San Patricio del Chañar
Today I want to talk about a productive area of Argentina: San Patricio del Chañar, one of the newest areas of Patagonia and the country. Its wine history dates back just two decades and currently produces wines of the highest quality recognized nationally and internationally. Thanks to Florencia Fiorenza from the Chamber of Exporting Wineries of Patagonia, I contacted references who contributed their experience and testimony.
Located 55 km. to the northwest of the homonymous capital of the province of Neuquén, is the town of San Patricio del Chañar (SPC) belonging to the department of Añelo. This was the area chosen for large fruit-bearing undertakings until in 1999, after analyzing the conditions of the place, Julio Viola, founder of Bodega Del Fin del Mundo, glimpsed that the Patagonian desert had hidden great wine-growing potential. “The vineyards and wineries are installed at the foot and on the north fence of the Neuquén River, on virgin soils, where land was reclaimed from the desert and almost 1,800 hectares were planted of vine” tell me Marcelo Miras, an oenological reference in Patagonia who was in charge of the oenology of this winery in its beginnings.
Convincing was the testimony offered to me by one of the most renowned oenological journalists in the country, Fabricio Portelli, when I asked him about his vision of the area: “I witnessed the birth of many Argentine wineries that are today benchmarks, but only one terroir (or rather said wine province) as San Patricio del Chañar. And it is not only a matter of soil and climate, but rather of man. The same one that today is so important and influential in the most traditional areas of Argentina. Because without man’s search, motivated by tireless curiosity, fueled by passion but also by hunger for glory, the challenge to the limits would not have been possible. SPC was born out of nowhere, in a desert, just like Cuyo more than 150 years ago, although in this case on an immense Patagonian steppe. The desire is the same, but this time technology enhanced things. The makers were more experienced than the winemakers, when it all started almost 20 years ago. But today they all live together in the great Neuquén wine family. What they achieved in a short time is very strong, because it is not only about an area, but an entire province represented by a small area”.
The area registers an average annual rainfall of 180 mm and thermal amplitude greater than 20°C in the maturation stage. “San Patricio del Chañar is an area where the summer is generally short, and the nights are cool/cold,” explains Nicolás Navío, winemaker at Bodega Patritti. Strong west-southwest winds predominate, mostly during spring and summer, favoring the health of the vineyards, by attenuating the development of diseases.
The other very relevant climatic characteristic is the large amount of time exposed to the sun. The perfect combo of conditions needed to obtain high quality grapes. “Brightness is very important, so the varieties usually reach their point of maturity without problems. The cool nights allow maintaining a balance between acidity and alcohol, generating wines with a very good structure. On the Winkler scale, it is an area between 3 and 4”, Julio Viola (son), director of Bodega Del Fin del Mundo, tells me. This scale that Julio mentions, allows to measure viticultural regions from the point of view of temperature [source ].
SPC is located at latitude of 39° south which “is equal to that of the Bordeaux region in France. What in Mendoza they look for with altitude, which is cool nights and thermal amplitude, we have with latitude” comments Roberto Schroeder, president of the Schroeder Family [source]. On the other hand, we must not lose sight of the fact that the region is affected by strong winds, so “the cultivation of vines is protected from the winds by means of curtains of poplars (living hedges), also with the planting of pastures”, Leonardo Puppato, head of oenology at Familia Schroeder, tells me.
As Marcelo Miras commented, the region had virgin soils and where there was desert, cultivated vineyards were created between 320 and 415 meters above sea level. The region has sandy and rocky soils. Sandy soils do not retain water well and are poor in organic matter; warmer wines will come out of them, with a large number of aromatic nuances and less structured. On the other hand, rocky soils are perfect since they favor the growth of the vine as they have very good drainage and permeability.
Leonardo Puppato recounts that “in some plots the hoses had to be raised because, due to the very sandy soils and the frequent winds in the region, they clog up. The fact of being raised does not harm irrigation in case of strong winds, because at most the drop would run 2 or 3 cm. of the plant what is within the range of permitted distances”.
Marcelo Miras says that “the varieties introduced in the first stage were Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Semillon, Torrontés, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, Gewürztraminer, Tannat were then added”.
For his part, Julio Viola (son) comments that “the main variety planted in this area is Malbec, followed by other reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir among the most traditional. Other less popular reds also appeared, such as Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Tannat. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay lead the list for Whites, followed by Semillon, Viognier and Torrontés”, and then adds that “it is an area that can afford to make great Pinots and great Cabarnet Sauvignons even though they have very different growth cycles”.
“All the warehouses were installed with state-of-the-art technology, which continued to incorporate technology over the years, thus improving their operational capacity”, says Miras, and this is evidenced, for example, in the testimony of Julio Viola (father) in an interview for the magazine Clase of El Cronista, “we managed to implement what ended up being one of the largest pressurized irrigation systems in South America: 6 plants were installed that pump water equivalent to the demand of a city of 200,000 inhabitants through a network of 400 kilometers of underground aqueducts and a total of 9 thousand kilometers of drip hoses, equivalent to the distance between Buenos Aires and New York. This is how we transform the desert into a green oasis.” [source]
All the wineries in the region were built on top of their land to take advantage of gravity and use the least number of pumps. They are modern, functional and equipped with the latest technology. Some are ISO 22000 certified.
We already talked about the history of the region, the climate, the types of soil, the varieties planted and the technology. All this is combined to obtain grapes with excellent health conditions, great concentration of colors and aromas, slow evolution of tannins and a perfect level of acidity. As a result, they will then give high-quality wines. The wines of the region present a remarkable concentration of color in all their varieties, with very fruity aromas, great body and structure. The cold climate allows for more elegant red wines. The cold climate allows for more elegant red wines.
Obviously, when we talk about wines, we do not stop only at still wines, since the sparkling wines of the area have very well earned their good reputation as Julio Viola says: “A separate chapter for sparkling wines. It is worth noting that acidity is not corrected for sparkling wine bases or for white wines in this area due to the excellent natural concentration they present. I believe that the potential in sparkling wines is very high, taking into account the enormous proportion of Pinot Noir that this area has compared to the rest of the country”.
The region currently has five wineries, all located north of Provincial Route 7. I thought it would be a good option to create an interactive map in which you will find the exact location of each one. You can have it available on your device as a basis for planning your trip. By clicking on the glass icons, you will access more information and links to the sites of each winery.
All the data that I present in this note was obtained from the National Viticulture Institute – South Region Report of July 2018 (the last official report until august 2022). The information on the region is segregated by province and department. Although it could be said that the province has around 40 homemade and artisanal winemakers, said report speaks of 7 wineries that produced more than one hundred thousand quintals and produced almost 60 thousand hectoliters during 2017. Practically it is the double what happened in Rio Negro.
The province of Neuquén has a cultivated area of 1,758 ha (2017), distributed in 88 vineyards, representing 0.8% of the total vine in the country and 47% of the Patagonian region. It has registered an increase of 6% (+102 ha) in cultivated area compared to 2010. The increase in the area of vines produced in Neuquén in the period 2000-2017 (880%) places this province in 6th place of importance to country level.
Towards the future
Although 15 years seems like a long time, when we talk about vineyards, yield, development of quality products and positioning in internal and external markets, they are nothing. It is just the beginning. For this reason I was interested in knowing the opinion of the referents consulted about how they imagine the future of the region and below I share their words:
“From here to the future I see a consolidation of the area, by the vineyards becoming a viticultural oasis. Only time gives winemakers a better understanding of the conditions of grape production. All this will allow us to continue improving the quality of the wines year after year”.
“For now, they are young wineries that are just beginning to balance themselves out, like the wineries that have already achieved a stable presence in various markets, and now is the time to consolidate. I think they are in full search of their own style, of modern and expressive wines, with the strength that marks the region. A story that is just beginning and that promises to write something very serious if consistency is maintained, especially at the hands of Pinot Noir and Malbec; and hopefully Merlot too. Now it’s time for them to look in the mirror and focus on achieving a style that distinguishes them. It has everything ahead of it, but without a doubt it continues to be the most emerging region, due to its recent past, its great present and all the potential it has for the future”.
“I believe that the future of this area depends much more on human vicissitudes and the country’s economic ups and downs than on climatic conditions. Since there are few companies, the departure of one or the arrival of another strongly changes the macro numbers, but in short, if we analyze the wine potential, we only see growth possibilities. More established vineyards each year, greater characterization of all vineyard sectors, increasing precision in frame-by-frame diagnoses that allow the application of differentiated cultural techniques and tasks”.
If we talk about wine regions, we cannot ignore the Wine Route, which, as in provinces such as Mendoza and Salta, for example, includes tours and visits to wineries, gastronomy and different attractions. In the case of Chañar, all the wineries are open to the public with a good gastronomic offer and guided tours. They also offer the possibility of participating in the pruning and harvesting, and in particular I mention the case of the Schroeder Family since in the soil movements that were made when the winery was built, fossil remains of dinosaurs that that inhabited these lands have been found. A few 75 million years ago.
Undoubtedly, San Patricio del Chañar is one of the youngest regions on the Argentine wine map, where all efforts are focused on producing high-quality wine, leaving aside high yields. As Leo Puppato says, “in this region we do not do quantity, but quality”.
It is indisputable that state-of-the-art technology plays one of the most important roles. This added to the capacity of the professionals in charge of each of the undertakings added the support and advice of great references of the industry at national and international level (Michel Rolland, Roberto de la Mota and Mariano Di Paola). This combo is completed and enhanced by the characteristics of the terroir, which explains the phenomenon of explosion and positioning of the area as a producer of premium wines that are recognized worldwide.
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