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Old Vines Breathe Potential Into Argentine Sémillon

Old Vines Breathe Potential Into Argentine Sémillon

It’s hard to imagine a time when Argentina made and consumed more white wine than red. But production of Sémillon reached its peak in 1968 with over 13,541 acres under vine.

Back then, Sémillon was mass-produced for consumer appeal, with only a few exceptions. “In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a lot of white wine consumption in Argentina. During that time most wines, including Sémillon, were made to be consumed young. They were fresh, fruity and easy-drinking. But some wineries made wines that are still alive today,” explains winemaker Roberto de la Mota of Mendel Wines.

In the late 2000s, de la Mota was one of the first to rediscover the beauty of Argentine Sémillon. His 2009 vintage, which saw just a small percentage of oak aging, speaks to the grape’s ability to create wines of complexity.

That renaissance—that revitalization and rediscovery—was just over 10 years ago. But the grape’s Argentinian roots go deep into the country’s history. “Sémillon arrived in Argentina thanks to Michel Pouget in the 19th century,” says de la Mota, referring to the French agronomist who is also responsible for bringing the first cuttings of Malbec.

“The old vine Sémillon are our unique patrimony and make wines of great quality. It would be a pity to lose that.”

Roberto de la Mota

When Argentina started exporting its wines in the 1990s, producers tended to focus on internationally popular varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Consequently, Sémillon wine production declined.

“When Argentina became a wine exporting country, it was difficult to sell Sémillon. We tried to make wines that were appealing to the main market, which was the U.S.,” says de la Mota.

During that decade, the Sémillon acreage decreased to 2,965. Today, there are only 1,500 acres left, 80% of which are found in Mendoza. This province as well as Rio Negro are the two largest producers of Argentine varietal Sémillon wines today.

Argentina Semillon Mendel Vineyard / Photography by Eduardo Solodki

Sémillon Renewed

“It was time to revive an interesting and noble grape variety that makes high quality wines,” says de la Mota when asked why he decided to make Sémillon again. He believed that this was his chance to prove Argentina can produce interesting wines beyond the usual suspects. “We have the opportunity to demonstrate that we can make other white wines—not only Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc,” he says.

Further, de la Mota sees the old vines, the oldest of which were planted over 100 years ago, as reflective of the country’s winemaking history. “They [old vine Sémillon] are our unique patrimony and make wines of great quality. It would be a pity to lose that.”

Most old vines are planted in the Lujan de Cuyo and Uco Valley subregions of Mendoza. “In the Uco Valley, we grow Sémillon at an altitude of 2,900–4,265 feet. Here, the grapes experience greater diurnal temperature variation compared to other regions with a lower altitude,” de la Mota explains. The result: fruity and floral wines, sometimes with an oily texture, yet always maintaining an acidic backbone that adds both a refreshing quality and aids in the wines’ longevity. “In some places of the Uco Valley, it expresses herbal aromas. When it evolves, it shows notes of dried fruits and nuts like almond and hazelnut,” adds de la Mota.

Inspired by de la Mota, Matías Riccitelli, winemaker and owner of Riccitelli Wines, felt the call to save old vines from the region of Patagonia. He explains, “Sémillon was a very important white grape variety in Argentina until it was forgotten. I wanted to rescue forgotten grape varieties like this one… I knew the grape had the potential.” In 2015, he released his first Sémillon, Riccitelli Old Vine Sémillon, made with grapes from vines planted in 1970 in Rio Negro.

The young winemaker believes that having balanced and healthy grapes is a key factor when making fine Sémillon. The grape is very sensitive to botrytis, but the climate conditions in Patagonia protect them from rot. “In this region, we don’t have that problem because of the strong winds that dry the clusters after it rains.”

The climate allows for a prolonged ripening that benefits the wines. “Due to moderate temperature in Rio Negro, ripening is slower. This gives more character to the wine. They are more aromatic, and there is a good balance between alcohol and acidity.”

A Future Inspired by the Past

“When I made Sémillon in 2009, there were only about two or three Sémillon wines on the market. Now there are more than 20,” says de la Mota.

The results achieved with Sémillon from old vines have encouraged many winemakers to plant new vines. Riccitelli did so in Rio Negro and in Uco Valley. Alejandro Vigil, winemaker-director at Catena Zapata and cofounder of El Enemigo wines, will plant about 62 acres within the next two years.

Many of Argentina’s newer plantings are still too young to make wine. However, winemakers are excited about the future of Argentine Sémillon. “It can become our next Malbec,” says Vigil. “I think that in the future we will have many styles of Sémillon. Some of them will be light, herbaceous and easy to drink. Others will have a higher concentration and weight.”

On the same note, Riccitelli adds, “I don’t think there will be only one style of Sémillon, and there shouldn’t be. The beauty of winemaking lies in the ability to show the place where the grape grows and the way the winemaker translates it into the wine.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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