Women change focus of wine making in Argentina

BUENOS AIRES Tue Jan 5, 2010 10:56am EST

A woman drinks wine during a festival in Miami Beach, Florida February 21, 2009. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

A woman drinks wine during a festival in Miami Beach, Florida February 21, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters Life!) - Susana Balbo is to Argentine wine what Martha Stewart is to homemaking and Oprah Winfrey is to media in the United States.

Together with Laura Catena and Anabelle Sielecki, she has helped to change the focus of the Argentina's centuries-old industry from quantity to quality.

Inspired by the altitude of the Andes, the diversity of the grapes and a passion for what they do, the three women have brought back an artisanal approach to winemaking.

Balbo, president of the trade group Wines of Argentina, which represents more than 170 wineries, earned a degree in enology in 1981 and has made wines on four continents.

"Each time, I have learned something new," she said during a visit to New York. "I try to bring it back and see how to incorporate it in my vineyards."

After creating one of Argentina's most famous winemaking facility at Bodega Catena Zapata, Balbo, along with her husband Pedro Marchevsky, in 1999 designed her own winery -- Dominio del Plata.

Catena is the daughter of Nicolas Catena, the owner of the Bodega Catena Zapata winery. She wanted to be a doctor but in 1999 began to take a more active role in the company. Now she is responsible for much of the research for its top blends.

She started making her own wines after the birth of her first son using grapes from small growers who owned some of Mendoza's oldest vineyards.

"In a certain way, we are very lucky in Argentina," Catena said. "Mendoza is a very particular place, with high altitude, poor soil, low yield ... and that makes the grapes very unique."

She is pleased by how far Argentine wines, particularly Malbec, have come given the country's political and economic instability. But Balbo believes the world will also learn to appreciate the country's other wines.

"Our country has such diversity in soil. There's the Bonarda, the Tempranillo and (Cabernet) Sauvignon and that has been a major push not only for ourselves, but for other wineries in the country to experiment and work with other grapes," Catena said.

"When I hear comments such as 'Ah, no way this Argentine wine is as good as a Barolo or a Bordeaux,' I say, 'OK, let's try the wine and then you tell me.'"

While Balbo visits other countries seeking new techniques and markets for Argentine wine, Catena has focused on new winemaking regions of Argentina such as Rioja and Patagonia.

Although Sielecki did not come from a wine family or study viticulture, she bought a small vineyard with 80-year-old vines in the Lujan de Cuyo district of Mendoza. The theory is that older vines' lower yield means greater concentration and quality for the fruit.

She convinced winemaker Roberto de la Mota, who made a name for himself at Chandon and then in a joint-venture with Chateau Cheval Blanc, to join her to create Mendel Wines.

"It was very clear to us that if we couldn't produce great, top quality wine from that small vineyard, we wouldn't produce it at all," said Sielecki, who is the wife of Argentina's ambassador to the United States.

The boutique winery makes about 80,000 bottles a year of three different wines all based on Argentina's iconic grape, Malbec. Like Balbo, she exports about 90 percent of the production.

So what is the future for women winemakers in Argentina?

"It is true that men are still the majority in this business, but the sure thing is that there's a lot of women now among the younger generation. I expect the number will keep getting higher and higher," Catena said.

(Additional reporting by Leslie Gevirtz in New York)

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