Someone once said that “pleasure can only be derived from personal discovery”. I couldn’t agree more. It is one thing to see pictures of a beautiful wine region and vineyards situated in the most picturesque locales, but another to actually visit them and see the beauty for yourself.
It was this desire for discovery which took me all the way to South America, and more specifically, to a wine region that is currently hot on the international wine scene, Mendoza Argentina. And I couldn’t have chosen a more adventurous way of getting there. A spectacular drive from Santiago, Chile across the Andes mountains to Mendoza, Argentina’s largest and most important wine region.
The vineyard that I chose to visit was Alpamanta, meaning “Love of Earth” in the local native language; a single vineyard estate making exceptional wines from 100% organic and biodynamic vineyard. It is located at an altitude of 950m (3117ft) above sea level, in a picture postcard setting against the backdrop of snow-capped Andes mountain, in Ugarteche, Luján de Cujo, 38 km south of Mendoza city.
I was curious to see how “biodynamics”, an extreme form of “organic viticulture” and the next big trend in grape growing, actually worked. Was it really possible to attune farming to the spiritual forces of the cosmos in general and to lunar rhythms in particular? And all those stories about the use of cow horn manure and other “homoeopathic preparations” (involving dandelion, chamomile etc) used to dynamize the vineyard; was it just some irrational cult and unscientific mumbo-jumbo, or did it really work.
The visit was a revelation and added tremendously to my knowledge of Biodynamics, a wine-making practice where the vineyard is considered a self-sufficient living organism, co-existing with flora and fauna in a complimentary way.
Incidentally, it was way back in the 1920’s, that this concept started with an Austrian philosopher named Rudolph Steiner, who was against the use of chemicals in agriculture. The aim was to restore harmony between humans and the universe and keep human intervention to a minimum. However, it is only in recent years that people are taking this holistic agricultural practice seriously, as the harmful effects of chemicals are becoming apparent.
While a lot of vineyards across the world are hopping on to the sustainable wagon and converting to biodynamics including high-end wine producers like Peter Sisseck of Dominio de Pingus in Spain, Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine Leroy in Burgundy, Michel Chapoutier in Hermitage, DeLoach Vineyards in Sonoma County; the founder of Alpamanta, an Austrian of noble descent, Andrej Razumovsky and his partners Andre Hoffman and Jéréme Delecourt, established this boutique winery in 2005, in a virgin previously untouched site, as an organic and biodynamic project right from the start.
Which in essence means that the 35 hectares of Alpamanta estate have not been exposed to any chemicals in the form of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, commercial yeast or any other artificial ingredients. They practice soil and bug friendly cultivation using homemade compost, treating the soil as a living organism. All activities, including cellar work, are carried on following a biodynamic calendar. There are root days (for pruning), leaf days (for watering), flower days (leaving the vineyard alone) and fruit days (for harvesting).
Setting foot inside the vineyard, the first thing I noticed was an organic herb garden. I was told by Ignacio Ciancio, Commercial Manager Alpamanta Estate, that these herbs were used in a making a “compost preparation” which vitalizes the soil and makes the vines disease resistant. He then pointed to the ground which was teeming with ants. These ants were present on every inch of the vineyard walkways. Ignacio mentioned that all biodynamic vineyards will have colonies of ants and this is the first thing one should look for if any vineyard makes claims to being biodynamic.
I saw sheep, horses and hens roaming freely around the property. This is done to allow them to pick off damaging worms and greens and also generate manure.
All vines are covered by a mesh to protect them against hail.
One of the most fascinating areas of the estate was the cellar which stored barrels full of “biodynamic preparations” used for infusing the manure with vitalizing forces to promote vine growth and prevent diseases. These are administered only on specific days in accordance with the biodynamic calendar, based on the phases of the moon and its relationship with the 12 constellations. In other words, these are effective only during certain earthly and celestial rhythms.
The certified organic Alpamanta wines were a bigger revelation. Available in four varietal lines Natal (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, all unoaked, fruity and fresh ), Estate (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Chardonnay, aged in French oak for 10 months) Reserva or Terroir (Malbec, aged in new French barrels for 18 months) and Breva (unfiltered). All wines are made using ambient yeast, very little sulphites and with minimum manipulation, right from harvest to bottling. The packaging too is eco-friendly.
Very elegant, complex, layered and well-balanced, they tasted nothing like the other “organic” wines, I had been previously exposed to. Some of those had left me underwhelmed, while these were simply outstanding. Which just goes to show that better farming practices result in better wines and “going green” is not just a marketing gimmick. If you want to change your perception of organic wines, look for Alpamanta. And if you happen to find yourself in Mendoza, do visit this biodynamic vineyard.
It was a fascinating and educative visit for which I am grateful to the owner Andrej Razumovsky and to my friend Georgina Fernandez Desrefano, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Argentina, India, who introduced me to Andrej and co-ordinated my programme. A big thank you to Ignacio Ciancio, who showed me around Alpamanta and other parts of Mendoza, like the breathtakingly beautiful Uco Valley.
Though I liked most of Alpamanta wines, my favourite surprisingly, was not Malbec, but the Estate Cabernet Franc.
By: Lavina Kharkwal
Alpamanta is one of the seven certified biodynamic wineries in Argentina. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org