Category Archives: Winery Visit

Alpamanta : Biodynamic Wines from Mendoza, Argentina

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 kms south of Mendoza city.

Alpamanta, Certified Organic & Biodynamic Vineyard in Ugarteche, Lujan de Cujo, Mendoza, Argentina. All photographs used in this blog post are mine.

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 “homeopathic preparations” (involving dandelion, camomile 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 has 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 home made 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).

With Ignacio Ciancio, Commercial Manager Alpamanta, who took care of my visit.

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.

Herb Garden and Compost Pit at Alpamanta Estate, Mendoza Argentina. Ignacio Ciancio holding some compost to show the earthworms.

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.

Poultry is transported to different parts of the property in a mobile hen-house . Chicken eat “cutworm’ while sheep help in weed control.

All vines are covered by a mesh to protect them against hail.IMG_3477

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 moon and its relationship with the 12 constellations. In other words, these are effective only during certain earthly and celestial rhythms.

Ignacio showing the various “biodynamic preparations” and explaining their usage.

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.

IMG_6096Very 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 about 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 favorite 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 turismo@alpamnta.comIMG_3562

A day at Fratelli Vineyards during Harvest

I often wonder what drives some people into abandoning a fairly comfortable life to pursue seemingly impossible tasks where chances of success are uncertain. Is it a firm belief in their abilities to succeed or is risk taking a part of their DNA?

In the case of Alessio Secci, the Italian Partner and one of the co-owners of Fratelli Wines, it is both, along with a desire to come out of his comfort zone and constantly challenge himself. That is why he quit a highly profitable family business in Florence Italy and together with Sekhri brothers from Delhi and Mohite Patils of Sholapur, embarked on a journey to make wine in a country like India, not really known for wine production and where both wine making and marketing is a tough proposition.

Piero Masi, a famous Tuscan winemaker was roped in and together these seven partners planted vineyards and set up a cutting edge winery, in a back of beyond place with inhospitable terrain like Akluj (170 kms south of Pune) where it is difficult to grow anything, leave alone Sangiovese, a grape varietal not known to do well outside its home in Central Italy. This was in the year 2006 and rest as they say is history.

Fratelli Wines is now a well-established brand and counted among the top wine companies of India. However all this has not come about easily. To use words like “blood sweat & tears” sounds terribly clichéd but wine making is a serious business even though it may sound very romantic. It’s a long term investment where you pump in a lot of money and returns come only after many years. That is why it is not possible to talk about wine without using the word “passion” as it is the only driving force which propels people like Alessio, Piero, Kapil Sekhri and other partners of Fratelli Wines to continue with their dream.

Making wine is also a very intricate business. Spending a day at Fratelli Winery during harvest season showed me what exactly it entails to get that bottle of wine from the vineyard to the table. Harvest is by far the busiest and most important time in a winemaker’s calendar. It is also the toughest as it involves spending endless hours under the harsh sun, checking the grapes for optimum ripeness and balance between natural sugar and acidity. Choosing the right time for picking is extremely crucial and though there are instruments to measure “brix” or concentration of grape sugars, it is also about personal judgement. That is why either Alessio or Piero Masi is always around during harvest to personally oversee the operations. The vagaries of weather don’t help much either. For example, this year an exceptionally hot winter in Akluj led to an early harvest at Fratelli Vineyards which was then stopped when it became cooler, and resumed in January.

The winery too functions round the clock during harvest with workers doing day and night shifts. The flurry of activities begins early morning when the grapes come in from the vineyards. Destemming, crushing, pressing, transferring into tanks, adding of yeast, délestage (rack and return), processes which are all carried out in succession. Doing a round of the winery I became familiar with terms like “punch-downs” and “pump-overs”, tasted grape juice from the tanks at every stage of fermentation and saw how blending is done to reach that perfect flavour. I was given in a lesson in how decisions are made, whether to use malolactic which alters the aroma and texture of wine and storage (whether to use stainless steel tanks or oak barrels) understood procedures like clarification, stabilization and finally saw the preparation for bottling. Who said wine-making was glamorous?

Vrushal Kedari, Assistant Wine Maker at Fratelli Wines involved in wine making process
Vrushal Kedari, Assistant Wine Maker at Fratelli Wines involved in wine making process

And these are just the winery operations. At the vineyard it’s a different ball game altogether. I was explained that there are many aspects to take care of like irrigation, canopy management, bunch weight, pruning decisions, all of which affect the quality of grapes. Fratelli owns vineyards at three sites in Akluj, Nimgaon, Garwar & Motewadi (where the winery stands). Some time back the Oval Bar at JW Marriott, New Delhi Aerocity had launched a unique promotion “Celebrating Select Indian Produce” where three flights of Fratelli wines named after these three vineyard sites were offered at discounted rates. This was a fabulous idea to promote “terroir” and a long way from days when Indian wines were not even featured on the wine list of 5 star hotels. And now hotels are proudly showcasing Indian wines highlighting the progress made both in quality and wine making process.

While the sights and smell of a winery fascinate me what I love most is tasting wine with the wine maker. It is a special moment when he pours the wine in your glass. This is a wine which is in pristine condition as it has never travelled and always tastes better. I tried some of the latest 2015 vintages of Fratelli wines and loved the Chenin Blanc, Vitae Chardonnay and a new label Vitae Sangiovese. Recently released 2012 vintage of the super-premium flagship wine Sette, is in my opinion, the best so far in terms of balance and structure. What I like about Fratelli Wines wines is that they have struck a perfect balance between being “product-oriented” and “market-oriented” catering to consumer taste without compromising on quality and their own ethos.

With Alessio Secci, one of the partners and co-owner of Fratelli Wines.
With Alessio Secci, one of the partners and co-owner of Fratelli Wines.

So next time you see a bottle of wine, remember all the effort which has gone into bringing it to your table. It is not just grape juice in there but a story of terroir and the trials and tribulations of the wine maker.

By : Lavina Kharkwal

Fratelli Winery & Vineryards at Akluj, 170 kms from Pune Maharashtra.
Fratelli Winery & Vineryards at Akluj, 170 kms from Pune Maharashtra.

To read more on Fratelli Wines you may click on the following links