After spending a few days in the wine region of Patagonia, I can’t decide if I want to come back in my next life as the Contessa Noemi Marone Cinzano or her Jack Russell named Don Vito.
Here are the arguments for returning as Don Vito: He’s darn cute, everyone adores him and he lives on an Argentine wine estate with horses, chickens, sheep and a couple of other dogs to keep him company. Oh, and he gets to see the world with his owners, Noemi and her boyfriend, winemaker Hans Vinding-Diers, as they travel between homes following the sun in Europe and South America.
The reasons for coming back as Noemi? She hails from a famous wine-producing family in Italy whose wines—Argiano and Sassicaia--are coveted worldwide. She’s beautiful, charming, and I have no doubt everyone adores her. Along with Hans, she owns a boutique vineyard in Patagonia, Noemía de Patagonia, that produces small amounts of perfect Malbec wines in the middle of a desert she and Hans have turned into a private Valhalla with a winery and a splendid home. Oh, and when she was a young woman of 17, Noemi was permitted to move to Brazil.
You can see my problem.
The golden couple live in a part of Patagonia most tourists don’t see: the arid Rio Negro Valley where a young wine industry is making its mark. And while Mendoza is the country’s most famous wine-producing region, bottles from Patagonian producers including Humberto Canale, Familia Schroeder, Del Fin del Mundo, NQN, and Universo Austral are taking over shelf space in wine stores in the U.S. thanks to a great product at prices that begin in the single digits.
I spent my first night in Patagonia as a guest in Hans’ and Neomi’s home, elegantly furnished and perched on a small hill overlooking their vineyards without another person or home in sight.
Hans arrived in 1998 to work during the harvest as a consultant and winemaker for the Canale operation, the oldest winemaker in the region and, for a long time, the only one. He returned for three-month stretches each year for five years, alternating between Argentina and Bordeaux, where he grew up and where his family owned two wineries. Thanks to the opposite seasons—it’s summer in Argentina when it’s winter in France—he could oversee two harvests a year.
Of Danish heritage, he was born in South Africa’s Stellenbosch district and grew up in Bordeaux. He’s toiled among the vines of Australia, Chile, Uruguay, South Africa, Spain, Portugal and Hungary. But the potential of Patagonia convinced him to curtail his commuting. He and Noemi decided to buy some land and make their own wine.
It’s not easy—an electric fence protects the vines from cinghiale, or wild boars. A watchman patrols for huge anthills—he’ll burn out a nest and then spread the dust to ward off future visitors. And the desert heat requires keeping a sharp eye on the maturation of the fruit.
Even more challenging, Hans and his partner grow grapes according to a strict, biodynamic regimen that involves paying attention to the phases of the moon when it comes to planting and picking grapes. When Hans walked me around the vineyard after breakfast, he proudly showed me a mound of manure he watches carefully, part of a meticulous fertilization process that also involves filling a specific kind of cow horn with dung and burying it in the vineyard for six months to create a rich mixture (see photo). Dandelion blossoms are dried and then tucked inside a stag’s bladder and also stored underground for six months and then above ground for another six months—“so it gets both celestial and terrestrial” mojo, says Hans—before being mixed with the manure.
Does this program that regards wine as a living organism—and was first promulgated by Austrian spiritualist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s—make superior wine?
Judging from a taste of the 2006 Bodega Noemía Malbec (made with grapes from a vineyard planted in 1932 and de-stemmed by hand), something here is working. At $110 a bottle, the Bodega Noemía is priced at the very upper end of Patagonian wines; like his colleagues, Hans also makes terrific bottles for $35 and less. In fact, it’s easy to find a good, solid red or white from Patagonia for as little as $9.
Three days of tasting more than 100 varieties of Patagonian wines from a half-dozen producers allowed me to answer my own question: I’d rather come back in my next life as me (or the contessa) than even the most pampered dog. After all, dogs don’t get to drink wine.