By Tom Marquardt And Patrick Darr
Paul Hobbs’ transition from California to Argentina was hardly smooth.
A winemaker with impressive distinction at renown wineries such as Opus One, Simi and his own Paul Hobbs, was looking for a new adventure and chose South America because it was all the rave in the 1990s. Still in his 30s, he asked Jorge Catena, a UC Davis classmate and family member of Argentina’s respected Bodega Catena Zapata, to join him in visiting Chilean wineries. Little did he understand that Chilean winemakers have a bitter rivalry with their counterparts in Argentina and they did not take kindly to his companion. Hobbs was sent packing.
Chile’s loss was Argentina’s gain.
In the late 1980s, Hobbs joined Catena Zapata as a consultant and guided the family through a modernization of its winery. While there he discovered the potential of old vines in Mendoza and invested in his own winery, Vina Cobos, in 1990 with a focus on single-vineyard malbec. But his challenges were just beginning.
Argentine winemakers were more interested in making lots of wine but very little good wine. They were ripping up old vines that produced fewer grapes as they aged. Malbec was being grown in salty, sandy and over-hydrated soil. Excess vine vigor can reduce fruit quality but quantity is what they wanted from younger vines planted in the wrong soil.
“Malbec is like a camel. It can drink a lot of water,” Hobbs said in a recent interview.
Winery facilities were antiquated. Growers had no contracts and weren’t paid until long after harvest. Canopy wasn’t being managed well. The wines were oxidized and vegetal. Turning this around was as slow as turning an aircraft carrier.
“For 40 years, they fell behind in technology. These vineyards were beaten up,” he said. “They weren’t concerned about quality.”
Slowly, he integrated a number of changes that not only led to the fantastic Vina Cobos wines we taste today but he also established a new benchmark for quality.
Hobbs first abandoned the soils in the foothills of the Andes and planted vines in places higher in elevation. He found the ideal soils and climate in Lujan de Cuyo on the outskirts of Mendoza city in western Argentina. Malbec in particular does well here in vineyards as high as nearly 4,000 feet.
In the vineyards he opened the canopy to achieve even ripening, introduced drip irrigation to wean the grapes from excess water and concentrate the grapes, protected the grapes from hail with netting and reduced chemical spraying.
“A lot was in our favor – soil and cooler climate in higher elevations,” Hobbs said. “But we had to push a lot of viticulturists to participate in that thinking.”
He brought cuttings from California to start his 74-acre Domingo vineyard in 1992.
“My quest was simple: very old vines,” he said.
He said he didn’t know a lot about malbec and could hardly rely on current practices. He spent years introducing new concepts and testing the results before he was satisfied with his wine.
Growers did not respect verbal agreements and initially sold fruit that was promised to him.
“We asked them to do things they didn’t like,” he said.
But Hobbs paid them well and incrementally so they didn’t have to wait until the end of the season to see money. Now he has 40 vineyard owners working with him.
It is interesting that the two top grapes grown here – malbec and cabernet franc – were historically blending grapes in Bordeaux. Although cabernet franc is gaining a foothold on its own, it’s only in Argentina where you see malbec prosper without the company of other grapes. Hobbs attributes the success to soil and climate.
Hobbs has several labels representing his covey of vineyards, but among those at the top of the heap are the single vineyards we recently tasted.
Especially impressive is the 2019 Vina Cobos Chanares Estate Malbec ($100), a complex and opulent wine that goes far beyond the $15 malbecs most people buy. It has raspberry and cigar box aromas and red fruit flavors with balanced acidity, long finish and fine tannins. The 2019 Vina Cobos Vinculum Malbec ($70) is also tasty with a forward, fresh red fruit character and not as complex.
We love cabernet franc and we were not disappointed in the 2019 Vina Cobos Chanares Estate Cabernet Franc ($100). The herbal and minty aromas are seductive.
The Chanares Estate vineyard is about 3,900 feet in elevation. The diurnal temperature swing cools off the grapes at night. Poor and well-drained soils are nurtured by drip irrigation.
These prestigious wines come at a high price, but they demonstrate the quality that can come from a grape we really never respected until now. Hobbs is making a difference in Mendoza.
For more than a decade Flora Springs has created a special Halloween wine with some of the most dynamic labels on the wine market. The genius behind the 2021 version of The All Hallows’ Eve Cabernet Franc ($75) is comic book illustrator Steve Ellis who collaborated with General Manager Nat Komes. Full moon, black crow and eerie pumpkin-headed figure pull you in. But even better is the pure cabernet franc behind the label. It has body and forward blackberry notes with hints of vanilla and herbs. It is available on the producer’s website. Get your boo on.
Marques de Caceres Verdejo Rioja 2022 ($13). We loved the liveliness of this crisp and refreshing verdejo. White peach notes with a dash of citrus and minerality.
Marques de Caceres Rioja Crianza 2018 ($20). Tempranillo is a great partner to grilled burgers, pasta and other light fare. This one had blackberry and plum notes with hints of cloves and licorice.
Umani Ronchi Villa Bianchi Verdicchio 2022 ($13). Supple pear and mineral aromas with vibrant pear and almond flavors.
ONX Reckoning 2018 ($58). A blend of syrah, petite sirah, malbec and grenache, this Paso Robles giant of a wine has deep, dense flavors of strawberries and raspberries with layers of accents, such as leather, chocolate, cedar and spice. Delicious.
ONX Caliber 2019 ($65). Seventeen percent of malbec is added to moderate the explosive cabernet sauvignon from this Templeton Gap wine. Broad aromatics of pepper and blackberry hand off to a luxurious palate of ripe plums with a big dose of anise. This is a wine to pair with a juicy steak.