Wineries on World Malbec Day will have a true cause for celebration this Friday in Mendoza, Argentina. For most, harvest will be complete, or in the very final stages, while in the midst of the most difficult conditions imaginable – the COVID-19 pandemic.
I spoke with two winemakers in the region, Mariana Onofri, renowned winemaker at Onofri Wines and Head Sommelier for The Vines of Mendoza, and Karim Mussi, a legendary fixture in the Argentine wine industry, who works with Altocedro and Alandes in Mendoza, along with many emerging wine projects.
They shared their tales of managing harvest during COVID-19, as well as what malbec they will be drinking to celebrate its successful completion on World Malbec Day this Friday, April 17th.
SN: Explain the current situation in Mendoza, Argentina. Are you on lockdown?
Mariana Onofri, Onofri Wines: In Argentina, citizens must stay at home, but it’s more strictly enforced than other places; it’s legally enforced when residents don’t comply. For example, in Mendoza, you cannot go anywhere non-essential unless you have a form that states explicit permission. There are exceptions for essential workers or people buying essential goods. As the wine industry was in the middle of harvest when these restrictions started, we were allowed to go to our vineyard/wineries with special permission.
Karim Mussi, Altocedro: In Argentina, we are under a national lockdown, however wine is considered “food” and it has its own specific laws that regulate the activity. Therefore, we have permission to be in transit, as well as our winery workers, pickers, and suppliers. Mendoza is one of the largest growing areas in the world, so it is very normal to see many grape trucks on the road.
SN: How did the pandemic affect your harvest timing?
Onofri: We harvest earlier than many – this year we started on February 15 in Lavalle [a province in Mendoza]. In other regions, such as the Uco Valley, most wineries started in March. Fortunately, 90 percent of our fruit was already fermenting when the quarantine started. We completed our harvest last week.
Mussi: We were fortunate to have a warm March, which accelerated our harvest season as sugar ripeness came earlier. Therefore, the phenolic ripeness sped up, allowing us to pick most of the varieties earlier than usual in order to minimize the impact of the virus on our process. We are completing the very final stages of harvest right now.
SN: How were you able to make harvest happen through this pandemic? What were the challenges?
Onofri: Harvest was slower due to having fewer laborers and taking additional time for proper precautions. We were still able to meet the demands of production thanks to the dedication of our team. It is a challenging time for sure, but people are coming together.
Mussi: Harvest is already the most stressful time of year, and extremely time-sensitive, so with this harvest, we were doubly impacted. We needed to pick everything as fast as possible, with limited resources, people, money, and infrastructure.
SN: Was production manageable with a smaller team and more stringent conditions?
Onofri: As we are very small and harvest was far along when we were impacted, we were fortunate not to be affected very much. It has been challenging for the larger vineyards—managing harvest in the vineyard and then the work in the wineries.
Mussi: We implemented Crisis Regime management immediately in order to keep our workers safe, along with the continuity of the operation. We also reduced the number of workers per area in the winery. For example, on the sorting tables, we had only two workers instead of four. We also added a new shift with fewer people to cover all the daily duties, and implemented cleaning cycles.
SN: I was surprised to see a lot of photos with foot stomping, even this year. Is that safe?
Mussi: Completely. There is no risk at all. Remember that after the grape juice ferments, the alcohol and the acids keep the fungi, bacteria, and yeasts in perfect microbiological stability. There will not be an impact on the quality of the wine at all, and thankfully, not the volume of wine produced either. In my opinion, wine is the safest drink in the world!
SN: How did you ensure your employees were safe?
Onofri: Wineries were limited strictly to employees. Not even suppliers are allowed to enter, and of course, tourism of any kind is forbidden. Safety precautions are highly visible in most wineries as masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer can be found throughout the facilities. Thankfully, we were allowed to continue with our operation following the necessary protocols.
Mussi: Gloves, mask, and glasses are mandatory. Employees also work at least five feet apart and wash their hands every hour or so. Everyone has an individual alcohol spray to clean surfaces, tools, plugs, valves, pumps, and everything they touch. Health protocol is highly visible. In addition, any work that could be performed from home – such as marketing and administration – is performed from home.
SN: Your harvest was just successfully completed and it is World Malbec Day on Friday! Surely a lot to celebrate. What malbec will you celebrate with?
Onofri: Malbec is without any doubt a blessing for Argentina. It is a grape whose origin is French, but it chose Argentina as its home! It feels very comfortable growing throughout almost the entire country, especially by the Andes foothills. Its versatile character is amazing—you can enjoy fruit-forward, young and easy to drink malbecs as well as more mature wines with great character, body, complexity, and aging potential.
There are countless malbecs that I love, but this World Malbec Day, I will be raising my glass with two special Malbecs:
2018 Alma Gemela Malbec
This is my latest creation, which I will be launching in a month. This is a Malbec from Los Chacayes, a limited production of 2.100 bottles. It is deep violet, full of black cherries and raspberries with some black pepper hints. Medium bodied, bright and velvety.
It has aged for 16 months in French oak barrels of different uses so as to create balance and elegance but mainly have the beauty of Malbec expression in each sip! It is not available in the States yet but hopefully it will very soon.
2014 Serca Malbec Reserva
Serca is a wine that Pablo Martorell produces with Sergio and Carolina Weitzman, private vineyard owners at The Vines of Mendoza. This single vineyard Malbec is deep ruby red color and bright violet hues. On the nose it displays plums and black cherries with soft spicy black pepper. Its mouthfeel is elegant with velvety tannins, medium bodied and bright acidity. It is full of black and red fruit layered by subtle tobacco notes and long finish.
Buy this amazing Serca Malbec 2014 and join our celebration.
Mussi: This harvest will be memorable for many reasons, in addition to the quality. It will prove, one more time, how beautiful and important this activity is, how many jobs it generates, and the strong-minded people needed to continue moving forward. No wars, crisis, and now, pandemic can stop us. Wine is sacred and necessary for human happiness and progress.
To celebrate on World Malbec Day, I recommend trying one traditional and one New-World style malbec. Here are my recommendations from the Altocedro portfolio.
2017 Altocedro Old Vine Malbec Reserva
This Altocedro is made from 100 percent old vine fruit from La Consulta, a specific appellation inside the Uco Valley. This wine perfectly represents the character of wine from Argentina—made in the high mountain desert at the foothills of the Andes, with all the fruit coming from the pre-phylloxera rootstock that immigrants brought to Argentina.
What you will find when you taste this wine is the classic, traditional style of Argentine winemaking. You can pair this wine with food (perhaps an Argentine asado!) or drink on its own quite nicely as well.
2019 Altocedro Año Cero Malbec
This malbec is our interpretation of the New World, from the beautiful place, La Consulta, within the Uco Valley. The grapes are picked from four distinct locations and fermented separately, then combined after the fermentation is finished. Only one-third of the wine is aged in oak which creates a very balanced, elegant, bright, and fresh wine.