Argentina's story in grape and glass

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WINE:The Vineyard at the End of the World, By Ian Mount, Norton, 350pp. £17.99

WINE IS an art form, a synthesis of cultural history, a status symbol. Oenology has its own language, which only dedicated oenophiles truly understand. Consider this eulogy to a 1990 Arnaldo B Etchart premium red from the quill or laptop of Robert Parker Jr. According to Ian Mount, a writer on wine for the Wall Street Journal, Food and Wine and other publications, Parker is the most authoritative wine critic in the United States, whose reviews influence wine markets worldwide:

“A beautifully made wine with considerable complexity and richness,” he informed readers of his newsletter in the Wine Advocate. “It displays a dense, saturated plum colour, and a nearly outstanding set of aromatics consisting of cedar, licorice, smoke, jammy cassis, berry fruit and a notion of prunes. This medium to full-bodied wine exhibits admirable concentration, low acidity, a fleshy, nicely textured and layered mouthfeel and a plump, opulent finish.”

Many of us on a lucky day may have picked up a wine a little bit like that at the supermarket, specially reduced from € 15 to €7.99, and found it good for washing down a tub of fried chicken pieces. The wine tasted all right, but I did not know how to describe it. Oenological analysis demands years of study and thousands of litres of thoughtful sipping, swishing and spitting. Mount’s nicely textured 400-year history of the wines of Argentina has made me wish I had previously taken wine more seriously. More than once I have slurped “a nearly outstanding set of aromatics” (notice “nearly”) and experienced “layered mouthfeel” without having the taste buds and spiritual sensibility adequately conditioned for proper appreciation. However, for ambitious wine-bibbers, reading this book may be a step in the right direction.

“The end of the world” is a subjective concept – how can an oblate spheroid have a geographical end? Mount, an American who lives in Buenos Aires, apparently feels that the world’s remotest vineyard is situated just across the country in the environs of Mendoza, Argentina, close to the Andean border of Chile. Grapevines have been grown there since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. They were able to cultivate that arid land with the help of an irrigation system of canals and ditches inherited from the Incas. Or is the farthermost vineyard in the Rio Negro valley, in the Patagonian desert, which, Mount says, is “truly at the end of the world”? In any case, he decided to concentrate on the Mendoza region, which, he shows, has been the most important influence on the present great development and international commercial success of Argentine wine.

Even before the first Spanish settlers planted European vine cuttings in Argentina, wine already had an ancient history. “In the Bible’s Old Testament,” Mount writes, “the world’s first vintner, Noah, was famously mocked by his son Ham for passing out naked, drunk on his own rotgut.” “The world’s oldest known winery, found in a cave in Armenia in early 2011, dates back to 4100 BC.” “The Greeks . . . invented conservation, adding tar, resin and spices to preserve wine that they cooked down . . . until it had the consistency of honey. Later it was diluted with water when served.”

Mount says winemaking has been globally extensive because wine is so easy to make. “In the early years, one simply grew grapes, stomped them into a juicy mush, allowed naturally present yeast to convert the grape juice’s sugar into alcohol, and aged the fermented wine to smooth the flavour.” His account of the scientific technicalities of later processes becomes more abstrusely detailed as he goes on.

Mount explains how Argentinian winemaking was stimulated and handicapped and stimulated again by the rollercoaster of the nation’s politics and economics, especially the boom in immigration from Italy and France late in the 19th century and the industrial and financial collapse under military dictatorship in the 1970s. Drastic devaluation of the peso, strange to relate, actually helped the wine industry, by attracting enormous foreign investment.

“Much of the contemporary part of the book is built around the story of Nicolas Catena,” Mount points out, “the winery owner whose company and winemakers played the largest role in the expansion of the last two decades.”

He portrays Catena, a doctor of economics, as a quiet, professorial figure with a sharp business sense, which earned him the nickname “the Goldman Sachs of Mendoza”. His financial astuteness enabled him to outwit Hector Greco, a Sicilian with an even more formidable nickname, “the Godfather”. Greco and his associates owned 47 businesses, including a newspaper, three banks and three dozen wineries, altogether with 12,000 employees.

Wanting to control still more, in 1979 Greco made Catena an offer he couldn’t refuse, $129 million for Grupo Catena, which sold about 220 million litres of wine a year. Catena managed to negotiate a contract guaranteeing that he would retain his winery and all the money paid up until then if Greco failed to pay the final instalment. Greco did fail, because he and his associates, just before it was due, were imprisoned for monopoly and their empire ceased to exist. Greco claimed that Catena had somehow persuaded the government to act as it did. In any event, Catena became Argentina’s supreme vintner.

Compared with that melodramatic episode, the rest of the story is relatively tame, but it should be of great interest, no doubt, to aficionados of wine history. It includes how Catena sought the advice of California experts to modernise his production methods and make his wine internationally desirable, and how he reinstated the good old Malbec grape in 70,000 acres of his vineyards, creating an improved, robust wine that Ian Mount, temporarily eschewing the esoteric language of Robert Parker Jr, says is “yummy”.


Patrick Skene Catling has written novels and children’s books

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