompanied by a generous tasting of Alpamanta’s current releases. Standouts included the honey-filled 2012 Natal Chardonnay, the peppery oak-free 2009 Natal Cabernet Sauvignon and a nostalgic 2007 Reserva Malbec that nearly coaxed me into staying in Mendoza for a few extra days.
More than anything else, the wines at Alpamanta seem to provide a sense of place. As in the case of other meaningful projects in the region, a glass of this wine, enjoyed anywhere, can invoke the undeniable charm of the Argentine wine experience - the tranquility of the vineyards, looming westward mountains and asado beneath a shaded canopy. It’s all made possible by a philosophy that allows for healthy soil and grapes to do all the talking. After arriving back in New York a week later, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bottle of Alpamanta among the usual Mendoza selections in a narrow West Village wine shop. Now I just need to find an Argentine butcher.
List of wines:
Natal Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Natal Chardonnay 2012 Natal Cabernet Sauvignon 2009: Estate Malbec 2010 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Reserva Malbec 2007
Dani Rozman is a contributor to Organic Wine Journal. He is currently working the harvest at Clos Saron. Photographs courtesy of Alpamanta.