Snow arrives early in Mendoza this year – on the day I arrive. The picturesque old road over the los Cerrojos hills to San Jose has been closed, so the trip to Zorzal takes much longer, as we’ve got to leg it down the extremely straight and very boring Route 40. That’s the bad news; the good news is that I am sharing the car with Juan Pablo Michelini; never has a car journey been better spent.
Juan Pablo (Juam-Pi, to his friends) is always keen to talk about the Argentine wine industry. “It’s incredible the amount of change we have seen in the last ten years. We’ve moved away from all producing one particular style of wine which was the old fashioned big Malbec. Now we have huge diversity even just with that grape. Everyone is looking for terroir, all searching for individual plots. We are growing in finesse and elegance. It’s all good news.”
The Michelini brothers have been at the forefront of excitement in Argentina for a few years now; they were the original rock stars. All three have now made their home in Tupungato, where Juan Pablo makes the wine at Zorzal, a joint Michelini venture with Canadian investors. “We all want to be close to the wines we make. We all want to maximise the grapes.”
As we enter the Uco Valley, Juan Pablo makes a prediction (other winemakers I subsequently meet echo this): “Cabernet Franc is going to be hugely popular in Tupungato. Pinot Noir is good at the higher elevated points in the Uco Valley, but it is Cabernet Franc which excites us.”
We drive through the picturesque town of Tupungato and then, instead of taking Route 89, the Wine Route, we head off into the hills towards Gualtallary, climbing steadily to 1,300 metres. What with the recent snow, it is like driving through some weird moonscape and we see very few cars and you think: how do you grow grapes here?
We get on to the topic of hobbies and Juan Pablo tells me he used to be a pretty serious guitarist and played in a semi-famous Mendoza band. Why I am not surprised one little bit at this? With his hipster bushy beard he would be at home in Mumford & Sons. Then he tells me rather sheepishly that he is a keen golfer, which takes me completely by surprise. At that moment we breast a hill and he points down to my right. “That’s where I play.” Incongruously, in among the vines there is a quaint golf course threading its way between the hills in a way not dissimilar to a British links course hiding between the dunes.
Even more incongruous is a polo field. In the middle of nowhere!
There are five micro-climates in Gualtallary, he tells me. At the bottom where it is hotter and where the soil is clay-based, Cabernet Sauvignon performs reasonably well. Right at the top the soil is largely stony granite and limestone. In between there are mixtures. Zorzal is bang in the middle where the soil is largely calcium carbonate.
In the small but beautifully formed winery Juan Pablo runs around like a little kid with his toys. He compares his amphorae with his eggs. “The amphora gives elegance, softness, quiet. The eggs give nerve, length and electricity. It’s all about the shape; in the egg the juice is constantly moving.”
He poses in front of the first egg ever built in South America, constructed in 2012. “The guy who designed this went on to build them for virtually every winery in Argentina; he’s now a millionaire.”
Accompanied by his assistant winemaker, the beautifully-named Noelia Juri, Juan Pablo dashes excitedly from one wine to another, firstly comparing Chardonnays from 500-litre and 225-litre barrels (not surprisingly, the larger barrel produces a nervier liquid); then a stunning Chardonnay from foudre (“not sure where this will go”) which tastes like wine which has been dragged over an oyster bed and which leaves a staggeringly gorgeous flavour in my mouth for minutes after; then a Malbec which may go into El Barba (“this has some tension”) and which leaves a curious candy floss taste in my mouth; then a solera-based Pinot Noir containing wines from eight different vintages which is intriguingly steely and salty; then a Cabernet Franc which will go into his Piantao wine and which is just pure rhubarb fruit juice; finally, his extraordinary flor-based Altar Uco (“flor power”) which allows him to demonstrate his prowess with a venencia.
As we begin to taste from bottle in the tasting room, Juan Pablo tells me how keen he is to make some of his whites in an oxidative style. “We rack the barrels and don’t add sulphur. Natural yeast, naturally. We oxidate the wines to give brown juice, which we then clarify and hold in stainless steel. Wines like this can age forever.” The 2018 Chardonnay we taste has a pure salinity and a touch of saltiness. It is like tasting wine washed over pebbles and with a tiny amount of lime juice added. A 2018 Sauvignon Blanc is more commercial. A 2018 red blend from Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec has an extraordinary nose of earth, mushrooms, beetroot and truffles., while a Malbec from 2017 is rhubarb and carrot juice at first, then liquorice. “You can taste the chalk,” says Juan Pablo.
We are interrupted by the kitchen staff bearing an amazing looking asado with chimichurri sauce. Pablo asks if I am okay to continue the tasting. Of course, I say, trying to concentrate in the wine with one eye of the pile of beef.
The Eggo wines, from single vineyards, are all looking great. The 2018 Sauvignon Blanc has an anise flavour which I cannot ever remember seeing in the varietal. The 2017 Cabernet Franc has an unusual nose, a touch saline and a bit of stalkiness. “Understated,” says Juan Pablo. The Malbec has another showstopper nose: it reminds of liquorice root that I used to chew when I was a kid. The Pinot Noir is steely, poised and edgy.
By now I am wolfing down the hunks of beef; the wines make amazing companions. I keep going back to check on them. All of them are intriguing, as is the whole operation.
The kitchen staff come to join us and we get into a discussion about football. It is here that the big debate about Messi needs to be brought to a climax, so I ask them: is it Lee-O or Lie-O. Every one of them tells me Lee-O, even against my protestations of the pronunciation of his father’s inspiration, Lionel Richie. The only who doesn’t join in is the cook. “She prefers Maradona,” says Juan Pablo.
For more information on any wines from Zorzal, please speak to your account manager.