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Back at BRIX, Exploring Europe's Legacy in South America

From June of 2008, to July of 2009, I had the pleasure of working as a Wine Consultant at one of Boston's premier wine retailers, BRIX Wine Shop. Owned by long-time friends and wine afficionados, Carri Wroblewski and Klaudia Mally, BRIX has taken the Boston wine scene by storm since their opening in 2003. Featuring stunning architecture, and a selection of wines that is quite possibly beyond compare, BRIX has become a destination location for wine lovers in the Boston area.

This past weekend, I went to Boston to see The Tragically Hip live in concert at The House of Blues. The Hip, as their loyal following affectionately refers to them, have been my favorite band since I was a senior in high school, and I make it a point to see them whenever their tour schedule brings them into the New England area. However, as I was making plans to see the concert, I thought I'd check in with Carri to see if I might make a homecoming to BRIX, and host a tasting at the South End shop on Saturday night.

Me, working at BRIX - 2009.

Tastings at BRIX are quite the event. They occur once a week (Thursdays from 5:00 - 7:00) in the Financial District location, and twice a week (Fridays from 6:00 - 8:00, and Saturdays from 3:00 - 5:00) in the South End. When I reached out to Carri, she informed me that she already had a distributor lined up to do the Saturday afternoon tasting in the South End, but proposed that I host an evening tasting instead. As the Saturday tastings used to take place in the evenings when I worked at the shop, I quickly accepted, and Carri and I set about planning the theme of the tasting.

Ultimately, Carri and I decided to feature wines from South America, and I proposed that the theme of the tasting focus on the influence that European cultures have had on South American wines. Europe's influence on South America's wine culture can be traced to the 1500's, as grapes brought by Cortez and the conquistadors eventually made their way to South American countries such as Chile and Argentina. However, it was not until the 1800s that European influence on South American wines truly began to be felt. 

In the late 1800s, the phylloxera louse began its attack on European vineyards, attacking the European rootstock of the Vitis vinifera vines. Before it was discovered that phylloxera could be stopped by grafting European grapevines on to phylloxera-resistant American rootstock, the blight destroyed large percentages of European vineyards, and threatened the viability of European wine production, especially in France. At the same time, wine culture in Chile and Argentina was starting to emerge, particularly in Chile, where Chilean miners and land owners built vast estates in the style of Bordeaux chateaux. These Chilean estates found it easy to recruit French winemakers, due to the phylloxera epidemic, and the resulting uncertainty surrounding the future viability of wine production in France. Argentina also became a harbor for those seeking refuge from the phylloxera epidemic.

Both Chile and Argentina were the lucky recipients of European grapevines that had not been affected by phylloxera. Through some curious twist of fate, neither country has ever been affected by the louse, and consequently Chile and Argentina share the unique distinction of being the some of the last remaining sources of pre-phylloxera vines in the world. The two countries are also unique in that they have provided second homes to French varietals, such as Malbec and Carmenere, and have proven that they may be better suited to grow these grapes than France.

Our Saturday evening tasting lineup showcased some delicious wines that allowed for discussion of Europe's influence on South America.

Hermanos de Domingo Molina Torrontes
Of all the white grapes in Argentina, no grape makes a better claim for the country's signature white grape than Torrontes. While it is grown almost nowhere else in the world, recent DNA profiling has shown that this grape is not indigenous to Argentina, but in fact, hails from Galicia, in Spain. It appears to have descended from Muscat de Alexandria and Criolla Chica, which is known as the Mission grape in California. There are three sub-varietals of Torrontes - Riojano, Sanjuanino, and Mendocino. Of these, Riojano, with total plantings of 20,000 acres, is the most widely planted. Most of Argentina's Torrontes is grown in the northern appelations of Argentina, namely the appelations of La Rioja and Salta. This effort from Hermanos de Domingo Molina hails from the Cafayate region of Salta, and is a classic example of the varietal, showing floral and tropical fruit aromas on the nose, with brightly acidic, fruity flavors on the palate. The wine finishes dry, and is a perfect pairing for soft cheeses, shellfish, and white fish.

La Posta Bonarda
Bonarda was brought to Argentina by Italian immigrants in the late 1800s. Although there are four grapes in Italy's Piedmonte region that bear the Bonarda moniker, most experts believe that the majority of Argentine Bonarda is actually the grape that we know in the United States as Charbono. Charbono is native to the Savoie region of France, but is also grown alongside Barbera and Dolcetto in Piedmont. Other Italian grapes that are referred to as Bonarda are Croatina of Oltrepo Pavese, Bonarda Novarese or Uva Rara of Spanna, and Bonarda Piemontese, which is almost extinct.

La Posta's Bonarda is sourced from Estela Armando’s family vineyards in Mendoza. The family emigrated from Piedmont in the 1886, and has been growing grapes in Argentina since 1887. The vineyard from which the Bonarda grapes in this wine were sourced was planted in 1963. The Armando family is one of only three families with whom La Posta works to source their grapes. Only 1,200 cases of the Bonarda were made, and the wine is gorgeous. Silky, soft, and supple, it offers up notions of red raspberry, black fruits, and chocolate.

Casa Silva Carmenere Riserva
Carmenere is the lost grape of Bordeaux. Although it was widely planted in Bordeaux in the early 1700s, and made what historical accounts describe as phenomenal wines, growers eventually abandoned because it suffered from poor fruit set, and low yields. It was brought to Chile by French winemakers fleeing the phylloxera epidemic, but existed in relative obscurity for years, due to the fact that its physical appearance is very similar to that of Merlot. In 1994, DNA testing confirmed that some of the grapes that Chileans had thought were Merlot were actually Carmenere. Since that time, over 15,000 additional acres of Carmenere have been discovered in Chile. 

The Casa Silva Carmenere Riserva is a bold, muscular wine, with firm, aggressive tannins, and notes of bell pepper, intermixed with dark fruit on the nose. Dry and earthy on the palate, with subtle hints of boysenberry, it is a perfect wine for a dry aged steak.

Pulenta Estate Malbec
Malbec is the signature grape of Argentina. It's home is in the French appellation of Cahors, but it is also used as a blending grape in Bordeaux. While Cahors is capable of producing great wines, it is a relatively small, obscure appellation, unable to propel the Malbec grape to international prominence. However, when Malbec vines were brought to Argentina in the mid 1800s, the grape has flourished within the country, achieving the greatness that had long eluded it in France.

No one is quite sure why the Malbec wines of Argentina are so vastly different from their French counterparts in Cahors and Bordeaux. Certainly climate and terroir have a lot to do with it, and Argentina's climate certainly shields Malbec from many of the problems that plagued it in Bordeaux (e.g., poor fruit set, frost, downy mildew, and rot). However, it is rare, if not unheard of, for a Bordelais wine to be predominantly comprised of Malbec, and Bordeaux's difficulties with the grape are aptly demonstrated by the decline in its acreage in under vine, as plantings of Malbec in Bordeaux are 10% of what they were 50 years ago.

Eduardo y Hugo Pulenta founded Pulenta Estate in 2002. Their father, Antonio Pulenta, was a famous vinegrower, and is prominent in Argentina's viticultural history. The wine is 100% Malbec and the grapes used in its production are hand picked, and put through a rigorous selection process. The pedigree of the wine is heightened further by the fact that it hails from Lujan de Cuyo, which is one of Mendoza's two most important subregions. Soft and plush on the palate, due to the use of controlled malolactic fermentation, it has a jammy character, with flavors of cherry, blackberry and plum. Perfect for drinking on its own, it also would make for a great pairing with most red meat dishes, and hearty pastas.

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